Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti
was first published in 1917. The concept of the book is that there are
only thirty-six basic plots in all of literature. Polti’s idea was not
new. In brief, the idea had been bandied about by Carlo Gozzi
(playwright who saw his Turandot turned into an
opera) and picked up by Schiller (who translated Turandot
into German) and Goethe. But Polti was struck enough by the idea to
take a hard look at the situations and see for himself. Voila, yes, he
said. There are only thirty-six!
Each of these situations could
be studied in depth, but we don’t have room for that here. I’ve put
them in their barest terms of necessary characters and objects, and
I’ve added examples from (mostly) modern-day books and movies. Between
this month’s and next month’s columns, we’ll look at the thirty-six
situations. Every novelist should study these basic premises to
understand what makes them work. Of course, most stories are
combinations of the situations. It’s the endless combinations that make
each story unique. At the end of the list (next month) we’ll look at
how you can change elements within stories to create a unique plot.
For this month, here are the
first twenty-six situations:
Persecutor, supplicant, power in authority who must make decision
whether or not to help. Can include an intercessor. Example—the book of
The unfortunate, threatener, rescuer. This is sort of the opposite of
Supplication, in which an unfortunate appeals to a power for help.
Here, the rescuer helps the distressed without being asked. Example—The
Pursued by Vengeance. Avenger, criminal. Example:
All detective stories. Columbo.
for Kindred upon Kindred. Avenging kinsmen, guilty
kinsmen, relative(s) of victim. This is a mixture of #3 and
#27—Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One. Example: The
Punishment, fugitive. Opposite of #3. Hero of the story is the
fugitive, who is empathetic. Example: Les Miserables.
Often he is innocent. Example: The Fugitive.
Vanquished power, victorious enemy or messenger. In this situation the
powerful can be overthrown and the weak exalted. Example: Faust.
Includes abandonment by lover or spouse. Example: An
Unmarried Woman. Includes natural catastrophes. Example: The
Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune. Unfortunate, a
master or misfortune. Example: Schindler’s List.
Tyrant, conspirator. Example: A Tale of Two Cities.
Enterprise. Bold leader, object to be won,
adversary. Often has clearly drawn conflict, a clever plan and a
victory. Example: A Bridge Too far, Saving Private Ryan, Men
Abductor, abducted, guardian. This one can stray into some others (as
numerous of the situations can) and shouldn’t be confused with
#35—Recovery of a Lost Loved One, which focuses more on the one who is
seeking the lost. This one focuses more on the one abducted. Example: Final
11. The Enigma.
Interrogator, seeker, a problem. Can be seeking a person or thing on
pain of death. Example: Turandot. Or can be about
tests to understand a mental condition. Example: Seven.
Solicitor, refusing adversary; or an arbitrator and opposing parties.
This presents an end to be attained, but at what cost and by what
means? Can be a contest between reason and passion. Can include
temptation. Examples: Screwtape Letters, Gump.
13. Enmity of
Kinsmen. Malevolent kinsman, hated or
reciprocally hating kinsman. The closer the bonds, the greater the
thing that cuts them, and the greater the resulting hatred. Example: Kramer
of Kinsmen. Preferred kinsman, rejected kinsman,
the object. This situation can lead to Murderous Adultery, Adultery
Threatened, or Crimes of Love. Example: Legends of the Fall.
Adultery. Adulterers, the betrayed. Example: Diabolique.
Madman, victim. Example: Psycho.
Imprudence. Imprudent, victim or object lost.
This includes causing one’s own misfortune or dishonor through
imprudence (Example: A River Runs Through It) or
through curiosity (Example: the Greek myth Cupid and Psyche).
Or one character’s imprudence can cause the death or misfortune of
Crimes of Love. Lover, beloved, revealer. Focuses
on the discovery of loving one’s own relative. Example: Oedipus.
This one, and #19, says Polti, are the most “fantastic and improbable”
situations. The situation can be put forth in one of two ways: (A) the
fatal error is revealed simultaneously to the reader and character,
only after it is irreparable (as in Oedipus), or
(B) the reader knows the truth while the character doesn’t, and watches
the character walk into the deed.
of Unrecognized Kinsman. Slayer, unrecognized
victim. The blind premeditation is the focus and pathos of the story.
Example: Euripedes’ Aegeus.
for an Ideal. Hero, ideal, creditor, or thing
sacrificed. Example: Joan of Arc.
for Kindred. Hero, kinsman, creditor or
person/thing sacrificed. Example: Cyrano de Bergerac.
Sacrificed for a Passion. Lover, object of fatal
passion, person/thing sacrificed. Although the passion is often sexual,
it doesn’t have to be. In the example, it’s the passion/lust for
alcohol. Example: Leaving Las Vegas.
of Sacrificing Loved Ones. Hero, beloved victim,
necessity for sacrifice. Example: Abraham and Isaac.
of Superior and Inferior. Superior rival,
inferior rival, the object. Example: Rocky.
Deceived husband or
wife, two adulterers. Examples: Bridges of Madison County,
Same Time Next Year, The Piano.
26. Crimes of
Love. The lover, beloved. These crimes can
include incest, murder, and others. Examples: Chinatown
(incest), The Apostle (murder).
Next month we’ll conclude the
list—and look at how you can vary these situations in your plotting.
A reprint of The Thirty-Six
Dramatic Situations is available on Amazon for $15.95.