Thursday, August 02, 2007

The 36 Dramatic Situations

Ah, stories, you just gotta love 'em. While we aspiring writers bang our heads against our walls (or desks or typewriters or whatever) it turns out that someone else somewhere has already written something with a similar plot. As my friends used to say about my work: "It's good and original...the good part isn't original and the original part isn't good."

It turns out that a fellow by the name of Georges Polti already wrote a book on every conceivable plot, and all this back in the 19th century! (And even that, apparently, wasn't original as he built on the work of another fellow by the name of Carlo Gozzi.)

Still, a taxonomy like this is helpful if one is in a creative writing exercise and is coming up dry. Throw 'em all into a hat, pick a card, and come out banging on the word processor.

The 36 plots, according to Polti:

  • Supplication - Persecutor, Suppliant, a Power in Authority
  • Deliverance - Unfortunates, Threatener, Rescuer
  • Revenge - Avenger, Criminal
  • Vengeance by Family upon Family - Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative
  • Pursuit - Fugitive from Punishment, Pursuer
  • Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune - Unfortunates, Master or Unlucky Person
  • Disaster - Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger
  • Revolt - Tyrant, Conspirator(s)
  • Daring Enterprise - Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary
  • Abduction - Abductor, Abducted, Guardian
  • Enigma - Interrogator, Seeker, Problem
  • Obtaining - Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator
  • Familial Hatred - Two Family Members who hate each other
  • Familial Rivalry - Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object
  • Murderous Adultery - Two Adulterers, the Betrayed
  • Madness - Madman, Victim
  • Fatal Imprudence - Imprudent person, Victim or lost object
  • Involuntary Crimes of Love - Lover, Beloved, Revealer
  • Kinsman Kills Unrecognised Kinsman - Killer, Unrecognised Victim, Revealer
  • Self Sacrifice for an Ideal - Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed
  • Self Sacrifice for Kindred - Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed
  • All Sacrificed for Passion - Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed
  • Sacrifice of Loved Ones - Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice
  • Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior - Superior, Inferior, Object
  • Adultery - Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers
  • Crimes of Love - Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution
  • Discovery of Dishonor of a Loved One - Discoverer, Guilty One
  • Obstacles to Love - Two Lovers, Obstacle
  • An Enemy Loved - Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater
  • Ambition - An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary
  • Conflict with a God - Mortal, Immortal
  • Mistaken Jealousy - Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake
  • Faulty Judgment - Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person
  • Remorse - Culprit, Victim, Interrogator
  • Recovery of a Lost One - Seeker, One Found
  • Loss of Loved Ones - Kinsman Slain, Kinsman Witness, Executioner
More on this from a very informative Straight Dope article.


  1. LoL! it's down to 36?! I guess that's why they call it creative writing, it's how you trick people into thinking that what they've read or seen has never been done before =)

    i find this information very useful indeed! =) thanks!

  2. Interesting story about the 36. That's the number originally posited, and to which Polti aspired to. Other people have tried to go beyond that but apparently they can't. Even Polti had to stretch some of the situations to hit the target.

    As you're a filmmaker, the Tennesse Screenwriting website actually lists only 20 serviceable plots.

  3. At least fiction has more character than people. I saw in a BBC documentary once that a human being may fall in one of only 16 character types! If fiction is predicatble then we're typecasted hehehe

    20 serviceable plots in the film industry...that's quite generous cause most producers only have two: a blockbuster or an oscar winner =)