One, or None, or Seven, or Thirty-six Dramatic Situations

Back when I was in school, girls wore dresses, boys wore collared shirts tucked into their pants, and in Creative Writing class, we studied Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.

Polti was a Frenchman who, sometime in the late nineteenth century (I forget exactly when) compiled a list of what he said was every “dramatic situation”—otherwise known as a plot—that ever had been, or could be, devised.

The translation of Polti’s work that we used in school was simplified from the original; and the examples supplied for the situations were not from the classics, as in Polti (his exemplar for number 10, the slaying of a kinsman, unrecognized, was, of course, Oedipus), but from the popular, youth-oriented American literature of the day.  Unfortunately “the day” was about 1915, because that was when our textbook had been published, and my classmates and I had never even heard of most of the literature cited.  But that was all right with us, because we preferred to find our own examples—from life.  A number one (supplication) with a teacher for a better grade on a quiz might become a seventeen (fatal imprudence) or a twenty-nine (an enemy loved), depending on the outcome; and at that age (approximately 13), number thirty-threes (erroneous judgement) were pretty much the order of the day.

I was a slow thinker, I guess.  It wasn’t until the text was reintroduced in a class in my senior year of high school that it occurred to me while it was very complete in its explication of topics like number twenty (self-sacrifice for an ideal, in this case a code phrase for “study harder”), it was a little vague on numbers like twenty-two and twenty-five (all sacrificed for passion, and adultery, respectively).  I don’t recall number fifteen, murderous adultery, being in the list at all—though how they smoked that one by us, I really don’t know.  Some of my school-mates, as I recall, were much better at math than I was, and could reliably have counted all the way to thirty-five, thereby detecting the fraud.

I can still never read (or write) a book or watch a movie without trying to identify which of the thirty-six plots are featured in it

Even after all these years (many, many of them), I can still never read (or write) a book or watch a movie without trying to identify which of the thirty-six plots are featured in it, or admiring the strength of ego that permitted Mr. Polti to imagine that his list was the definitive one. Because there are other lists, of course.  In fact, for many years it was my own contention that a list of plots should contain only one element:  A conflict, resolved.  Then I got (briefly) into Post-Modernism, where I learned that it was possible to write quite a long piece—novel length, even—with a plot-list of exactly zero.  The length of your list really just depends on how precisely you want to define a plot.

Polti’s list is interesting, and if you haven’t read it, you might want to have a look.  Here’s a good place:

The important lesson about Polti’s—or any—list, is that it should remind you not be too concerned, when you plot, with originality.  If Polti’s right (he convinced Goethe and Schiller, and who am I to argue with them?) your plot can’t be original anyway.  Every one of the thirty-six possibilities has already been used by somebody else!  So pick a plot (one main, and a couple sub, maybe) and expend your creativity on its exposition.

Write a science fiction novel about the governor of an off-world colony.  He’s admired by his superiors for managing, in spite of difficulties, to build a thriving settlement; but he’s not a nice man.  The rules don’t apply to him.  He fools around on his wife.  He ignores fair-labor practices, and engineers massive cover-ups.  Especially he scorns the planet’s indigenous population, who are, in his opinion, mere dirty savages, and less than human.

His kind have enemies.  These orchestrate an “accident” which leaves the colony CEO far from home, at the mercy of the elements.  He is dependent for survival upon—yep—a member of the strange, savage native species.  They become friends.  They have adventures together.  CEO mellows; savage learns to bathe.

All is good until, sadly, the native becomes ill.  Earth-based medicine cannot save him.  He dies; but fortunately not until the CEO is entirely reformed.  He returns to rule the space-colony in peace and justice.

The end.

You can call the friends “Gilgamesh” and “Enkidu” if you want—or not.  But however much futuristic detail and technology you insert, the plot itself has been old for six thousand years.

Or consider this one:  Two friends, both runners.  One, popular and talented; but undisciplined.  The other, the “slow and steady” type.  Which one will (after adventures comprising at least four or five elements from Polti’s list) triumph in the big race?  Training and discipline; or native talent?

There must be a genre of “Runner fiction”, right?  Properly done, your story of Bill Tortoise and Steve Hare could linger for weeks at the top of the “Runner fiction” best seller list.

Mysterious plots

skull_croppedI like plotting mysteries, but I don’t like to write them. This is because I’m not personally a fan of whodunits. Not so fond of the howdunit part, either. The only thing I like to write is the whydunit, and a story doesn’t have to be a mystery to have a “why.”

That said, I did once plot a pretty good murder mystery with my daughter. My daughter is much smarter than I am (my husband’s fault), and when she was young she was easily bored in the car. (She’s still easily bored in the car, as a matter of fact; but she’s no longer young so it’s not my problem anymore.) I used to amuse her by recounting the plot of whatever book I was currently reading. This worked well until the time that what I was reading was— Victorian erotica.

It was research for a novel. Honestly.

there is nothing in the world less dirty—or arousing—than Victorian erotica

Now, as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing in the world less dirty—or arousing—than Victorian erotica, with its coy references to the “nether passage,” and ladies with knee-length pubic locks; but somehow it still didn’t seem like something I ought to be discussing with a twelve-year-old. So we plotted a mystery story instead, replete with suspicious characters, midnight rendezvous, and herrings, red and otherwise. It was pretty good, actually; and my daughter was delighted.

Then I actually wrote the book and “ruined” the whole thing (my daughter’s word) by identifying the murderer in the first chapter.

I didn’t even try to get that one published, of course. Publishers of mysteries require—among other things—that you wait to reveal the identity of the killer until late in the book. If a mystery that I recently read is any indication, what they don’t require is that when you do reveal the killer, it’s someone that the reader might reasonably already suspect. I don’t want to give away to what actual story I’m referring, so I’ll just say that the killer was as tangential to the plot as that shopper you saw this morning in the grocery store with all the jars of pickles in his cart is to your life. See? You don’t even remember him. Well, if your life plays out like this particular mystery novel, somewhere in the Chapter Twenty-eight of your existence, a murdered man’s autopsy is going to reveal unexpectedly high levels of acetic acid in the victim’s blood, and you’re going to think of that shopper.

Come on, Mystery Writers; play fair with your readers! –Although, as I told my daughter, what could be fairer than telling them right off who the murderer is?

I may reuse the plot my daughter and I came up with, though—in a slightly different genre. This time I’ll make it a “Why-the-hell-are-they-doing-that”? Our story involved a plot to frame a murderer who had gotten away with her crime for a similar (staged) murder. Next time I’ll take the reader through the same long chain of events—the grieving father moving restlessly from place to place on some unnamed business, his son’s body (in a lead-lined coffin) in tow; the dead man’s fiancée grooming a young lady with a back-story suggesting desperation for an important, unspecified mission; the quest for a bottle of wine from a certain, obscure vineyard; a purloined letter; a tombstone surreptitiously relocated; the gradual, forced acquaintance forged with an unsuspecting family—without letting on about the murder that set the chain of events in motion until— well, I’ll try to make it to Chapter Four, at least. Three at the earliest.

The “purloined letter” reminds me of another reason I don’t write mysteries. In my (limited) experience, writing mysteries brings out the worst in people

I once knew two good friends, both hopeful writers of mysteries, one of whom permitted (begged, actually) the other to read her unpublished latest. The plot of this book hinged on a mysterious, purloined letter. Unfortunately, it turned out that the other writer—the one who was kind enough to read the first writer’s work—had earlier written a story in which a mysterious letter found in an old trunk was the plot-hinge. Writer One insisted that she had not read Writer Two’s book. Writer Two maintained she must not only have read it, she had shamelessly copied the most important part of it; the mysterious letter. Tempers flared; harsh words were exchanged—the last that ever passed between these two former good friends. And yes, these are grown-ups I’m talking about.

Ahem: Ladies and gentlemen, write mysteries, please. Write beaucoup mysteries, in fact: They are fun. But know, as you write, that purloined (and found) letters are not original with you. In fact, they are so common in the mystery genre that if you insist upon using them anyway, please do so ironically. As a matter of fact, so many mysteries have already been written that it is possible that there are NO clues left in the entire world for you to use that will prove entirely original. Except, as far as I know, for pickle-juice. The potentially lethal salinity of pickle-juice as a plot-device is my gift to you.

You’re welcome.

The only thing I have in common with Jane Austen

Jane_Austen_smaller_flippedAdmit that you write stories, and people will almost invariably immediately tell you what story they would write “if they only had time.”  –Or, alternatively, what story they will write just as soon as they get any time.  Apparently in every case, lack of time—not skill, talent, experience at writing, etc., etc.—is the only thing keeping them from producing a literary blockbuster.  If you can stifle your urge to inform them that writing is actually pretty hard work, they will talk all evening about their projected story, leaving you, nodding wisely from time to time, free to think about yours.

—Although you may occasionally have to deal with the “Jane Austen Problem.”

As every Jane Austen fan knows, while poor Jane was struggling to finish Emma (and I don’t care how much you love Pride and Prejudice; if you think it’s better than Emma, you’re just wrong, okay?) she received a letter from a certain Reverend James Stanier Clarke, who worked for the Prince Regent, informing her that his royal boss kept a set of all her novels in each of his residences.  He then hinted broadly—and we may assume, I think, that this was the actual point of the letter—that the prince would like it very much if she dedicated her next book to him.  Which Jane wisely did.  I don’t actually know how many residences the Prince Regent had at the time, but an Emma in each of them couldn’t have hurt the Austen bottom-line.

Jane Austen’s problem was that Rev. Clarke went on to propose that Miss Austen consider writing the story of “an English clergyman; a man”—wait for it—“like himself.”  Just like himself, apparently; because he suggested several specific episodes he wanted portrayed (“picture him burying his mother—as I did”).

On the one hand, this kind of thing is annoying.  On the other, I have no doubt Jane could have turned Rev. Clarke’s life into one hell of a good read.  The satirical “Plan of a Novel” she wrote soon after describes a heroine’s father as a clergyman who is “nobody’s Enemy but his own” –a direct quote from the importunate clergyman’s depiction of himself—and the heroine and her father as fleeing to Kamchatka (great setting, Jane!) where “the poor Father… finding his end approaching, throws himself on the Ground & after 4 or 5 hours of tender advice & parental Admonition to his miserable Child, expires in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm, intermingled with Invectives against Holder’s of Tythes.”

This is a book I would like to read!

It’s aggravating when someone starts telling you to write about them, but if you listen carefully, you may find much good material there.

In other words, it’s aggravating when someone starts telling you to write about them, but if you listen carefully, you may find much good material there.  A weepy clergyman’s fit of death-bed religious mania, may, if transferred to an exotic location, become very interesting; and if, as Jane Austen does, you have the parson peg out early in the story, leaving an improbably pure heroine far from home and abruptly thrown friendless on the world, it’s pure gold.  She’s beautiful!  She’s innocent!  She’s meat in a shark-tank of unscrupulous men!  Is she the plucky kind, who wises up quickly and saves herself?  (I have it on the best authority—a very pointed letter of rejection—that the “plucky” type is currently a favorite with publishers.)  Or is she–possibly after a series of adventures bordering on the pornographic, if that’s your taste—rescued by a strong yet sensitive man?  –Or, since these are modern times, a strong yet sensitive woman?   Is it contemporary?  Historical?  Which kind of clothes do you like to describe being flung wildly or fluttering romantically to the floor?  –And don’t overlook so-called “genre” possibilities, either.  Consider creating a heroine who finds her salvation in quilting, scrapbooking, or wood-craft.  The “Wood-craft fiction” publishing market, particularly, is not (yet) overcrowded.  Meanwhile, as you mentally mine and develop possible plot elements from what your fellow party-guest tells you is the book he will someday write, occasionally nod wisely as though you are paying attention.

Then at the end of the evening, do as Jane Austen did.  As you leave, regretfully admit that you “could never depict” [such a] “learned clergyman” (bookkeeper/beekeeper/sonavabitch CEO/boring biochemist/whatever) since you are “the most unlearned, uninformed female who ever dared write.”

—Substitute “male” for “female” if appropriate.


Beginning of “The Plotboiler”

So the way the story starts is that there’s this woman, see?  No longer young; physically unprepossessing (to say the least!)…  And she’s married to a scientist.  Let’s say—a biochemist.  And the biochemist is kind of a, you know, workaholic.  And because of this—because her husband’s a workaholic scientist who likes to talk shop all the time—most of the woman’s social circle are workaholic scientists, too.  But the woman herself isn’t a scientist.  In fact, she’s got a completely different dream.  She wants to write novels.  With her kids grown, and her workaholic scientist husband off doing research or whatever, for the first time in her life, she’s got a lot of time to herself, and she uses it to write novels.

At first, she tells no one.  She says to herself, “Scientists would never understand—or respect—a person who literally wants to sit all day in a quiet room and make shit up.”  So she keeps going to parties and Biochemistry Department receptions and graduate student recruiting dinners and so on and so forth, and she never says a word to anyone about her writing, even when the point comes that she has actually written so many books that the bottom drawer of her desk is totally full of them.  Instead, she listens patiently while scientists (most of whom are married to other scientists, by the way.  Most scientists in the world are married to other scientists) tell her about their work.  She listens, and when the conversation flags, she asks, just as her husband has taught her, “Have you done the mixing experiment?” or “What about cyclic GMP?” to get things going again.  All is outwardly well– but inside, the woman is so so so so so bored.

Time passes.  Everyone has done the mixing experiment.  Cyclic GMP is now old news.  The woman finds herself at a party, face to face with an actual possible contender (in an off-year) for the Nobel Prize!  She wishes desperately to impress him (yep; definitely a “him”), but what can she say?  Oh, if only she’d asked her workaholic-but-beloved biochemist husband to supply her with a new question to ask!

“So,” says the Contender, “what do you work on?”

Her blood rushing to her burning cheeks (or possibly, “Withering with shame,” or “Wishing she could sink through the floor”), she blurts out, “Oh, I’m not a researcher.  I write novels.”

it turns out that everyone…feels they have a novel somewhere inside

And a whole new world opens up.  Because it turns out that everyone, even scientists who haven’t read anything not containing words like “diphosphoinositol pentakisphosphate” or “apoptosis” since their freshman year of college, feels they have a novel somewhere inside; and take even this very feeble amount of encouragement as an opportunity to recount its plot.

It’s not a novel; it’s my life.

And it’s a good life, because I love plots!  Plots are my thing, my passion; and I can never understand how anyone can say, “I’d love to write a novel/short story/play/other fiction, if only I could think of a plot!”  I like to hear plots, make plots, mend plots.

If you’re like me, bursting with plots to spare, or if you want to get a plot (free, and worth every penny of it), discuss someone else’s plot, or would like some help—or company—spackling plot-holes in a piece of fiction you basically liked, but found in some way implausible, come plot with me!   (And if that sentence doesn’t get us monitored by the NSA, I honestly don’t know what will.)