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.

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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.

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