Thursday, December 15, 2005
The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations--Part 4
Today I wish my wonderful Energizer Bunny mom, Ruth Seamands, a VERY HAPPY 89TH BIRTHDAY!! (Many of you know her from ACFW.) You're the best, Mom!
And now back to our regularly scheduled program.
So—only 36 different situations. How come there’s a gazillion stories out there? The nuances and differences lie in these factors:
1. Depth and uniqueness of the ties of friendship/kinship between characters. Look at #32, Mistaken Jealousy, for example. A mother/daughter story, in which the daughter is jealous because she believes her widowed mother is showing some suitor more attention than her, is a very different story from Othello, where two lovers are involved.
2. Degree of free will and conscious knowledge toward the end the characters are pursuing. I think this includes, but isn’t limited to, the conscious desire vs. unconscious desire story. A character may be pursuing Ending A, while really what he/she wants is Ending B. In this scenario, the story premise can be based on two different situations—one representing the conscious pursuit, and one representing the unconscious desire.
3. The energy of the actions in the situation. For example, murder can be diminished to a desire to murder, or even to only a blow or a too-hasty word. Or it can be multiplied and aggravated.
4. Instead of two adversaries, one or both can be substituted with a group of characters focused on the same desire, but reflecting that desire under a different light.
5. The situations are combined, putting two, three, four, any number of them together. One situation can lead logically to another, or the character faces more than one at a time, or one character faces certain situations while another character faces others, etc. The possibilities are endless.
In his conclusion Polti defends himself and his “36 situations” system, saying he hasn’t tried to diminish art or put it in a box (my modern paraphrase of his rather antiquated language). Rather, he has shown its various forms so that artists can mold and combine as they choose, resulting in endless stories. We can use Polti’s system both to understand others’ stories—figuring out what situations they’re based upon and where the uniqueness lies—and in building our own stories.
One helpful exercise: take any book you’ve read recently, or any movie, and discern its situations. And then ask yourself: how did combining these two particular situations (or three, or four) change each of them?
Take the biblical story of Esther. It’s founded on #1, Supplication--twice. First Esther’s relative, Mordecai, begs her to save the lives of her people. Then Esther goes before the king to beg for the Jews. But there’s also an element of #7, Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune. This is the situation that leads to the need for supplication in the first place, because Esther’s people are about to be slaughtered, thanks to nasty ol’ Haman. And there’s an element of #21, Self Sacrifice for Kindred, in that Esther knows the king may kill her for coming into his presence unannounced (people didn’t just “drop in” on the king). So in the main plot, we have #7 leading to #1 twice, the second time being mixed with #21. Already you can see how some of the five ways listed above for bringing uniqueness into the story are being used (i.e., depth of kinship ties).
But wait a minute. What about the backstory? How does Esther, a Jew, get into the king’s palace in the first place? Well, Queen Vashti denies her husband’s summons. Not a smart thing to do. Sounds to me a lot like #17, Fatal Imprudence. Especially since the king retaliates and issues an edit to banish her from his presence forever. This is done to keep peace in the land. If he doesn’t make an example of his rebellious wife, all those other wives in the land won’t listen to their husbands either, and utter chaos will reign. At least, so say the king’s wise men who “understood the times.” (Don’t you just love the undercurrents of that line?) Situation? #23, Necessity of Sacrificing a Loved One. (Here, nuance #3 listed above comes into play. Vashti isn’t killed; she’s merely banished.)
Then the inevitable. King Ahasuerus chills out, and the guy starts getting lonely. “What have I done, I’ve banished my fave wife!?” So now he’s got to get a new one—and he can take whomever he pleases. So he finds knock-em-dead-gorgeous Esther. Situation #10, Abduction.
Back to where we started. And on from there.
Becky asked how Polti’s situations fits with The Hero’s Journey. We’ll talk about that and other stuff tomorrow. For now, you might have fun taking any story and pulling it apart, as we just did with Esther.
Read Part 5