Monday, December 12, 2005
The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations
One of my favorite writing books is The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. I had to hunt the thing down because it was out of print. Ended up paying over $40 for the hardback, which sold originally for $8.95 when it was reprinted in 1981. The first edition came out in 1921.
TTSDS is by Georges Polti, a French writer. The whole idea of the book is there are really only 36 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!
I first read this book over a decade ago, when I was in my large learning curve of deciphering the craft of fiction. (Remember how often I’ve said I believe learning the craft is 50% writing and 50% reading.) As I read I took notes on the 36 situations, putting each one is its barest terms and looking for examples in modern books/movies. (Since Polti’s examples were a bit outdated, and heavy on stuff like Greek literature.) I wanted not to just read the text, but to understand it enough to use in my writing. I wanted the concepts to become a part of my craft.
You can find Web sites that break down the situations to their bare bones, such as this one. But I’d like to take a few days and look at these situations via going through my notes. At the end of the list will be an important addendum—what elements within stories make their plots different from each other. We authors gotta love that part. Otherwise this topic can leave us in that Solomon there’s-nothing-new-under-the-sun depression. Also before we conclude this topic I want to show you how I used my understanding of these situations to help me construct a story. After all, what good is theory if it ain’t practical?
So here we go. I’ll list the title, necessary types of characters, and an example.
1. Supplication. Persecutor, supplicant, power in authority who must make decision whether or not to help. Can include an intercessor. Example—the book of Esther.
2. Deliverance. 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 Terminator
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance. Avenger, criminal. Example: All detective stories. Columbo.
4. Vengeance 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 Lion King
5. Pursuit. 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.
6. Disaster. 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 Birds.
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune. Unfortunate, a master or misfortune. Example: Schindler’s List.
8. Revolt. Tyrant, conspirator. Example: A Tale of Two Cities.
9. Daring 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 in Black.
What other examples can you think of from books, movies or plays for any of these first nine? Does your wip fall into one of these categories? (Of course, in order to categorize a piece of work, we have to look at its basic premise. Many stories are combinations of the situations. And each subplot can take us in yet another direction—but this is part of the differentiation discussion for another day.)
Read Part 2