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A Laundry List of Plots
on December 18, 2003
Legend has it that Georges Polti heard that there were 36 possible plots, and set about creating a list of plots to match the 36. He claims that this number isn't special, and there may be other classifications a bit higher, or a bit lower. He also says that these correspond to the 36 basic emotions people have, which I honestly don't see.
Some of the dramatic situations seem to be stretched a bit thin where several of them have similar parts but in sleightly different context.For example: Twentieth Situation: Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal, Twenty First Situation: Self-Sacrifice for Kindred.
If someone proposed that there are only 36 plots (someone who the author holds in high recard) I would be tempted to say that with such a number as 36 - divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4 and all higher multiples thereof, that really what he meant was variations on a handful of plots. For example the 3 basic plots of Person v. Person, Person v. Nature (God), Person v. Herself. If I could think of 3 permutations on each of those, and 4 variations of each, then I too would have 36 plots.
Here it seems that Polti just started listing plots until he got to 36. I do recommend this book, along with Games People Play by Eric Berne (which falls under the psychology/self help section) as a good resource for when you're stuck for an idea. Eric Berne was a psychologist, concerned with figuring out what the basic transactions between people are (games) and what are reasons are for playing them. The difference here is that Eric Berne acknowledges that his list is a work in progress, and more games will be recognized as time goes on.
As far as more classical plotting, Aristotle's Poetics, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (see my review), and The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell are great resources. I'd also add The Hero by Lord Raglan (available in In Quest of the Hero by Otto Rank). These books make up the canonical library every writer should have.
Aristotle laid down the fundamentals of drama over 2,000 years ago, and they are followed to this day. Probably his closest modern rival is Lajos Egri, and you'll see that many of the writing software packages out there are either Aristotle, Egri, or Campbell based.
Another reviewer mentioned Star Wars. George Lucas was highly influenced by Joseph Campbell, and the famed Bill Moyers interviews were conducted on Skywalker Ranch. I think analyzing Star Wars from the point of view of The 36 Dramatic Situations is like analyzing soup from the point of view of it's ingredients: "I noticed Celery, and Potatoes, and..." without getting a feel for the arc of the story, or that the soup is a Stew. Star Wars is a myth, and follows the basic mythic structure.
Lord Raglan identifies 22 common traits of heros, such as: His father is a king, he is raised by foster parents, we're told nothing of his childhood, etc. Everyone from Oedipus to Moses to King Arthur to Jesus to Luke Skywalker to Robin Hood to Neo follow this scale to one degree or another, and he gives examples of each.
I'd also encourage the curious to learn more about the Hollywood formula, 7 point plots, and the all important turnaround.