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The 36 dramatic situations of Georges Polti

36 dramatic situations to generate all the possible stories?

In 1895, the Frenchman Georges Polti published a book, Les 36 situations dramatiques (The 36 dramatic situations), in which he listed 36 dramatic situations and their variants, which according to him were the prototypes of all human stories, whatever their genre, their era, their culture, their media, their form. He supports his claims with numerous examples.

He thus contributes to founding the modern narratology which consists in identifying the deep structures of narrative works through the infinite variety of their appearances.

After Polti, the Russian Vladimir Propp, relying on a corpus of European tales, will take the same approach of reduction and categorization in his Morphology of tale, in which he will push the formalization up to defining a small number of possible plots, and possible character types.

These two experiments – Polti and Propp – will inspire structuralist researchers who will lead to a more essential categorization of plot types and character types.

Can we really reduce the set of stories to 36 basic narrative configurations?

Scientifically, it is debatable and debated. But artistically, it’s inspiring and for us writers that’s all that matters.

So let’s see what these 36 dramatic situations are made of!

The 36 dramatic situations of Georges Polti

For each of the 36 dramatic situations, we first mention the characteristic roles of the situation, then its narrative content.

1. Implore

a persecutor
a supplicant
an authority

The supplicant appeals to authority to be delivered from the persecutor.

Authority can be a separate person or simply an attribute of the persecutor eg. a gun in their hand. The supplicant can also be two people, the persecuted and an intercessor.

2. Save

a victim
a persecutor
a saviour

The victim is in danger because of the persecutor, but the savior saves the victim.

3. Avenge a crime

a criminal
an avenger

The criminal commits an unpunished crime, then the avenger restores justice by punishing the criminal.

4. Avenge a loved one

A guilty person
an avenger
a victim, close to both.

The guilty person and the avenger are in conflict for committing a fault towards the victim, who is related to both.

This is the theme of one of the intrigues of which Michael is the Hero in The Godfather: Michael must avenge his father whom the Mafia tried to assassinate.

5. Being tracked

A punishment
a fugitive

The fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict.

6. Disaster

a vanquished power
a victorious enemy or a messenger

The vanquished power loses its place after being defeated by the victorious enemy or being informed of such defeat by the messenger.

7. Become the prey of cruelty / misfortune

an unhappy character
a master or a misfortune

The unhappy one suffers because of the misfortune or the master.

8. Revolt

a tyrannical authority
a rebel

The rebel revolts against tyrannical authority.

9. Bold enterprise

a bold leader
a desirable object
an opponent

The bold leader conquers the desirable object by overpowering the opponent.

10. Kidnapping

a kidnapper
a kidnapped character
a guardian

The kidnapper abducts someone who was in the custody of the warden.

11. Solve an enigma

an enigma
an interrogator
a researcher

The interrogator poses an enigma to the researcher and gives him a better ability to achieve the researcher’s goals.

12. Obtaining

a lawyer
an opponent who refuses
an arbitrator

The lawyer claims an object in the possession of the opponent, and they fight to have it or keep it.
Or, an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by the opposing parties.

13. Enmity of kinsmen

a malevolent kinsman

a hated or reciprocally hating kinsman

The malevolent kinsman and the hated or reciprocally hating kinsman argue and hate each other.

14. Rivalry of kinsmen

the preferred kinsman
the rejected kinsman
the object of the rivalry

The object of the rivalry chooses the preferred kinsman over the rejected kinsman.

15. Murderous adultery

two adulterous characters
a betrayed spouse

Two adulterous characters conspire to kill the betrayed spouse.

16. Madness

A crazy character
a victim

The character goes mad and harms the victim or commits one or more crimes.

17. Fatal imprudence

the imprudent
a victim or a lost object

The imprudent, through negligence or ignorance, loses the lost object or harms the victim.

18. Involuntary crimes of love

a lover
a beloved
a revealer

The lover and the beloved have unknowingly broken the taboo of incest through their romantic relationship, and the revealer reveals this to them.

19. Murder of unrecognized kinsman

the murderer
an unrecognized victim

A character kills a loved one without knowing that he/she is close to him.

20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal

a hero
an ideal
a creditor or a person / thing sacrificed

The hero sacrifices the person or thing for his ideal.

21. Self-sacrifice for kindred

a hero
a kinsman
a creditor or a person / thing sacrificed

The hero sacrifices a person or thing for its relative.

22. Sacrificing everything for passion

a lover
an object of fatal passion
the person / thing sacrificed

A lover sacrifices a person or thing for the object of his passion, which is then lost forever.

23. Having to sacrifice a loved one

a hero
a loved one
a higher ideal

The hero sacrifices the loved one for a higher ideal.

24. Rivalry between superior and inferior

a superior rival
an inferior rival
the object of the rivalry

A superior rival faces an inferior rival to win the object of the rivalry.

25. Adultery

two adulterous characters
a cheated spouse

Two adulterers conspire against the cheated spouse.

26. Love crime

Two characters in love

A lover commits a crime for love

27. Dishonor of a loved one

a dishonourer
the guilty

The dishonourer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the guilty.

28. Obstacles to love

two lovers
an obstacle

Two lovers face an obstacle together (family, society, illness…)

29. Love the enemy

a lover
the beloved enemy
the hateful

A character begins to love his enemy while his hateful ally hates that enemy.

30. Ambition

an ambitious person
a coveted thing
an opponent

The ambitious person is ready to do anything to conquer the coveted thing, and is fought by the opponent.

31. Conflict with a god

a human
God, a god or some other supernatural power

The human comes into conflict with God or a god to satisfy his ambition.

32. Wrong jealousy

a jealous
an object he is jealous of
a supposed accomplice
a cause or author of the error

The jealous, victim of the cause or the author of the error, becomes jealous of the object and comes into conflict with the supposed accomplice.

33. Erroneous judgment / Judicial error

a mistake
a victim of error
a cause or author of the error
the guilty

A character is the victim of an error in judgment (made by the cause or the author of this error) and is unfairly accused and / or convicted, in the place of the guilty one.

34. Remorse

a guilty person
a victim or sin
an interrogator

The perpetrator harms the victim or commits a fault or a crime then has remorse, and disagrees with an interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.

35. Reunion

Two characters who lost sight of each other

A character searches for and finds another character after a long separation.

36. Mourning / loss of the loved one

a living character
a dead character

The living character must mourn the dead.
Or, the living sees another character murdering a character they love.

What to do with the 36 dramatic situations?

Most basic answer: build a story on it. So we take one of these structures and we flesh it out to the point of making it the guideline of a story.

More complex answer: we take several of these structures, and combine them to make a complicated plot.

And finally, the most complex answer of all: we take a handful of these structures, we turn them into plots in which we involve various characters, some of whom will only be involved in one plot while others will be in several, and we make a complex assembly of these intrigues to end up with a complicated story.

Think of the Prison Break series, for example: initially, Michael, although innocent, was knowingly arrested for incarceration. We then discover that he is in fact acting to escape his brother, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. We recognize the dramatic situations 2 / saving, 21 / self-sacrifice for the family, and 33 / miscarriage of justice. All this, from the first episode. The rest of the series will mobilize many other dramatic situations – puzzles, revenge, sacrifices, ambitions, jealousies …

For the authors, the 36 dramatic situations remain an important source of inspiration.

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