Every book, series, film, simply every story ever written follows 36 patterns, according to French writer Georges Polti. This is still true today. Here is part one of the
36 dramatic situations.
In 1895, Georges Polti compiled a detailed list of 36 basic plots covering all human histories. At first sight this seems harrowing news, albeit an extremely fascinating one.
Polti analyzed Greek texts, classical and then contemporary French works. He also studied countless non-French speaking authors. Interesting: Polti claimed at the time that he was continuing the work of Carlo Gozzi, a Venetian dramaturge. He also discovered 36 dramatic situations – almost a hundred years earlier.
Polti’s book, which bears the same name, was published in English in 1916 and is in print to this day. Countless writers, authors, storytellers need this piece of literature to advance in their industries.
In the first part, I will introduce you to the first six situations. All of them are illustrated with classic and modern examples. First of all: The different situations serve as the basis for a story. The form in which they are presented in books, TV or cinemas may therefore not always be immediately apparent – there are very loose specifications. Let’s start with the very first situation. The picture gallery above gives you a brief overview.
- the Chaser
- the supplicant
- the powerful / authoritarian decision maker
Our hero, the supplicant, asks the powerful decision-maker for help in order to escape the persecutor.
A good example of this is the musical “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), in which the heroine Dorothy needs the help of the wizard to get home. And meanwhile to escape the wrath of the wicked witch.
- the threatened
- the threat
- the Savior
That should be self-explanatory. But for the sake of completeness: the rescuer releases the threatened from the threatened. This seems to be one of the most common situations – at first sight. It’s classic Hollywood cinema. What can change here is the perspective. Sometimes the story is told from the perspective of the threatened or that of the rescuer. Most superhero stories get hung up on this situation.
Superman – for example – saves his lover Lois Lane, other people or even the earth from various threats.
In the film “Deliverance” – literally the name of the situation in English – the story is told from the perspective of several threatened people who finally save themselves. That’s what I meant by “very loose guidelines”.
- the avenger
- the criminal
The avenger hunts down the criminal for a crime committed. Many a «crime scene» can be included, but also «Minority Report», for example. In the futuristic strip, people are arrested before they commit a crime. So it’s a variation on that concept.
Ominous criminals are also popular in this context, where the audience does not know exactly who the villain is now. Or this character is generally referred to as “you” and you only find out who “she” is later in the story. This is how “The Punisher” handles it: Main character Frank Castle has lost his family, they were murdered. The ex-soldier makes “you” – those responsible – during a season of the series. Together with the audience, he gradually assigns faces and names to the culprits.
- the avenging family member
- the victim within the family
- the guilty family member
This is a family drama through and through. Here, too, the distribution of roles is clear: a family member tries to solve the murder of another family member through another family member.
The most famous example of this is probably William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The eponymous protagonist wants revenge on his uncle, who is responsible for the death of Hamlet’s father.
In more modern times, “Star Wars” could be mentioned here. Luke Skywalker wants to kill Darth Vader, who allegedly murdered his father. Luke finds out that Vader is his father. So the sithlord is both the victim and the guilty family member. The film “Knives Out” (2019) also revolves around exactly such a family tragedy. The head of the family is murdered the night after his birthday party, there is only his own family in the house.
- some form of punishment
- a fugitive
This situation is similar to the third one – «Revenge for a crime» – with the following difference: the story is designed in such a way that the audience develops sympathy for the fugitive and not for the legal system. That means, although the fugitive may have committed a crime, his actions can be easily understood.
A simple illustration here would be the “Hulk” who is not responsible for his condition and is still being persecuted by the military.
A classic example is “Les misérables”. A former convict tries to escape his past and the ostracism that goes with it, but fails again and again. And also: “The Fugitive”, which in turn literally bears the English term for this situation. Richard Kimble is – wrongly – pursued by the police as the murderer of his wife.
This situation can have innumerable characters. However, the main idea is that something terrible happened and the main characters will have to deal with it. The “terrible” can be an invasion by extraterrestrials or a natural disaster, a situation in which those affected are forced to cooperate.
You almost never run out of examples here. The meteor that crashes to earth: «Armageddon», «Deep Impact». Machines that want to subjugate humanity: “Terminator”, “Matrix”. An alien invasion: “Mars Attacks”, “Independance Day”, “War of the Worlds”. Or humanity itself caused a catastrophe and destroyed civilization: “Waterworld”, “The Core”, “Mad Max”. So far, various blockbusters have been made from this pattern.
This was part one of a six-part series about the various dramatic situations that have underpinned every story since the dawn of mankind. Part two will follow in a week from today.
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