The 36 dramatic situations were compiled by Georges Polti in the 1800s based on the earlier work of Carlo Gozzi.
As you can see below, these 36 dramatic situations are not complete plots. To create a plot, you need to combine at least two strands, but the more strands you weave together the more complex and interesting your story plot and subplots become.
A 37th situation has been doing the rounds of the Internet for almost ten years, with no indication of who came up with it. It’s included at the end of this list.
Someone who needs help, usually due to the antagonist. Fill in the why, who, and how it is resolved.
Similar to Supplication, but with the emphasis on rescuing another person rather than seeking assistance.
3. Recovery of a lost one
Similar to Deliverance, but without necessarily requiring rescue.
4. Loss of loved ones
Best used as a motivation for, or result of another plot strand.
Kidnapping and negotiation. This is sometimes teamed with a rescue (Deliverance).
6. Crime pursued by vengeance
Revenge taken into the protagonist’s own hands.
7. Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
Similar to Vengeance for a Crime, but with family members involved, leading to possible angst about blood being thicker than water.
8. Enmity of kin
9. Rivalry of kin
Sibling rivalry, or rivalry between family members.
10. Crimes of love
I.e., deliberate crimes of passion rather than “involuntary” crime.
11. Involuntary crimes of love
The emphasis here is on “involuntary” rather than crimes of passion, for example a relationship that is unknowingly incestuous.
12. Murderous adultery
A love triangle where someone is killed.
Presumably the love triangle without the murder.
14. Slaying of kin unrecognized
A typical Greek tragedy storyline where wars and duels could lead to a character killing their rival, and then discover the rival was a family member.
15. Self-sacrifice for an ideal
Beware of sounding “preachy” with this one. This is best used as a minor theme rather than a major plot strand.
16. Self-sacrifice for kin
Anything from single parents working overtime to put their children through school, to taking a bullet for a “more important” family member.
17. All sacrificed for passion
Giving up everything for love, or something that only feels like love.
18. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
Choosing between, say, a spouse and a child, or turning in/killing a criminal family member for the protection of the rest of the family.
19. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
The topic of dishonour can lead to various storylines, from revenge taken on the guilty to “purification” of the victim.
20. Obstacles to love
Lovers overcoming the obstacles, or the tragedy of their failure to overcome these.
21. An enemy loved
Possibilities range from not knowing that the loved one is also the enemy, to falling for the “bad guy”.
22. Mistaken jealousy
Taking action based on incorrect suspicions of betrayal and the consequences.
23. Erroneous judgement
Similar to “Mistaken Jealousy”. Action taken based on incorrect suspicion in general, or wrongful accusation/wrongful imprisonment, etc.
Hunting down a fugitive.
Anticipation before or survival after a natural or human-inflicted disaster.
26. Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
And how the protagonist gets out of it.
Overthrowing a dictator, mutiny, etc.
28. Daring enterprise
The good old adventure story, which may involve a quest.
29. The enigma
A mystery or mysterious person or object, leading to another plot strand.
Obstacles faced while trying to attain something.
Could take a number of forms. Polti preferred that the madness claim a victim, but it is also possible to explore the line between sanity and insanity without harm.
32. Fatal imprudence
A character’s naïveté has drastic consequences.
33. Rivalry of superior versus inferior
Anything from a character up against a former mentor, to a supposedly weaker character using other abilities to defeat, or attempt to defeat, a stronger rival.
Possibilities range from rags to riches to corporate greed and the consequences.
35. Conflict with a god
Mortals versus immortals, superpowers, the government, superior beings, etc.
Remorse doesn’t have much depth as a plot strand without exploring the motivations of the actions that the character regrets.
37. Mistaken Identity
Opportunity to be a different/rich/powerful person, believing oneself to be someone else, comedy of errors or tragedy when one character is unknowingly believed to be another, getting away with something while another is blamed, etc.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in July 2008.
Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti is available from Amazon.