The 36 dramatic situations were compiled by Georges Polti in the 1800s based on the earlier work of Carlo Gozzi. I've tried to explain each of the situations in more modern terms - some of the original words are not commonly used these days. A 37th situation is widely considered worth adding to this list, particularly since it appears as far back as Chaucer. It's included at the end of this list.
As you can see below, these 37 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. If you need help with this process, I run plotting clinics and one-on-one brainstorming sessions - get in touch: ecn AT hearwritenow.com
1. Supplication (i.e., desperate request or begging)
Someone who needs help, usually due to the antagonist. Fill in the why, who, and how it is resolved.
2. Deliverance (or saving/rescuing)
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. Beware of the "Refrigerated Woman" trope, however. The murder of female characters is detrimentally overused as a way to kickstart a revenge plot or otherwise motivate a (usually male) protagonist.
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 (i.e. family)
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 (meaning hatred/heated disagreement between relatives)
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 (i.e., love or affair where one or both parties are married)
A love triangle where someone is killed.
Presumably the love triangle without the murder.
14. Slaying of kin unrecognized (murder of relative, where the relationship is unknown)
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. Beware of perpetuating misogyny with this concept.
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 (i.e., wrongful/mistaken assumption being acted upon)
Similar to "Mistaken Jealousy". Action taken based on incorrect suspicion in general, or wrongful accusation/wrongful imprisonment, etc.
Hunting down a fugitive. Going after someone for whatever reason.
Anticipation before or survival after a natural or human-inflicted disaster.
26. Falling prey/victim to cruelty/misfortune
And how the protagonist gets out of it.
27. Revolt (revolution or rebellion)
Overthrowing a dictator, mutiny, etc., or taking a stand against the status quo.
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. This could also form part of a quest plot where the aim is to obtain a particular object (e.g., treasure, magical amulet, etc.) But beware of rewarding the protagonist with the "prize" of "getting the girl" - this is another misogynistic trope that needs to die.
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 (indiscretion/stupidity/lack of awareness or knowledge)
A character's naïveté or carelessness has drastic consequences. But beware of creating characters who are TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).
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 in July 2008.