The 36 Dramatic Situations


How do I dramatize thee? Let my count the ways…  All 36 of them.

These immortal words were uttered by Georges Polti who concluded there were only 36 basic stories after studying numerous Greek, Latin and French works. Many are similar, but they all contain elements of struggle and conflict.

Should you be worried about plagiarism? No. Storytelling has been around since the dawn of humanity. From drawings on cave walls to speech to writing, the same stories have been recycled in different ways to depict the social fabric of the times. And storytelling will continue along the same path. There is a limit to human emotions and the number of story types that can illuminate them and our needs. It is your take on each story type that makes your story original. This is actually good news since you have a story framework in which to work. That is how you will excel as a lover. A tale of doomed lovers from warring families can range from warring tribes to Shakespearean times through to modern day times when lovers are being pulled apart by socio-economic and cultural factors.

The rules of dramaturgy transgress all genres. However, their execution  differs. Consider the previous example. The same rule applies in the comedic “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (although the lovers didn’t die). The beauty of this framework is that it covers the majority of the human population. Every culture can relate to the notion of star-crossed lovers”. Hollywood loves this sort of stuff. Even if your story is more personal, smaller and lower budget, the same rules apply because they are a precursor to addressing audience expectations.

Take a deep breath and let us explore them.

1. Supplication (asking for help)

Elements: a Supplicant, a Persecutor and a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.

The Supplicant is chased, harmed or otherwise threatened by the Persecutor and begs for help from the Power in Authority. These include films about being trapped, the underdog and characters at their lowest ebb.

2. Deliverance (being rescued)

Elements: an Unfortunate, a Threatener, a Rescuer.

The Unfortunate is threatened in some way by the Threatener and is saved by the Rescuer. These films relate to our basic physiological need for safety and security. They include the “knight in shining armour stories such as Cinderella.

3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance (revenge)

Elements: an Avenger and a Criminal

The Avenger wreaks vengeance on the Criminal for past crimes. These films cater to our need to vent our anger and provide a resolution to our problem and to see justice done. These include the ‘Saw’ films where our crime is not appreciating life.

4. Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred (avenging bad deeds to our loved ones)

Elements: Avenging Kinsman; Guilty Kinsman; Remembrance of the Victim, a Relative of Both

One family member, the Guilty Kinsman, harms another (the Victim). They are punished for this serious transgression by an Avenging Kinsman. These films play on our propensity for anger and the security, safety and social code that our families provide. Despite the wrong doing, the means justify the ends. These films include mafia, mobster films.

5. Pursuit (chase)

Elements: Punishment and Fugitive

A Fugitive is pursued, caught and Punished for some miscreant act. This caters to our need for excitement by not getting caught and our seeking of knowledge, justice and truth. Such a quest is the basis for many religions and philosophies. Such movies include ‘The Insider”, one man’s struggles against corporate forces.

6. Disaster (physical, emotional, spiritual)

Elements: a Vanquished Power; a Victorious Enemy or a Messenger

A calamitous event occurs. These stories are an outgrowth of the human ego and our ability to suffer heavy losses and emerge stronger than before. They are part of our coping mechanisms and metaphors for life as we explore the tenacity and indestructibility of the human spirit. They relate to our need for survival and protecting our loved ones. Such films include “Independence Day”. We also experience hope as that is what helps us overcome obstacles.

7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune (loss of innocence)

Elements: an Unfortunate; a Master or a Misfortune. These are children’s stories whose naivety brings them harm. Harm to children tends to generate more intense emotions of anger and outrage among audiences than harm to adults. However, the innocence of children brings us in touch with our early lives.

8. Revolt (uprising)

Elements: Tyrant and Conspirator

The Conspirator leads or contributes to a revolt against an oppressive Tyrant. These films, such as those dealing with overthrowing an evil king or bringing down a crime boss helps us experience rebellion. These feelings are particularly apparent during adolescence which is a key stage in our quest for self identity. We experience sympathy for the oppressed and gives us a sense of achievement and controlling our destinies.

9. Daring Enterprise (perilous quest)

Elements: a Bold Leader; an Object; an Adversary

These films include rites of passage such as “Star Wars”. They deal with issues of maturity, identity, respect by others and self esteem. Typically an heir to the throne must undertake a perilous journey to obtain something. Think Jason and the Argonauts.

10. Abduction (kidnapped)

Elements: the Abductor; the Abducted; the Guardian

The Abducted person is taken by the Abductor. The Abducted may be rescued by a Guardian. These films help us experience emotions of fear of being forced into undesirable situations. The rescue brings us relief and safety. We also explore our need for freedom.

11. The Enigma (mystery)

Elements: Interrogator, Seeker and Problem

The Interrogator poses a Problem which the Seeker must solve. Films such as “Zodiac” and other serial killer movies where the killer leaves a series of clues the investigators must solve before solving the crime. Apart from the exhilaration of giving us a sense of control as the audience solves problems of life, we also need a sense of completion and closure.

12. Obtaining

Elements: a Solicitor and an Adversary Who is Refusing, or an Arbitrator and Opposing Parties

A Solicitor requests something of the Adversary, who refuses to cooperate or, there are Opposing Parties who cannot reach agreement and so their dispute is resolved by the Arbitrator. These films mirror our lives to varying degrees and help us deal with tension and conflict. Such films include “Kramer versus Kramer”.

13. Enmity of Kinsmen (bitter family feud)

Elements: a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hatred or Reciprocally Hating Kinsman

Two relatives hate one another (and act accordingly). These films explore the ugly side of humanity such as “Kane and Abel”, two brothers who  pit their wits against each other to the death. These films deal with the hate associated with people we don’t want in our lives because they cause us misery, but we can’t escape them.

14. Rivalry of Kinsmen (family feud)

Elements: the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object

Two relatives compete over an Object, often another person who shows more favor to the Preferred Kinsman and shows less favor to the Rejected Kinsman. These films are typical in soaps where siblings are fighting over an inheritance or control of the family company. The kinsmen (or women) don’t necessarily hate each other to begin with, but they display determination, self preservation and a desire to lack vulnerability by being in absolute control. The level of conflict is less than in enmity of kinship.

15. Murderous Adultery (hell hath no fury)

Elements: Two Adulterers; a Betrayed Husband or Wife

Adultery turns to violence as an Adulterer seeks to remove the Spouse or turns on the other Adulterer. Since adultery is generally not accepted in many societies, these films deal with the perpetrator and victim of wrongdoing. They aim to explore emotions of guilt, fear, denial and remorse. The murder can be metaphorical as couples have emerged from such situations.

16. Madness

Elements: Madman and Victim

A person becomes temporarily Mad, losing control and harming the Victim. In our quest to control our destinies, we are sometimes forced to relinquish power in a “moment of madness”. This helps us examine our mortality, our limits and generates anger and fear. Man has unsuccessfully been trying to control his environment since time immemorial. Since the madman (or woman) has temporarily lost control over their actions, these stories help us experience empathy, sympathy and pity, thereby helping us understand our fellow man.

17. Fatal Imprudence (mistakes)

Elements: The Imprudent; the Victim or the Object Lost

The Imprudent person loses an Object or causes harm to the Victim through unthinking imprudence, curiosity and general carelessness. These stories serve to remind us that we are imperfect beings and are susceptible to errors, some of which can have disastrous consequences.

18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (Oedipus complex)

Elements: the Lover, the Beloved; the Revealer

The Lover performs acts of love with the Beloved, only to find (via the Revealer) that the Beloved is a close relative. Such stories explore the social and genetic taboos of incest in many cultures. It evokes awareness, derision, disgust and fear, but also empathy as we battle the emotional dilemma of two siblings attracted to each other, but can never be together.

19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized

Elements: the Slayer, the Unrecognized Victim

The Slayer kills (or nearly kills or harms) the Unrecognized Victim, who is actually a relative or friend of the Slayer. Thus a seemingly justified act suddenly becomes unjustified. These stories help us explore justice and the flaws of humans who act based on incorrect information. We also experience sadness, pity and empathy for the perpetrator.

20. Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal (martyrdom)

Elements: the Hero; the Ideal; the ‘Creditor’ or the Person or Thing Sacrificed

The Hero gives up something for the sake of an Ideal. These stories explore our sense of society; individuality versus plurality or the parallels of life where we must go without to receive future benefits. These pose moral dilemmas where we are given two bad choices.

21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred

Elements: the Hero; the Kinsman; the ‘Creditor’ or the Person or Thing Sacrificed

The Hero gives up something in order to help a relative or friend. Consider “Beauty and the Beast” where Belle agrees to stay with the Beast in order to free her father. These are tear-jerking stories which help us explore our social structures. They are life affirming and make us realize the beauty of humanity despite it’s flaws.

22. All Sacrificed for Passion

Elements: the Lover, the Object of the Fatal Passion; the Person or Thing Sacrificed

The Lover is impassioned by the Object to the point where they give up the Person or Thing, perhaps unwisely, blinded as they are their passion. These stories show human in distress and the extreme choices we make for matters of the heart. We sympathize with these people although we know that they are likely to follow. We feel the tension these stories evoke. Consider films like “Basic Instinct”, the ultimate erotic thriller.

23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones

Elements: the Hero; the Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice

The Hero is forced to sacrifice the Beloved Victim, based on the Necessity. Typically a hero has been chosen to fulfill his/ her destiny. They are driven my a sense of duty and higher good, even if it means sacrificing those we love. We feel the agony of such choices, but understand them due to their necessity.

24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior

Elements: the Superior Rival; the Inferior Rival; the Object

The Superior Rival is set against an Inferior Rival, both vying for the Object of Rivalry. Rivalry is rife in our lives and stems from Darwin’s theory of natural selection; the survival of the fittest. However, in humans, the fittest may not always win if they use trickery and subterfuge. Such stories explore our propensity for jealously and our use or misuse of power. Think of the king who has his opponents killed.

25. Adultery

Elements: a Deceived Husband or Wife; Two Adulterers

The Deceived Spouse is cuckolded by Two Adulterers, one the partner of the Deceived Spouse. These stories deal with issues of betrayal, anger and trust. The afflicted may seek revenge or walk away a stronger person.

26. Crimes of Love

Elements: The Lover, the Beloved

The Lover loves the Beloved, but this love is illicit in some way, breaking social codes. These stories emerge from our desire to live free from the oppressive forces of social mores. They explore our desire for individuality and self expression.

27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One

Elements: the Discoverer; the Guilty One

The Guilty One brings shame on their kin by a dishonorable act. They are discovered by the Dishonorer. Honor and moral duty are highly esteemed tenets of social order. Any breach by a relative triggers a moral dilemma among relatives and loved ones. Consider the “horror” of a white women dating a black man in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”.

28. Obstacles to Love

Elements: Two Lovers, an Obstacle

Two Lovers want to be together, but they are prevented from doing so by some difficult Obstacle. These stories relate to impediments to unions and ultimately marriage. Obstacles can be inter-racial, inter-culture, inter-religion or inter-class to name a few These moral dilemmas relate to values, upbringing and belief systems. Consider the backlash of certain groups at the prospect of same sex marriage.

29. An Enemy Loved

Elements: The Beloved Enemy; the Lover; the Hater

The Lover loves the Beloved Enemy. The Hater hates the Lover for this betrayal. More affairs of the heart. We can’t chose who we fall in love with and it can bring bitter consequences. We are hard wired to be attracted to powerful, attractive, healthy people who can provide for us and give us viable offspring. We either know we are in love with the wrong person, or in denial of their evil. The hater is a relative, friend of confidante of the lover and tries to interfere with the relationship after much deliberation.

30. Ambition

Elements: an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary

The Ambitious person Covets a Thing, however that ambition is guarded against by an Adversary. Ambition can relate to good fortune, a person or an object. It relates to that which we desire but is not yet within our reach. These stories relate to our need for security, safety and control.

31. Conflict With a God

Elements: a Mortal, an Immortal

The Mortal challenges the Immortal. There are consequences. Man has long believed in higher powers to explain his existence. We have sacrificed lambs to please the gods and blamed natural disasters on them if we have done wrong. These are extreme stories of the hero often not succeeding in overcoming an obstacle and ends up dead. If not dead, then shaken and wiser from the experience. Such conflicts highlight man’s limitations and mortality, but we pit our strength against the gods all the same, and lose.

32. Mistaken Jealousy

Elements: the Jealous One; the Object of Whose Possession He is Jealous; the Supposed Accomplice; the Cause or the Author of the Mistake

The Jealous person, through some Cause or Author, appears to becomes jealous of some Object. There may also be a Supposed Accomplice. Again, these stories highlight the imperfection of man. When we are manipulated, or manipulate others, we receive incomplete or incorrect information and act on it. This triggers events injustice. Envy relates to a simple desire to obtain something that belongs to someone else, while jealousy has a third party attached and more is at stake.

33. Erroneous Judgement

Elements: The Mistaken One; the Victim of the Mistake; the Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty Person

The Mistaken One makes some judgment about or is suspicious about the Victim, instead of the Guilty Person. This is due to some Cause or is caused by the Author of the mistake. In our need to control and understand our environment and closure, we often hurriedly attribute facts to attach guilt to someone. When we don’t have all the facts we make errors of judgment.

34. Remorse

Elements: the Culprit; the Victim or the Sin; the Interrogator

The Culprit has done wrong to a Victim or committed another Sin. The Interrogator gets an admission of guilt. These are stories of reflection and guilt. We realize we must deal with our past actions which are incongruous with our values and in terms seek forgiveness and closure. Such films include “Magnolia” and resonate well with mature audiences who look back on their lives with regrets.

35. Recovery of a Lost One

The Seeker; the One Found

The Seeker looks for and finds the One Found. These are primal stories where we are separated from our loved ones. The recovery can also be one of self actualization such as recovery of self esteem, strength and attitude.

36. Loss of Loved Ones

A Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner

These stories address our powerlessness against certain forces, the frailty and temporary nature of lives and our mortality. So make every page you have count.

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