The 36 Dramatic Situations

In 1900, a French literary critic named Georges Polti published an analysis of literary plots entitled “The 36 Dramatic Situations”.

All situations in any story or drama are supposed to fall into one of these categories. There may be more than one situation in the plot of a story if it’s long enough.

The list was developed to help writers, but perhaps storytellers will also find it interesting. See Polti’s book of the same name for explanations, examples, and variations. Various other longer categorizations have been made of such situations, and very comprehensive, extensive lists may be found in the various Motif Indices.

The 36 Dramatic Situations

  1. Supplication
    The dynamic elements technically necessary are: a Persecutor; a Supplicant; and a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
  2. Deliverance
    Elements: an Unfortunate, a Threatener, a Rescuer.
  3. Supplication
    The dynamic elements technically necessary are: a Persecutor; a Supplicant; and a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
  4. Deliverance
    Elements: an Unfortunate, a Threatener, a Rescuer.
  5. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
    Elements: an Avenger and a Criminal
  6. Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred
    Elements: Avenging Kinsman; Guilty Kinsman; Remembrance of the Victim, a Relative of Both
  7. Pursuit
    Elements: Punishment and Fugitive
  8. Disaster
    Elements: a Vanquished Power; a Victorious Enemy or a Messenger
  9. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune
    Elements: an Unfortunate; a Master or a Misfortune
  10. Revolt
    Elements: Tyrant and Conspiratorv
  11. Daring Enterprise
    Elements: a Bold Leader; an Object; an Adversary
  12. Abduction
    Elements: the Abductor; the Abducted; the Guardian
  13. The Enigma
    Elements: Interrogator, Seeker and Problem
  14. Obtaining
    Elements: a Solicitor and an Adversary Who is Refusing, or an Arbitrator and Opposing Parties
  15. Enmity of Kinsmen
    Elements: a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hatred or Reciprocally Hating Kinsman
  16. Rivalry of Kinsmen
    Elements: the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object
  17. Murderous Adultery
    Elements: Two Adulterers; a Betrayed Husband or Wife
  18. Madness
    Elements: Madman and Victim
  19. Fatal Imprudence
    Elements: The Imprudent; the Victim or the Object Lost
  20. Involuntary Crimes of Love
    Elements: the Lover, the Beloved; the Revealer
  21. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
    Elements: the Slayer, the Unrecognized Victim
  22. Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal
    Elements: the Hero; the Ideal; the ‘Creditor’ or the Person or Thing Sacrificed
  23. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
    Elements: the Hero; the Kinsman; the ‘Creditor’ or the Person or Thing Sacrificed
  24. All Sacrificed for Passion
    Elements: the Lover, the Object of the Fatal Passion; the Person or Thing Sacrificed
  25. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
    Elements: the Hero; the Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
  26. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
    Elements: the Superior Rival; the Inferior Rival; the Object
  27. Adultery
    Elements: a Deceived Husband or Wife; Two Adulterers
  28. Crimes of Love
    Elements: The Lover, the Beloved
  29. Discovery of the Dishonour of a Loved One
    Elements: the Discoverer; the Guilty One
  30. Obstacles to Love
    Elements: Two Lovers, an Obstacle
  31. An Enemy Loved
    Elements: The Beloved Enemy; the Lover; the Hater
  32. Ambition
    Elements: an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
  33. Conflict With a God
    Elements: a Mortal, an Immortal
  34. 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
  35. Erroneous Judgment
    Elements: The Mistaken One; the Victim of the Mistake; the Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty Person
  36. Remorse
    Elements: the Culprit; the Victim or the Sin; the Interrogator
  37. Recovery of a Lost One
    The Seeker; the One Found
  38. Loss of Loved Ones
    A Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner

Georges Polti also further subdivided each of the 36 (citing particular plays and novels that embodied each variant), and included for each an enumeration of the basic ‘elements’ needed for the plot, e.g. for Supplication: “The dynamic elements necessary are: a Persecutor, a Suppliant and a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful” Here’s a very rough re-sorting of Polti’s thirty-six, according to a preliminary reworking of those elements:

  • person thing: Obtaining
  • person motive: Victim of misfortune, Disaster, Ambition
  • person motive motive: Self-sacrifice for an ideal person motive modality: Daring enterprise, Remorse
  • person modality: Enigma, Madness, Fatal imprudence, Faulty judgment
  • person person: Revolt, Familial hatred, Family rivalry, Conflict with a god, Loss of loved ones
  • person person place: Recovery of a lost one
  • person person place place: Pursuit, Abduction
  • person person motive: Supplication, Victim of cruelty, Rivalry between superior and inferior, Crimes of love, Deliverance<
  • person person modality: Kinsman kills unrecognized kinsman, Obstacles to love, Mistaken jealousy
  • person person motive motive: Revenge, All sacrifice for passion, Sacrifice of loved ones, An enemy loved, Self sacrifice for kindred
  • person person motive modality: Involuntary crimes of love, Discovery of dishonor of a loved one
  • person person person: Adultery, Murderous adultery
  • person person person person motive motive: Vengeance by family upon family

See also:: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar

Don't miss these other resources!

Please post your thoughts and comments below. Thanks!