The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations is a book by Georges Polti written in 1868, available free in its 1916 translation by Lucile Ray (published 1924).
It was written by surveying a huge body of literature and classifying the dramas that Polti found therein. Apparently there was an attempt to disprove that there could be so few, but that only yielded 24 situations.
Jeff Kitchen includes the 36 Dramatic Situations in his book “Writing a Great Movie” as one of the techniques you can use to improve the drama in your work. As regular readers will know this is one of my favourite books on writing screenplays. Though most of it applies to any form of dramatic writing, not just movies.
The biggest mistake people make with the 36DS is thinking it is somehow proscriptive – by which I mean it is limiting. Or prescriptive - you must use one of these. Nothing is further from the truth. The people who make these criticisms obviously haven't read the source material.
Yes there are 36 major divisions, there are at least 3 subdivisions of each one, and some have sub-subdivisions. And you can combine two or more dramatic situations. Which makes the number of possible permutations a very big number indeed – far more than you’ll ever write.
So, to suggest it is somehow limiting is silly.
You can read any of the abbreviated versions of Polti’s work, but it’s worth reading the full translation, partly for Polti’s sense of humour and partly to gain a much better of understanding of his thinking behind the work.
Let’s take an example picked at random:
“Enmity of Kinsmen”, each situation lists the elements which make it up, in this case “a malevolent kinsman and a hated or reciprocally hating kinsman”. This is a dramatic situation which we’re all familiar with. He chooses several subdivisions: Hatred of Brothers sub-subdivided into one-to-one, several-to-one, and so on. (Not explicitly listed are all the different brother/sister combinations.)
Then there’s father-son (and all the versions between one generation, not explicitly listed); between two generations; between in-laws, he explicitly mentions mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflict; and then there’s infanticide.
But here’s the key: he doesn’t list them all and points out in his introduction that this is a survey of dramatic situations that he found. He states that this survey shows areas that have not yet been touched by drama.
In other words you could go through his lists and come up with something completely new and original that has never been done before. He wouldn’t mind.
There are some situations that seem a little odd, like 31: Conflict with a God. It’s important to understand that the “God” can be interpreted as anything that, compared to the individual is godlike – it could the State, for example: immortal and untouchable (effectively).
So what value does this have? Well, it’s a tool for the toolbox. If your story is lacking drama you pull out the 36 dramatic situations and see what you can add to the mix. Your overall story will be one (or more) of the 36 but, since every scene should contain drama, every scene will also have something from the 36, and if it doesn’t you can add it.
What's on the turntable? "Go! Spastic" by Squarepusher from "Go Plastic", as I've said before my tastes are eclectic