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By Jeff Kitchen · June 11, 2021
The 118 elements that make up all matter that we know of. The chair you’re sitting on consists of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron, and so on. You can describe that chair quite completely from one point of view.
Why are we talking about chemistry on a screenwriting blog? Because the concept is a lot like the The 36 Dramatic Situations, a tool for writers created in the late 1700s by Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi and then turned into a book in 1916 by Georges Polti.
It claims that all stories consist of 36 basic situations, like Ambition, Madness, Revolt, Disaster, Pursuit, and more. Each has its own meaning and can conjure cascades of ideas in a writer who uses them to help create and develop a story.
Let’s take a look at the 36 Dramatic Situations, break them down, and see if we can use them to build a story from scratch. Also, we’ll also go over a few fun writing and brainstorming exercises you can do to get your creative juices flowing.
Say you’re writing a comedy about two idiot brothers who mistakenly win scholarships to Stanford and then accidentally invent anti-gravity when they blow up the physics lab. Some of the 36 situations would be inherent in this story idea before you even touch it. Obvious at first glance would be:
All these elements already exist within this story idea before you even play with it. Disaster because you have these two idiots descending on this ivy league bastion of higher learning. Madness because they’re crazy, the situation is insane, the mess they create is lunacy, and they drive people nuts, etc.
Rivalry of Superior and Inferior is active because while these two are obviously inferior to others who are vastly superior, our idiots might have unexpected superior attributes that turn the tables, and the rivalry would be intense.
The story is rich with possibilities, which is what attracted you to it in the first place, but now that you can isolate and articulate more of the ways in which it’s rich, you can do even more with it. The main thing in working with the 36 is that you’re already building a story, inventing, creating, doing research, casting around for ideas, and brainstorming possibilities—and looking through the 36 Dramatic Situations as you create helps trigger even more ideas, some of which might never have occurred to you.
Plus, you can play “What If?” with situations that aren’t in this comedy yet, but which might make it pop even more.
If they accidentally invented anti-gravity then there are world-changing fortunes to be made, and skullduggery would abound. With hundreds of trillions of dollars at stake, there would be betrayal, theft, lies, deception, loss, and maybe even murder.
So Conflict with a God and Crime Pursued by Vengeance would be central, as would All Sacrificed for a Passion, Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One, Loss of Loved Ones, Obtaining, and the Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones, to name a few.
Let’s play with Conflict with a God. That situation would have no religious connotation at all in this story—it’s just conflict with a great power. The trick with the 36 Dramatic Situations is to not take them literally. The more metaphorically or poetically you take them, the more ideas they can suggest. So in our comedy idea, great powers of every stripe would be rushing in to control an invention of this magnitude.
So, let’s brainstorm using Conflict with a God: What if the Chinese spies at Stanford find out about it just as the Russian spies do? What will the US military and the CIA do to contain and control this world-changing invention? What if their professor tries to take credit for the invention, and how far is he or she willing to go to get it? What if a Silicone Valley “god” swoops in and tries to sweet-talk/bully the brothers into a deal?
But what if the idiot brothers turn out to be geniuses in how they handle all these people trying to steal it and control it and muscle them out of the picture so that they’re the gods in the arena in a certain way? How does that play out?
How funny could it be if their innate wisdom about human nature helps them outfox all these sharks? How hard do the powers that be come down on them to tell how they invented anti-gravity? What if they blunder into a creative solution like Inspector Clouseau, who does everything wrong and still comes up smelling like roses? What if everyone thinks they really are geniuses and wants to harness their brilliance, but all they did was to set their pants on fire and blunder through an experiment in electromagnetism, then tried to put it out with liquid oxygen, creating a miniature supernova that lasted a microsecond and altered the fundamental properties of a piece of metal—and they couldn’t recreate it to save their lives?
By thinking about how Conflict with a God can suggest fresh ideas for the story, and then colliding it with An Enemy Loved, Madness, Disaster, the Enigma, Erroneous Judgment, and Daring Enterprise, you can be up to your eyeballs in cascading ideas that leap out at you faster than you can write them down.
Just Madness and Disaster combined suggest reams of hilarious possibilities, with the two brothers obviously embodying Madness and Disaster themselves. But by flipping it, you can see how the various predators embody Madness and Disaster in their own ways, and how these two elements could upend their plans for dominance. If each situation conjures ten ideas, then write them down because that’s their job.
The 36 Dramatic Situations is a nutrient-rich fertilizer for creating, developing, and constructing stories. Like a LEGO set, you can create literally any story of any genre with them.
The 36 Dramatic Situations can also help you violate your own storytelling rut so that if you would normally finish a story one way, maybe contemplating Erroneous Judgment gets you thinking about an entirely different approach and you’ve suddenly got a fresh twist on your ending.
So it’s a simple enough tool, and its two main functions are to identify which elements are already built into your story before you touch it and to throw hand grenades into the idea to explode it into unexpected new dimensions.
And the fact that it covers one complete spectrum of ideas makes it a compact and efficient tool for catalyzing your creative thinking to new and different levels.