How many plots are there and what book can I find this in?
September 9, 2004 1:34 PM   Subscribe

I've heard tell that there's only some X number of plots in the world, and someone has outlined them in an old book. Anyone with a clue which book?
posted by kk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wordplayer summarizes the The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations, collected and discussed in 1868 by George Polti.
posted by caitlinb at 1:46 PM on September 9, 2004

Here's the Straight Dope on the subject.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:50 PM on September 9, 2004

Allegedly the number is either 36 or 37, and the book is a "French book published in 1916 as "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations" by Georges Polti".

Here are several other numbers, with sources.
posted by gleuschk at 1:55 PM on September 9, 2004

Everybody beat me to the punch on George Polti, so I'll erase my old comment and write this new one, which you didn't ask for:

The idea that there is not only a finite number of plots, but a very small finite number of plots, seems a little silly to me. To come to that conclusion, you would have to boil down plot lines using a set of criteria that was arbitrarily narrow.

A very wide summary of the story is the full text of the story itself, in which case there are millions of plots in literature so far, with more every day. A very narrow summary of the story is the single word "events", in which case there is probably only one plot, and it describes every story. Both are apt descriptions.

Polti (and others who have done the same) have chosen to include certain facts in their boiled-down plot summaries, but not others. For instance, he might describe the main plot of Hamlet as an example of III.A.1, "the avenging of a slain parent or ancestor," which highlights the fact that Hamlet's father was killed and vengeance is demanded. It ignores (for instance) the fact that the story takes place in Denmark. Who says that revenge stories in Denmark shouldn't constitute their own plot type, but that the difference between a slain wife and a slain mistress should?

To quantify the possible number of plot types you have to set up a rubric for judging them, and that rubric has to be completly pulled out of your ass and irrational. It's a silly thing to do! Don't give it too much credence, please.
posted by Hildago at 2:16 PM on September 9, 2004

I feel like The Man Who Learnt Better
posted by seanyboy at 2:57 PM on September 9, 2004

Forrest J. Ackerman was often attributed with the seven plots comment;
as a former literary agent, not to mention a pivotal member of many sci-fi/fasntasy clubs, Ackerman was said to have been joking when he made the statement.

You might "scare up" the line in A Reference Guide to American Science Fiction Films, Forrest J Ackerman's World of Science Fiction or a back issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:07 PM on September 9, 2004

They completely ignored the pizza delivery man and the bisexually curious college room mates!
posted by substrate at 3:09 PM on September 9, 2004

Bingo! These are exactly what I was looking for. I appreciate the caveats of why they are all flawed, though for my purposes they work fine. Thanks, all.
posted by kk at 3:39 PM on September 9, 2004

> The idea that there is not only a finite number of plots, but a very small finite
> number of plots, seems a little silly to me. To come to that conclusion, you
> would have to boil down plot lines using a set of criteria that was arbitrarily narrow.

This may be true but it's also definitely true that writers seem to hit on the same plots over and over. As someone who has read huge amounts of junk (sci fi, murder mysteries, some westerns, 1 Harlequin Romance) I repeatedly get the feeling "I've read this book before. Fifteen or twenty times."
posted by jfuller at 3:54 PM on September 9, 2004

Borges said they were three: the first about a man who travels to far lands to fight an enemy of his people, the second about his journey back, the third about a man who dies to save everybody else.
Which seems surprisingly christian for Jorge Luis.
I would add a fourth, about a man who is punished by the gods for revealing their secrets to mankind.
posted by signal at 3:58 PM on September 9, 2004

For screenwriters, storytelling has become something of a science, which may account for some of the sameness of Hollywood output. Specifically, the work of Joseph Campbell has been very influential, beginning with George Lucas and Star Wars. As such, not only the plots themselves, but the theories about plots and structure, have a certain codependence. If you believe there are only thirty-six plots, you see.....
posted by dhartung at 9:39 PM on September 9, 2004

In high school English, we were taught that there are only four types of conflict in literature:

1. Man v. Man
2. Man v. Himself
3. Man v. Nature
4. Man v. Supernatural

I was always trying to out-smart my teachers so I suggested "Man v. Time" as a fifth option. The teacher said this was the same as Man v. Nature. I disagreed (silently) at the time but now realise the teacher was probably right but not because "Time" was an element of nature but more likely that any time-based conflict resulted in scenarios of Man v. Himself ie. a character trying to get to a bomb before it explodes.
posted by Jaybo at 11:29 PM on September 9, 2004

Having studied screenwriting in a film school that was steeped in Campbell-esque ideology, I can say this. There is certainly no pushing of the 36 dramatic situations idea...which even in itself doesn't equate to 36 plots. The science of screenwriting is not what accounts for the sameness of Hollywood output; what's speaking there is money, a relatively conservative business practice of releasing what you know is going to sell, the fact that most scripts are horrible, and the additional fact that there are a slough of reasons for good scripts to become horrible by the time they make it to the screen. Campbell's paradigm, and more to the point, Aristotle's, allows for a tremendous variety of storylines. The day we can say that Hollywood movies have explored everything allowable by Campbell is a day that I would really love to be alive to see.
posted by bingo at 11:36 PM on September 9, 2004

in "Who is Guilty?", oulipan francois le lionnais delineates 40+ mutually exclusive permutations of the detective story (based solely on different possible guilty parties).

vladimir propp broke russian fair tales down into 30 odd discrete subunits that could be rearranged for who knows how many different permutations.
posted by juv3nal at 12:54 AM on September 10, 2004

Here's something that hasn't been mentioned:

Comparative-lit types have spent a lot of time studying this in folklore (particularly oral traditions), and done rather detailed breakdowns of what they call "motifs", or the smallest(ish) unit of plots and "tale-types", which are groups of motifs that line up commonly (may be analogous to plots). Here is a link which talks about some of the standard works on this:

The interesting thing is that when one looks at a large selection of oral literature collected from informants and such, you find many many variations on simple tales. This is unlike typical written literature where there is one version, which undergoes no change except possibly during translation. In fact, much older oral tradition that we know of (e.g. Old Irish stories) comes from someone (often a monk) writing it down, and "fossilizing" one version. With enough of these, the interesting differences start to appear.

Here are a bunch of samples of motifs, all drawn from Cinderella stories (list from this page, taken from the Thompson book discussed there and in the above link):

S31 Cruel Stepmother
F311  Fairy Godmother
D813 Magic Object received from fairy
D1050.1 Clothes produced by magic
F861.4.3 Carriage from pumpkin
D411.6.1 Transformation: mouse to horse
N711.6  Prince sees heroine at ball and is enamoured
C761.3 Tabu: staying too long at the ball
H36.1 Slipper test: identification by fitting of shoes
F823.2 Glass slipper
L162  Lowly heroine marries Prince

All of these motifs were presumably identified uniquely as things that might vary independently between different (oral) versions of the cinderella story. The Thompson book contains about 40,000 unique (though sometimes related) motifs, but I don't think any academics of this stripe would claim that this kind of classification is exhaustive.
posted by advil at 1:27 AM on September 10, 2004

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