There Are Only 37 Possible Stories, According to This 1919 Manual for Screenwriters

“Great lit­er­a­ture is one of two sto­ries,” we often quote Leo Tol­stoy as say­ing: “a man goes on a jour­ney or a stranger comes to town.” That’s all well and good for the author of War and Peace, but what about the thou­sands of screen­writ­ers strug­gling to come up with the next hit movie, the next hit tele­vi­sion series, the next hit plat­form-spe­cif­ic web and/or mobile series? Some, of course, have found in that apho­rism a fruit­ful start­ing point, but oth­ers opt for dif­fer­ent premis­es that num­ber the basic plots at three (William Fos­ter-Har­ris), six (researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vermont’s Com­pu­ta­tion­al Sto­ry Lab), twen­ty (Ronald Tobias), 36 (George Polti) — or, as some strug­gling screen­writ­ers of a cen­tu­ry ago read, 37.

The year was 1919. Amer­i­ca’s biggest block­busters includ­ed D.W. Grif­fith’s Bro­ken Blos­soms, Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female, and The Mir­a­cle Man, which made Lon Chaney into a sil­ver-screen icon. The many aspi­rants look­ing to write their way into the ever more cel­e­brat­ed and lucra­tive movie busi­ness could turn to a new­ly pub­lished man­u­al called Ten Mil­lion Pho­to­play Plots by Wycliff Aber Hill. “Hill, who pub­lished more than one aid to strug­gling ‘sce­nar­ists,’ posi­tioned him­self as an author­i­ty on the types of sto­ries that would work well onscreen,” writes Slate’s Rebec­ca Onion. In this book he pro­vides a “tax­on­o­my of pos­si­ble types of dra­mat­ic ‘sit­u­a­tions,’ first run­ning them down in out­line form, then describ­ing each more com­plete­ly and offer­ing pos­si­ble vari­a­tions.”

Hill’s 37 basic dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tions include such “hap­py sit­u­a­tions” as “res­cue,” “loved ones lost and recov­ered,” and “a mir­a­cle of God”; such “pathet­ic sit­u­a­tions” as “love’s obsta­cles,” “rival­ry between unequals,” and “a mys­tery”; and such “dis­as­trous sit­u­a­tions pre­cip­i­tat­ed with­out crim­i­nal intent” as “pos­sessed of an ambi­tion,” “enmi­ty between kins­men,” and “vengeance.” (Nat­u­ral­ly, Hill also includes a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry involv­ing crim­i­nal intent.) These dra­mat­ic con­cepts then break down into more spe­cif­ic sce­nar­ios like “res­cue by strangers who are grate­ful for favors giv­en them by the unfor­tu­nate one,” “an appeal for refuge by the ship­wrecked,” “the sac­ri­fice of hap­pi­ness for the sake of a loved one where the sac­ri­fice is caused by unjust laws,” and “con­ge­nial rela­tions between hus­band and wife made impos­si­ble by the par­ents-in-law.”

Already more than a few films new and old come to mind whose sto­ries pro­ceed from such dra­mat­ic con­cepts. Indeed, one could think of exam­ples from not just cin­e­ma but lit­er­a­ture, tele­vi­sion, the­ater, comics, and oth­er forms of nar­ra­tive art besides. Sit­u­a­tions we all know from real life may also fol­low sim­i­lar con­tours, which plays no small part in giv­ing them their impact when prop­er­ly trans­lat­ed to the screen. Clear­ly aim­ing for time­less­ness, Hill enu­mer­ates plots that could have been employed in sto­ries cen­turies before his time, and will con­tin­ue to be long after ours. But what, exact­ly, is the rela­tion­ship between plot and sto­ry? We now quote E.M. Forster on the mat­ter, specif­i­cal­ly a line from his Aspects of the Nov­el — a book for which Ten Mil­lion Pho­to­play Plots’ first read­ers would have to wait eight more years.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Decod­ing the Screen­plays of The Shin­ing, Moon­rise King­dom & The Dark Knight: Watch Lessons from the Screen­play

10 Tips on How to Write a Great Screen­play from Bil­ly Wilder: Pearls of Wis­dom from the Direc­tor of Sun­set Boule­vard, Some Like It Hot, Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty & More

Ray­mond Chan­dler: There’s No Art of the Screen­play in Hol­ly­wood

Aaron Sorkin, Cre­ator of The West Wing & The Social Net­work, Teach­es Screen­writ­ing in an Online Class

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (6)
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  • Bob says:

    I think that’s been mis­sun­der­stood. 37 are the sit­u­a­tions, the sto­ries are the many pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of that 37 sce­nar­ies, this is, mil­lions of pos­si­ble sto­ries. That’s how I under­stood that, in fact the title says clear­ly: “10 mil­lion pho­to­play plots”, and even this, I doubt about there are only 37 sce­nar­ies. In a cen­tu­ry the human­i­ty evolved a lot, dis­coverd­ed thou­sands things and invent­ed oth­er thou­sand, so that num­ber has increased for sure. Greet­ings.

  • BPP says:

    There are only 3 pos­si­ble sto­ries in the world:
    ‑man vs man
    ‑man vs nature
    ‑man vs him­self

    Every sto­ry in the world is one of these or a com­bi­na­tion of them.

  • Alan Tower says:

    Where do women fit in?

  • Mapi says:

    The Lion King fits in num­ber 10: Inspir­ing Sit­u­a­tions — Sac­ri­fice of one’s self for an ide­al.

  • Framls says:

    Man V. AI.

    This is the next fron­tier.

  • Alaine says:

    “Mankind” includes women… Don’t be pedan­tic now.

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