36 plot ideas

36 Fiction Plots 

“Gozzi maintained that there can be but thirty-six tragic situations. Schiller took great pains to find more, but he was unable to find even so many as Gozzi.” —Goethe

After analyzing classical Greek texts, along with classical and contemporaneous French works, Georges Polti created The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, a list of plots that he believed to be exhaustive.

  1. Supplication Elements: A persecutor, a supplicant, and a power in authority, whose decision is doubtful
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Fugitives imploring the powerful for help against their enemies
      2. Assistance implored for the performance of a pious duty which has been forbidden
      3. Appeals for a refuge in which to die
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Hospitality besought by the shipwrecked
      2. Charity entreated by those cast off by their own people, whom they have disgraced
      3. Expiation: The seeking of pardon, healing, or deliverance
      4. The surrender of a corpse, or of a relic, solicited.
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Supplication of the powerful for those dear to the suppliant.
      2. Supplication to a relative in behalf of another relative
      3. Supplication to a mother’s lover
  2. Deliverance. Elements: An unfortunate, a threatener, a rescuer (the reverse of Supplication)
    1. Subgroup A: Appearance of a rescuer to the condemned
    2. Subgroup B
      1. A parent replaced upon a throne by his children
      2. Rescue by friends, or by strangers grateful for benefits or hospitality
  3. Crime pursued by vengeance. Elements: An avenger and a criminal
    1. Subgroup A
      1. The avenging of a slain parent or ancestor
      2. The Avenging of a slain child or descendant
      3. Vengeance for a child dishonored
      4. The avenging of a slain wife or husband
      5. Vengeance for the dishonor, or attempted dishonoring, of a wife
      6. Vengeance for a mistress slain
      7. Vengeance for a slain or injured friend
      8. Vengeance for a sister seduced
    2. Subgroup B
    3. Vengeance for intentional injury or spoliation
    4. Vengeance for having been despoiled during absence
    5. Revenge for an attempted slaying
    6. Revenge for a false accusation
    7. Vengeance for violation
    8. Vengeance for having been robbed of one’s own
    9. Revenge upon a whole sex for a deception by one
    10. Subgroup C: Professional pursuit of criminals
  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred. Elements: Avenging kinsman; guilty kinsman; remembrance of the victim; a relative of both.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. A father’s death avenged upon a mother
      2. A mother avenged upon a father
    2. Subgroup B: A brother’s death avenged upon a son (but without premeditation)
    3. Subgroup C: A father’s death: avenged upon a husband
    4. Subgroup D: A husband’s death avenged upon a father
  5. Pursuit. Elements: Punishment and Fugitive
    1. Subgroup A: Fugitives from justice pursued for brigandage, political offenses, etc.
    2. Subgroup B: Pursued for a fault of love
    3. Subgroup C: A hero struggling against power
    4. Subgroup D: A pseudo-madman struggling against an Iago-like alienist
  6. Disaster. Elements: A vanquished power; a victorious enemy or a messenger
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Defeat suffered
      2. A fatherland destroyed
      3. The fall of humanity
      4. A natural catastrophe
    2. Subgroup B: A monarch overthrown
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Ingratitude suffered
      2. The suffering of unjust punishment or enmity
      3. An outrage suffered
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Abandonment by a lover or a husband
      2. Children lost by their parents
  7. Falling prey to cruelty or misfortune. Elements: An unfortunate; a master or a misfortune
    1. Subgroup A: The innocent made the victim of ambitious intrigue
    2. Subgroup B: The innocent despoiled by those who should protect
    3. Subgroup C
      1. The powerful dispossessed and wretched
      2. A favorite or an intimate finds himself forgotten
    4. Subgroup D: The unfortunate robbed of their only hope
  8. Revolt. Elements: Tyrant and conspirator
    1. Subgroup A
      1. A conspiracy chiefly of one individual
      2. A conspiracy of several
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Revolt of one individual, who influences and involves others
      2. A revolt of many
  9. Daring enterprise. Elements: A bold leader; an object; an adversary
    1. Subgroup A: Preparations for war
    2. Subgroup B
      1. War
      2. A combat
    3. Subgroup C
      1.  Carrying off a desired person or object
      2. Recapture of a desired object
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Adventurous expeditions
      2. Adventure undertaken for the purpose of obtaining a beloved woman
  10. Abduction. Elements: The abduction; the abductor; the guardian
    1. Subgroup A: Abduction of an unwilling woman
    2. Subgroup B: Abduction of a consenting woman
    3. Subgroup B
      1. Recapture of the woman without the slaying of the abductor
      2. The same case, with the slaying of the ravisher
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Rescue of a captive friend
      2. Rescue of a captive child
      3. Rescue of a soul in captivity to error
  11. The Enigma. Elements: Interrogator, seeker, and problem
    1. Subgroup A: Search for a person who must be found on pain of death
    2. Subgroup B
      1. A riddle to be solved on pain of death
      2. The same case, in which the riddle is proposed by the coveted woman. The effect of this one is augmented in cases in which the hero is subjected to the following:
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Temptations offered with the object of discovering his name
      2. Temptations offered with the object of ascertaining the sex
      3. Tests for the purpose of ascertaining the mental condition
  12. Obtaining. Elements: A solicitor and an adversary who is refusing, or an arbitrator and opposing parties
    1. Subgroup A: Efforts to obtain an object by ruse of force
    2. Subgroup B: Endeavor by means of persuasive eloquence alone
    3. Subgroup C: Eloquence with an arbitrator
  13. Enmity of kinsmen. Elements: A malevolent kinsman; a hated or reciprocally hating kinsmen
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Hatred of brothers/one brother hated by many brothers
      2. Reciprocal hatred
      3. Hatred between relatives for reasons of self-interest
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Hatred of a son for a father/father for a son
      2. Mutual hatred
      3. Hatred of daughter for father
    3. Subgroup C: Hatred of grandfather for grandson
    4. Subgroup D: Hatred of father-in-law for son-in-law
    5. Subgroup E: Hatred of mother-in-law for daughter-in-law
    6. Subgroup F: Infanticide
  14. Rivalry of kinsmen. Elements: The preferred kinsman; the rejected kinsman; the object (desired person).
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Malicious rivalry of a brother
      2. Malicious rivalry of two brothers
      3. Rivalry of two brothers with adultery on the part of one
      4. Rivalry of sisters
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Rivalry of father and son for an unmarried woman
      2. Rivalry of father and son for a married woman
      3. Case similar to the two foregoing, but in which the object is already the wife of the father.
      4. Rivalry of mother and daughter
    3.  Subgroup C: Rivalry of cousins
    4. Subgroup D: Rivalry of friends
  15. Murderous adultery. Elements: Two adulterers; a betrayed husband or wife.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. The slaying of a husband by, or for, a paramour (lover)
      2. The slaying of a trusting lover
    2. Subgroup B: The slaying of a wife for a paramour (lover) and in self-interest
  16. Madness. Elements: Madman and victim.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Kinsmen slain in madness
      2. A lover slain in madness
      3. Slaying or injuring of a person not hated
    2. Subgroup B: Disgrace brought upon oneself through madness
    3. Subgroup C: Loss of loved ones brought about by madness
    4. Subgroup D: Madness brought on by fear of hereditary insanity
  17. Fatal imprudence. Elements: The imprudent; the victim or the object lost.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Imprudence the cause of one’s own misfortune
      2. Imprudence the cause of one’s own dishonor
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Curiosity the cause of one’s own misfortune
      2. Loss of the possession of a loved one through curiosity
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Curiosity the cause of death or misfortune of others
      2. Imprudence the cause of a relative’s death
      3. Imprudence the cause of a lover’s death
      4. Credulity the cause of kinsmen’s death
  18.  Involuntary crimes of love. Elements: The lover; the beloved; the revealer.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Discovery that one has married one’s mother
      2. Discovery that one has had a sister as mistress
    2.  Subgroup
      1. Discovery that one has married one’s sister
      2. The same case, in which the crime has been villainously planned by a third person
      3. Being upon the point of taking a sister, unknowingly, as mistress
    3. Subgroup C: Being upon the point of violating, unknowingly, a daughter
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Being upon the point of committing an adultery unknowingly
      2. Adultery committed unknowingly
  19. Slaying of a kinsman unrecognized. Elements: The slayer; the unrecognized victim.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Being upon the point of slaying a daughter unknowingly, by command of a divinity or an oracle
      2. Through political necessity
      3. Through a rivalry in love
      4. Through hatred of the lover of the unrecognized daughter
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Being upon the point of killing a son unknowingly
      2. The same case strengthened by Machiavellian instigations
      3. The same case intermixed with hatred of kinsmen
    3. Subgroup C: Being upon the point of slaying a brother unknowingly
    4. Subgroup D: Slaying of a mother unrecognized
    5. Subgroup E: A father slain unknowingly, through Machiavellian advice
    6. Subgroup F
      1. A grandfather slain unknowingly, in vengeance and through instigation
      2. Slain involuntarily
      3. A father-in-law killed involuntarily
    7. Subgroup G
      1. Involuntary killing of a loved woman
      2. Being upon the point of killing a lover unrecognized
      3. Failure to rescue an unrecognized son
  20. Self-sacrificing for an ideal. Elements: The hero; the ideal; the “creditor” or the person or thing sacrificed.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Sacrifice of life for the sake of one’s word
      2. Life sacrificed for the success of one’s people
      3. Life sacrificed in filial piety
      4. Life sacrificed for the sake of one’s faith
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Both love and life sacrificed for one’s faith
      2. Both love and life sacrificed for a cause
      3. Love sacrificed to interests of state
    3. Subgroup C: Sacrifice of well-being to destiny
    4. Subgroup D: the ideal of “honor” sacrificed to the ideal of “Faith”
  21. Self-sacrifice for kindred. Elements: The hero; the kinsman; the “Creditor” or the person or thing sacrificed.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Life sacrificed for that of a relative or a loved one
      2. Life sacrificed for the happiness of a relative or a loved one
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Ambition sacrificed for the happiness of a parent
      2. Ambition sacrificed for the life of a parent
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Love sacrificed for the sake of a parent’s life
      2. Love sacrificed for the happiness of one’s child
      3. Love sacrificed for the happiness of one’s child, but caused by unjust laws
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Life and honor sacrificed for the life of a parent or a loved one
      2. Modesty sacrificed for the life of a relative or a loved one
  22. All sacrificed for a passion. Elements: The lover; the object of the fatal passion; the person or thing sacrificed.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Religious vows of chastity broken for a passion
      2. A vow of purity broken
      3. A future ruined by a passion
      4. Power ruined by a passion
      5.  Ruin of mind, health and life
      6. Ruin of fortunes, lives and honors
    2. Subgroup B: Destroying the sense of duty, of pity, etc.
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Destruction of honor, fortune and life by erotic vice
      2. The same effect produced by other vice
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones. Elements: The hero; the beloved victim; the necessity for the sacrifice
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Necessity for sacrificing a daughter in the public interest
      2. Duty of sacrificing her in fulfillment of a vow to god
      3. Duty of sacrificing benefactors or loved ones to one’s faith
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Duty of sacrificing one’s child, unknown to others, under the pressure of necessity
      2. Duty of sacrificing under the same circumstances, one’s father
      3. Duty of sacrificing, under the same circumstances, one’s husband
      4. Duty of sacrificing a son-in-law for the public good
      5. Duty of contending with a brother-in-law for the public good
      6. Duty of contending with a friend
  24. Rivalry of superior and inferior. Elements: The superior rival; the inferior rival; the object
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Masculine rivalry of a mortal and an immortal
      2.  – of a magician and an ordinary man
      3. – of conqueror and conquered
      4.  – of suzerain (sovereign) king and vassal kings
      5. – of a king and noble
      6. – of a powerful person and an upstart
      7. – of rich and poor
      8. – of an honored man and a suspected one
      9.  – of two who are almost equal
      10. – of equals, one of whom has in the past been guilty of adultery
      11. – of a man who is loved and one who has not the right to love
      12.  – of the two successive husbands of a divorcee
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Feminine rivalries of a sorceress and an ordinary woman
      2. – of victor and prisoner
      3. – of queen and subject
      4.  – of a queen and a slave
      5. – of lady and servant
      6. – of a lady and a woman of humbler position
      7. – of two who are almost equals complicated by the abandonment of one
      8. – between a memory or an ideal (that of a superior woman) and a vassal of her own
      9.  – of mortal and immortal
    3. Subgroup C: Double rivalry
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Oriental rivalry of two immortals (Note: Polti is speaking of Asian and Indian narratives – JW)
      2. – of two mortals
      3. – of two lawful wives
  25. Adultery. Elements: A deceived husband or wife; two adulterers.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. A mistress betrayed for a young woman
      2. – for a young wife
      3. – for a girl
    2. Subgroup B
      1. A wife betrayed for a slave, who does not love in return
      2. – for debauchery
      3. – for a married woman
      4.  – with the intention of bigamy
      5.  – for a young girl, who does not love in return
      6. A wife envied by a young girl who is in love with her husband
      7. By a courtesan
      8. Rivalry between a lawful wife who is antipathetic and a mistress who is congenial
      9. Between a generous wife and an impassioned girl
    3. Subgroup C
      1. An antagonistic husband sacrificed for a congenial lover
      2. A husband believed to be lost, forgotten for a rival
      3. A commonplace husband sacrificed for a sympathetic lover
      4. A good husband betrayed for an inferior rival
      5. For a grotesque rival
      6. For an odious rival
      7. For a commonplace rival, by a perverse wife
      8. For a rival less handsome, but useful
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Vengeance of a deceived husband
      2. Jealousy sacrificed for the sake of a cause
    5. Subgroup E: A husband persecuted by a rejected rival
  1. Crimes of love. Elements: The lover; the beloved.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. A mother in love with her son
      2. A daughter in love with her father
      3. Violation of a daughter by a father
    2. Subgroup B
      1. A woman enamored of her stepson
      2. A woman and her stepson enamored of each other
      3. A woman being the mistress, at the same time, of a father and a son, both of whom accept the situation
    3. Subgroup C
      1. A man becomes the lover of his sister-in-law
      2. A brother and sister in love with each other
    4. Subgroup D: A man enamored of another man, who yields
    5. Subgroup E: A woman enamored of a bull (!)
  2. Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Discover of a mother’s shame
      2. Discovery of a father’s shame
      3. Discovery of a daughter’s dishonor
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Discovery of a dishonor in the family of one’s fiancée
      2. Discover that one’s wife has been violated before marriage
      3. That she has previously committed a fault
      4. Discovery that one’s wife has formerly been a prostitute
      5. Discovery of dishonor on the part of a lover
      6. Discovery that one’s mistress, formerly a prostitute, has returned to her old life
      7. Discovery that one’s lover is a scoundrel, or that one’s mistress is a woman of bad character
      8. The same discovery concerning one’s wife
    3. Subgroup C: Discovery that one’s son is an assassin
    4. Subgroup D
      1. Duty of punishing a son condemned under a law which the father has made
      2. Duty of punishing a son believed to be guilty
      3. Duty of sacrificing, to fulfill a vow of tyrannicide, a father until then unknown (Think Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader – JW)
      4. Duty of punishing a brother who is an assassin
      5. Duty of punishing one’s mother to avenge one’s father
  3. Obstacles to love. Elements: Two lovers; an obstacle.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Marriage prevented by inequality of rank
      2. Inequality of fortune an impediment to marriage
    2. Subgroup B: Marriage prevented by enemies and contingent obstacles
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Marriage forbidden on account of the young woman’s previous betrothal to another
      2. The same case, complicated by an imaginary marriage of the beloved object
    4. Subgroup D
      1. A free union impeded by the opposition of relatives
      2. Family affection disturbed by the parents-in-law
      3. Subgroup E: By the incompatibility of temper of the lovers
  4. An enemy loved. Elements: The beloved enemy; the lover; the hater.
    1. Subgroup A: The loved one hated by kinsmen or a lover
      1. The lover pursued by the brothers of his beloved
      2. The lover hated by the family of his beloved
      3. The lover is the son of a man hated by the kinsmen of his beloved
      4. The beloved is an enemy of the party of the woman who loves him
    2. Subgroup B
      1. The lover is the slayer of the father of his beloved
      2. The beloved is the slayer of the father of her lover
      3. The beloved is the slayer of the brother of her lover
      4. The beloved is the slayer of the husband of the woman who loves him, but who has previously sworn to avenge that husband
      5. The same case, except that a lover, instead of a husband, has been slain
      6. The beloved is the slayer of a kinsman of the woman who loves him
      7. The beloved is the daughter of the slayer of her lovers father
  5. Ambition. Elements: An ambitious person; a thing coveted; an adversary.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Ambition watched and guarded against by a kinsman or a patriot friend
      2. By a relative or a person under obligation
      3. By partisans
    2. Subgroup B: Rebellious ambition
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Ambition and covetousness heaping crime upon crime
      2. Parricidal ambition
  6. Conflict with a God. Elements: A mortal; an immortal.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Struggle against a deity
      2. Strife with the believers in a god
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Controversy with a deity
      2. Punishment for contempt of a god
      3. Punishment for pride before a god
      4. Presumptuous rivalry with a god
      5. Imprudent rivalry with a deity
  7. 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.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. The mistake originates in the suspicious mind of the jealous one
      2. Mistaken jealousy aroused by a fatal chance
      3. Mistaken jealousy of a love which is purely Platonic
      4. Baseless jealously aroused by malicious rumors
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Jealousy suggested by a traitor who is moved by hatred
      2. The same case, in which the traitor is moved by self-interest
      3. The same case, in which the traitor is moved by jealousy and self-interest
    3. Subgroup C
      1. Reciprocal jealousy suggested to husband and wife by a rival
      2. Jealousy suggested to the husband by a dismissed suitor
      3. Jealousy suggested to the husband by a woman who is in love with him
      4. Jealousy suggested to the wife by a scorned rival
      5. Jealousy suggested to a happy lover by the deceived husband
  8.  Erroneous judgment. Elements: The mistaken one; the victim of the mistake; the cause or author of the mistake; the guilty person.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. False suspicion where faith is necessary
      2. False suspicion of a mistress
      3. False suspicions aroused by a misunderstood attitude of a loved one
      4. By indifference
    2. Subgroup B
      1. False suspicions drawn upon oneself to save a friend
      2. They fall upon the innocent
      3. The same case, but in which the innocent had a guilty intention
      4. A witness to the crime, in the interest of a loved one, lets accusation fall upon the innocent
    3. Subgroup C
      1. The accusation is allowed to fall upon an enemy
      2. The error is provoked by an enemy
      3. The mistake is directed against the victim by her brother
    4. Subgroup D
      1. False suspicion thrown by the real culprit upon one of his enemies
      2. Thrown by the real culprit upon the second victim against whom he has plotted from the beginning
      3. False suspicion thrown upon a rival
      4. Thrown upon one innocent, because hw has refused to be an accomplice
      5. Thrown by a deserted mistress upon a lover who left her because he would not deceive her husband.
      6. Struggle to rehabilitate oneself and to avenge a judicial error purposely caused.
  9. Remorse. Elements: The culprit; the victim or the sin; the interrogator.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Remorse for an unknown crime
      2. Remorse for a patricide
      3. Remorse for an assassination
      4. Remorse for the murder of husband or wife
    2. Subgroup B
      1. Remorse for a fault of a love
      2. Remorse for an adultery
  10. Recovery of a lost one. Elements: the seeker; the one found.
  11. Loss of loved ones. Elements: A kinsman slain; a kinsman spectator; an executioner.
    1. Subgroup A
      1. Witnessing the slaying of a kinsman, while powerless to prevent it
      2. Helping to bring misfortune upon one’s people through professional secrecy
    2. Subgroup B: Divining the death of a loved one
    3. Subgroup C: Learning of the death of a kinsman or ally
    4. Subgroup D: Relapse into primitive baseness, through despair on learning of the death of a loved one.


Georges Polti, The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations (The Editor Company: Ridgewood, New Jersey, 1916.)

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist