36 Plots and Mad Max

My husband and I watch a lot of action and superhero movies. Did I mention that he’s 10? A suggestion that we watch something with an actual plot earns the “Really? Do I have to?” face.


Well, I’m a good sport, so last night we watched the latest Mad Max Fury Something or Another. I shouldn’t say it doesn’t have a plot, because of course it does (spoiler alert):

Car chase
Loner Hero Captured
Car chase
Loner Hero Escapes
Loner Hero Helps Beautiful Woman Save Beautiful Women
Car Chase
Car Chase 
Car Chase
Bad Guys Killed

I know, you’re shocked! Who would have thought?

In the early 19th century, Georges Polti compiled a list of 36 dramatic situations after studying Greek and French literature. Shorter lists also exist, but Polti’s outline has endured to this day. I have difficulty thinking of a story that isn’t a spin on one of his basic formulas.

The idea for this post rose from my “comment chat” with Carrie from The Write Transition on one of my posts Gardeners and Architects. She astutely noted that one key to breaking free of formula-writing is great characters. And she’s right – compelling characters can save a been-there-done-that plot.

I added unique setting as another factor (I’m a fantasy writer after all), but ANY opportunity to diverge from our readers’ expectations is worth serious consideration. Otherwise, were just churning out The Same Old Stories, right? Think of Pocahontas and Avatar…same plot, fresh take!

As I typed out the list below, I reminisced about the books I’ve loved. Each one contains an overarching plot complemented by a combination of subplots that wove a more complex tapestry for the reader. To think that millions of unique stories originated from such a small collections of human scenarios is pretty mind-boggling.


Here are those 36 dramatic situations compliments of Wikipedia with my simple examples:

  1. Petition/Supplication 
    • A village is subject to a ruthless lord. The people ask the king to remove him. The king makes a judgment.
  2. Deliverance 
    • The townsfolk are threatened by the undead and the protagonists must rescue them.
  3. Revenge
    • A protagonist seeks revenge for a wrong, is the object of revenge, or is caught up in someone else’s plot for revenge.
  4. Vengeance by Family upon Family 
    • Feuding families. Romeo and JulietWest Side Story.
  5. Pursuit 
    • The Fugitive,  Mad Max.
  6. Disaster 
    • Towering Inferno. Titanic. San Andreas. 
  7. Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune
    • A common theme for Greek tragedy with Fate or Destiny being a source for somebody’s woes.
  8. Revolt 
    • Star Wars, Dune, Julius Caesar. Any historical revolution.
  9. Daring Enterprise 
    • Protagonists go on a quest to an enchanted island to defeat monsters and/or find a treasure.
  10. Abduction 
    • Save the princess, prince, or ransom victim.
  11. Enigma 
    • Most mysteries. Also the wise mentor who poses a riddle that the protagonist must solve.
  12. Obtaining 
    • Raiders of the Lost Ark. Romancing the Stone. A protagonist’s party is continually competing against a rival group for the coveted object.
  13. Familial Hatred 
    • The conspiracy and consequences of such hatred.
  14. Familial Rivalry 
    • The daughters of King Lear fighting over who should inherit the land. Two brothers battling over a woman.
  15. Murderous Adultery 
    • One or both adulterers plot to kill a betrayed spouse who stands in the way.
  16. Madness 
    • A common plot in horror and thrillers where the protagonist must escape the madman.
  17. Fatal Imprudence 
    • The general’s ignorance or arrogance leads to the destruction of his forces.
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love 
    • The boyfriend kills his partner’s father and is seen in the act by a blackmailer.
  19. Slaying of kin unrecognized 
    • Stephen kills Amanda, failing to recognize they’re siblings. Generally identities are hidden.
  20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal 
    • The wizard sacrifices his life or his magic to rid the world of evil and bring lasting peace.
  21. Self-sacrifice for kin 
    • A ballet dancer gives up her dreams of the stage to provide for an ill sibling.
  22. All sacrificed for passion 
    • A prince gives up his royal inheritance to marry a commoner.
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
    • Sophie’s Choice. Sophie must sacrifice one child or she will lose both.
  24. Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
    • An underdog faces a more powerful rival.
  25. Adultery 
    • Will and Angela conspire against Connie, the deceived spouse.
  26. Crimes of love 
    • A mob boss ruthlessly destroys a whole family and the boss’s disillusioned wife decides to leave him.
  27. Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one 
    • A boy learns his best friend has stolen a bicycle. A king learns his sister dabbles in dark magic which will destroy the royal family.
  28. Obstacles to love 
    • Two lovers, driven apart by obstacles, overcome those obstacles to come together or remain together.
  29. An enemy loved 
    • Romeo & Juliet. Enemy Mine. An enemy soldier is beloved by one of two allies and hated by the other.
  30. Ambition 
    • A girl overcomes shyness to win a singing contest. The dragon riders desire to take over the kingdom and are opposed by the king’s guard.
  31. Conflict with a god 
    • Hercules, Clash of the Titans, Immortals
  32. Mistaken jealousy 
    • Othello is purposefully led to believe that his innocent wife is cheating on him and he strangles her.
  33. Erroneous judgment 
    • Sandra’s necklace is stolen. Alexandra has always admired the necklace so Sandra assumes she stole it. It is ultimately revealed that Sandra’s husband took the necklace to have matching earrings made.
  34. Remorse
    • The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life, Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Story.
  35. Recovery of a lost one 
    • Rescuers search for lost skiers in the mountains. Protagonists seeks the sacred amulet that will restore the kingdom.
  36. Loss of Loved Ones 
    • The killing of a teenager by a gang member is witnessed by the victim’s sister.

What do you think? Can you think of a story that doesn’t fit the mold?


Images compliments of Flickr.com

68 thoughts on “36 Plots and Mad Max

  1. […] a way, most stories are “retellings.” There are only so many plots. I posted once about George Ponti’s 36 “dramatic situations” but I’ve seen plots distilled down to 3: Man versus Nature, Man versus Man, and Man versus […]


  2. […] us, ranging from 4 (man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. himself) to Polti’s 36 (here’s the list). But we can all agree that the number we have to work with is […]


  3. […] What sort of dramatic situation is your story about? You may be surprised to discover there are only so many types of plot. Want some ideas, check out this great post with examples. 36 Plots and Mad Max […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I suppose there is “Literary/French” (depending on whether it’s a book or a film). Nothing happens for ages, but it’s a beautiful nothing, and then everybody dies. Surely this is worthy of inclusion.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Susan Langer says:

    Great list to know for my future short story or novel…when I have time to write it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Erik says:

    I read through the list twice, and I do seem to come up with a plot that would be a stretch to really consider part of any of these categories. I guess, without giving it too much analysis, I’d call it “Forgiveness / Understanding.” In this plot, characters undergo a transformation whereby they are faced with whether or not to forgive or at least better understand someone who does not deserve it, with the catalyst usually being serious accident, illness or imminent death. The misfortune usually garners obligation first, then resentment, then pity, and finally either forgiveness or increased understanding. One take on this is that others are faced with forgiving the injured or ill person. Another is that the injured or ill person gains a deeper understanding of him/herself and must work through self-forgiveness. Examples would be One True Thing with Meryl Streep, or The Doctor with William Hurt. These stories are not about the ill person facing the “nemesis” of the illness, but rather how that becomes a catalyst for perspective changes in others or the afflicted person. Likewise, they aren’t about family hatred (though that may be a starting point; more often estrangement, emotional distance or tension).

    Anyway, it’s late. I might have missed a listed category into which such stories fit without forcing. But at least it’ll maybe it’ll liven the discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would put this one under Redemption perhaps. ?? Don’t stay up too late thinking about this, Erik! 😀 😀 I’m glad it was interesting and got you thinking. Are you considering a stint at fiction? That would be crazy fun.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        Yes! I commented on a previous post wherein people were invited to leave … I forget … maybe the third page third paragraph third sentence and surrounding (or something like that), which was from a fantasy novel I’ve started, called The Lute.

        Re: the categorization of such story lines under “Remorse,” characters usually don’t feel remorse. They simply gain understanding that allows them to accept and forgive the previous bad choices of another. For instance, in One True Thing, family members do not feel remorse for the wedge driver with their mother; they simply begin to see her as human and fallible as her illness progresses. Nor does the mother feel remorse; she only begins to show vulnerability and allow others to help her as she ails, having always been one who needed control.

        I can see remorse in The Doctor. But there are other stories in which remorse isn’t a theme or driving force, but rather a development of character where people understand themselves and others and become more accepting and/or vulnerable due to crisis.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Redemption is different from remorse, for me anyway. It can be the act of opening to seeing things in a new way, growing beyond the limitations of past perceptions or ways of being. Characters can be redeemers or redeemed through understanding and/or forgiveness. The opening of the heart seems key. 🙂 A fun discussion!

          Liked by 1 person

          • philipparees says:

            I have had to contemplate remorse, forgiveness and redemption a great deal. To me true forgiveness shared between the wronged and the perpetrator does need remorse which is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was so powerful, and also dangerous. Those who defended their actions increased the hostility and those that openly wept out their guilt left redemption for both parties in its wake. So I suppose redemption is a reconciliation that embraces both the injured and the injurer at a higher level. Something Divine takes over after forgiveness.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks a really helpful list. I’m like you I enjoy a twisting plot that keeps you guessing to the end but I did enjoy the mad max film, just don’t tell anyone.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I was unaware of Polti’s list, but loved it. Still, it’s too detailed. As I argue in http://nicholasrossis.me/2014/03/26/the-one-story-how-to-write-your-book-summary/ , there is really only one kind of story; the quest.

    A quest for true love. A quest for treasure. A quest for a new planet. A quest to capture someone. A quest to win the war. A quest to survive in the face of a storm, or ghost, or enemy.

    Hero wants something. Something prevents him for having it. Hero struggles. It’s always a quest. THE quest.

    All the rest, it can be argued, is dressing-up 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. ruthgjuliano says:

    That was thoroughly enjoyable. A movie that doesn’t fit the mould? Hmm, I’ve seen some pretty weird movies… 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Reblogged this on The Writing Chimp and commented:
    Nice list of dramatic plot situations! My current WIP sits in revenge category. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. hsampson says:

    Wow thanks for the list D! And for the “plot!” you save me from watching Mad Max! lol

    Liked by 2 people

  12. This is fascinating! I had never heard of this list. I will probably find myself analyzing all stories in the near future.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Well, if I did come across a book that didn’t fit this mold, it would probably be too boring to finish. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Jed Jurchenko says:

    Great list, and it’s fun to see it laid out like this. I’ve written non-fiction, self-help, thus far, but would love to try my hand a fiction one day. Maybe in a Who Moved My Cheese, type of fiction, self-help combo.

    Can I add an additional category of “mindnumbingly painful” to the list? I usually try to keep things positive, but watching Redbox’s Pixies, with my girls last week was an entirely new experience. I’m sure that it could be squeezed into one of the other categories, but I think mine might be more appropriate 🙂

    Thanks for the excellent tools for this fiction writer in the works!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think I’ll skip Redbox Pixies and anything in the “mindnumbingly painful” category. Ha ha. I’m afraid, Jed, that the list has nothing to do with quality. 🙂 Fiction is great fun and it’s fairly common to embed all kinds of messages in the story including the process of becoming a healthier human. Of course you’ll have to find the time between watching movies with your daughters 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  15. balroop2013 says:

    I have seen a movie or read a book based on each one of the themes listed here! You have organised and worded them so well! Your mold is a complete whole.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Cate Macabe says:

    I’ve never seen the complete list–thanks for sharing! I recognize several plots from my own writing, and I agree that characters and setting will separate our stories from the same old thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the comment, Cate. 🙂 In pulling this together, I noticed some plots/subplots that repeat in my work even though I think of my books as all quite different. Then there are plenty where I’ve never ventured.


  17. Carrie Rubin says:

    I can’t think of any to add, but actually, when put into a list like that, it seems our plot creations could be endless. Look at me seeing the glass half-full for once. 😉

    Thank you for the mention! As for Mad Max Fury Road, I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll probably get the DVD from Redbox and give it a go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I actually agree, Carrie, that the nuances, twists, and combinations of plots/subplots do seem to multiply our options exponentially. Then we add all the other variables that make up a story… the glass is more than half-full with a little effort 🙂

      We saw Mad Max on pay per view (worth the $4.99). You’re welcome for the mention 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  18. Arrrrgh, my gray hair hurts! I’ve tried to mix in a bit of this ‘n that in my fiction. SINK RATE (due out next month) has our hero chasing bad guys (very bad guys) but there are girl distractions along the way. ROPE BREAK (due out February ’16) has the damsel in distress but with a twist and SIDE SLIP (later in ’16) is a triple play of lady cop chasing bad guy – good guy turned bad – good guy stalked by really, really bad guys fun. Can’t wait to sample some more of the others in future fiction. Ain’t this writing thing just a double scoop of grins?

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Such a comprehensive list…wow ! And I love your spoiler alert for Mad Max, etc. etc. etc. and I might add “things get blown up” to describe most modern action movies. ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  20. gina amos says:

    This was really interesting. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  21. philipparees says:

    Very much Apropos this question of story and what makes a great one, I have never read a more inspiring analysis, of direct practical help to writers of story than James Bonnet’s ‘Stealing Fire From the Gods’. If you read nothing else read this!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for the recommendation, Philippa. It sounds fascinating. I’d like to learn more about what’s goes into wrting the great stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      • philipparees says:

        In a nutshell it seems that the great stories are shaped by the universal recognition of the hero’s up-journey ( or the antihero’s down-journey) which is also the story of our own subconscious memory of having made that journey and therefore recognising all the elements that impede, resist, block or foster and facilitate. These are our characters, the archetypes we know and battle within. What makes the book brilliant is showing how to harness them!

        I must get around to reviewing it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It sounds Jungian and I like the concept of collective subconscious and universal archetypes. I haven’t done most of the things in my books, but I feel like I tap into the human experiences regardless. How to better harness that knowledge in writing would be worth the read. 🙂


  22. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Great information.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Annika Perry says:

    Hmm…that’s a challenge, still musing over films and books which I think are an exception but then fit into one of the slots. Not giving up yet though.😀

    Liked by 2 people

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