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