“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 good and well for the author of War and Peace, but what about the thousands of writers struggling to come up with the next story?
The many aspirants looking to write their way can turn to a 1919 manual called Ten Million Photoplay Plots by Wycliff Aber Hill. 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 can be broken down into more specific story plots.
(2) Lost loved ones recovered.
(3) A miracle of God.
(5) Love’s obstacles.
(6) Rivalry between unequals.
(7) Rivalry between kinsmen.
(8) A mystery.
(9) Loving an enemy.
(10) Sacrifice of one’s self for an ideal.
(11) Sacrifice of one’s self for kindred (or friend).
DISASTROUS SITUATIONS PRECIPITATED WITHOUT CRIMINAL INTENT
(12) Possessed of an ambition.
(13) Fatal indiscretion.
(16) Enmity between kinsmen.
(17) Effort to obtain.
(18) Daring effort.
(20) Kindred avenged against kindred.
(21) Mistaken jealousy.
(22) Involuntary criminal love.
DISASTROUS SITUATIONS PRECIPITATED WITH CRIMINAL INTENT
(23) Struggle against God.
(25) To sacrifice all for a passion.
(27) Adultery with murder.
(28) Criminal love.
TRAGIC SITUATIONS OVER WHICH THE VICTIM HAS NO CONTROL
(29) Loved ones lost.
(30) Falling a prey.
(32) An innocent suspected.
(33) Obligation to sacrifice loved ones.
(34) To learn of the dishonour of a loved one.
(35) Mental derangement.
(36) To kill a kinsman or friend before recognition.
- There Are Only 37 Possible Stories, According to This 1919 Manual for Screenwriters (Open Culture)
- The 37 Basic Plots, According to a Screenwriter of the Silent-Film Era (Slate)
- Ten Million Photoplay Plots (uploaded to Scribd by Rebecca Onion)
- Photoplay plot encyclopedia (1922 by Palmer, Frederick)