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The Thirty-Seven Basic Plots, According to a Screenwriter of the Silent Film Era (slate.com)
171 points by samclemens on Oct 27, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

One movie I've always had a hard time categorizing is Groundhog Day. I went through the 37 plots listed and still don't see a good match. Does achieving enlightenment count as a plot?

A second reply, because this is about the movie Groundhog Day and not the topic at hand.

Something that really bugs me about most people's references to the movie is that they grossly miss the point. When most people reference it they refer to something about their dull repetitive life, or being stuck in a rut. But that's not what happens in the movie.

He literally experiences the same thing for hundreds of days to hundreds of years (depending on interpretation). But something happens, he realizes the numerous opportunities present in this same, repeated, "uneventful" day. Sure, the daily grind of wake, commute, work, commute, dinner, TV, sleep, repeat is dull and repetitive. But unlike Phil, we don't have an infinite number of times to do this before we learn our lesson and change our approach. We get 100 years on the outside, 60 productive years for most of us. Even if you're doing the same thing each day, how do you spend the rest of your time? If it's living for the weekend, that's 5 evenings a week you've wasted. Fill it with time with family, friends, learning, hobbies, something. Become the best person you can be, because one day the repetition will end.

What will you have to show for it? Will you have just worked yourself to death and memorized every line of Star Wars, or will you be making ice sculptures with a chainsaw?

Why do I need to show anything for it?

That's a serious question; if I like working and enjoy memorising Star Wars, why shouldn't I do that? Why can't I focus my life around the things I enjoy doing, rather than concentrating on all the things which I could be doing (but can't do, because of any number of reasons) and end up miserable and feeling like I'm wasting my life?

If that's what you enjoy, that's fine. But many people don't really enjoy their work, it's just work. What they enjoy is done on the weekends or holidays. How many people waste 2 or 3 hours commuting each day, time away from the family they ostensibly want to be with, for work, and then lament, when their children are grown, missing out on those years?

If Star Wars and your job are the things you want to be doing, do them. That's fantastic. If dancing or drawing or rebuilding a jeep are what you want to do, but can't because of work, find some other job or some better way to do your current job.

And don't feel beholden to others to do things or enjoy things because that's what they expect of you. I fucking hate the Star * franchises (or, more accurately, what they've become and their fanbases). But I work with people who love them (in their current incarnations). But in this field (computer programming), everyone thinks I'm weird. Same with video games, I enjoy them to an extent, but I've played them enough to know that I want to do other things. OTOH, don't listen to me if that's what you enjoy and I tell you to stop. If it's what you want to do, do it. But if it's what you want to do, and something in your life is holding you back that you want to change (as opposed to certain obligations, like an SO, that you shouldn't or don't want to change), then find a way to get that time back.

EDIT: Hell. If your work and Star Wars memorization are what you really want. Make that commute work for you. Ride a train and get more work done. Or listen to the movies on your drive. I'm doing that with my current attempt at learning Italian. That's one of the ways people miss the point. The time is there for you to do many (though not all) of the things you want to do now, you just have to realize it and take it back.

EDIT Further: And I guess, with regard to having something to "show" for it. At the end of your life, do you think that you will be happy with how you led it? Did you achieve all, most or even some of your goals? It's not just a result to show to others, but also an internal understanding of where you are and what you have achieved (or not) and why. If I get married and have kids, I probably won't achieve most of the travel I want to in this lifetime. But I'll probably be happy to have made that trade. But if I can't achieve that goal because I decided to work until I was 70, then, for me, that will have been a failure. So I've set myself on a course to avoid that.

> But many people don't really enjoy their work, it's just work.

That's because the threat in our economy is "If you don't work, you don't eat and you will go homeless." And that's a strong motivator to put up with shit at the workplace. Most people aren't wealthy.

Well, that's been more or less the situation for everyone since the beginning of history excepting a very small slice of the population born into or married into a privileged elite class--and not even all of them.

Just because this has been the norm since beginning of civilization, doesn't mean it has to be like that forever. We really do have the technology now to relieve everyone of that burden; we only need more social will (and less referring to Idiocracy, Wall-E and "oh all those people who will be drinking their UBI in front of the TV") and a path through the phase-space of economy.

At the end of your life, do you think that you will be happy with how you led it?

A long time ago on a semi-obscure Internet bulletin board, a regular participant used this tagline to end his postings:

   No apologies, no regrets.
I don't fully agree with that, but it's something to think about as one lives their life.

Put another way...

Will you have just worked yourself to death making ice sculptures with a chainsaw, or will you memorize every line of Star Wars?

Sure. And someone could spend their entire life sitting in front of the tv all day everyday.

Even if - and I'm willing to bet that no mentally healthy individual would ever do that out of their own will - is there something wrong with it? Do we have to keep everyone working when there's no need for that, so that some individuals don't have time to do things we deem unproductive?

Interesting. I mostly agree with your take, but I want to add a wrinkle. What I think Phil had to show for his 'day' was an appreciation that he wasn't alone in the world, and that fulfillment came through helping everyone he could along the way. I think the 'become the best person you can be' part only serves the 'do what you can for others' part, evidenced by the cycle ending on a day where every virtuoso performance, from changing a tire to playing piano, to ice sculpture, was for the benefit of someone else.

Yea I think the change in Phil's character is that he goes from being cold and selfish to warm and caring.

Holy shit broseph, you just converted me to a new film religion... I shall no longer worship The Dude. I shall worship Phil.

Perhaps a combination of "Possessed of an ambition" (his egotistical behavior and treatment of others, producing generally negative situations that he doesn't realize are negative because he can't see beyond himself) combined with "Miracle of God" (the opportunity to redeem himself and finally become the best man he can be).

"Possessed of an ambition" is a weak attempt at listing a basic plot -- you can phrase this equivalently as "having a goal", and it will obviously be present multiple times over in any story at all.

Phil has several ambitions in Groundhog Day, some more closely related to each other than others:

1. get out of Punxsatawney (changes over the course of the film)

2. stop the repetition

3. sleep with Rita (when he finally gets this, the repetition stops!)

4. optimize the day

(3) and (4) are both given quite a lot of screen time and plot focus; (2) is the source of many jokes.

Some other thoughts on the list:

I was surprised to see "Struggle against God" categorized under DISASTROUS SITUATIONS PRECIPITATED WITH CRIMINAL INTENT. I would have put it under TRAGIC SITUATIONS OVER WHICH THE VICTIM HAS NO CONTROL.

"Possessed of an ambition", interpreted as a goal, includes a lot of the other elements (consider "love's obstacles").

The list makes a three-way distinction between "enmity between kinsmen", "vengeance", and "kindred avenged against kindred". A better-thought-out list couldn't do this.

"Struggle against God" (more generalized to any higher power, I suppose) is a choice if it's precipitated with criminal intent. It's not that I'm running from my fate for killing my wife because God has it out for me. I chose to kill my wife, and now God has it out for me. The cause is my own decision and follow through. It's also probably assumed, in this list, that the story's main character would be the loser in this struggle.

Hill's list is plagiarized nearly in whole from Georges Polti's list visible at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Six_Dramatic_Situat... . The original comes with definitions, so we can see that "struggle against God" involves two characters, a Mortal and an Immortal, who "enter a conflict". Obvious exemplars in Greek mythology would be Hercules being born (and thereby coming into conflict with Hera), or Odysseus killing Polyphemus, who was going to eat him (and thereby coming into conflict with Poseidon, who, unknown to Odysseus, was Polyphemus' father).

Where's the criminal intent?

To the earlier discussion, it's probably worth noting that Polti's plot 30, "Ambition" involves a person, an object, and an adversary; the person seeks the object and is opposed by the adversary. Not applicable to Groundhog Day.

Note, these are dramatic situations not plots. Self improvement in not dramatic. So, stealing the money bag was dramatic, pretending to be an old classmate was comedic not dramatic.

Self sacrifice for an ideal was dramatic in the case of catching the kid who fell from a tree, but also played for laughs.

> Note, these are dramatic situations not plots. Self improvement in not dramatic.

Rocky was received pretty well.

Rocky fits:

Daring enterprise a bold leader; an object; an adversary

For me it is the Rebirth: during the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. It is also a Comedy: light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. But these are from "The Seven Basic Plots" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots)

I think you could describe Groundhog Day as the sum of a few of those plots listed.

Yeah. Keeping in mind that this is the list of basic plots. Most stories will involve some combination of these, perhaps without a strong overarching basic plot to use as its primary category.

I'd go with for Groundhog Day:

- (3) A miracle of god

- (5) Love's obstacles

- (14) Pursuit

- (23) Struggle against god

"God" being the situation he find himself in (both the miracle of it, and the struggle), pursuit being his overall progress, and of course the "main" love plot.

Depends how literally you take "god" for if those fit or not.

Definition of "conflict with a god" from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Six_Dramatic_Situat... , the source of the list in OP:

    - a Mortal; an Immortal
    - The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
There's no way to make Groundhog Day fit this. Love's obstacles doesn't fit either:

    28. Obstacles to love
       - two Lovers; an Obstacle
       - Two Lovers face an Obstacle together.
Here's "pursuit":

    5. Pursuit
      - punishment; a fugitive
      - the fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict. Example: Les Misérables
"A miracle of God" is the only plot Hill didn't lift from Polti, so I guess it could be anything.

a Mortal; an Immortal

That looks like it. The world around him is "immortal", and he was a "mortal" trapped in the "immortal" world. In the movie that is metaphorically represented by the day repeating, seemingly forever. The more the "mortal" tries to fight things, the further he is away from freedom. It was only by cooperating with the world he was finally free.

Sure, the basic plots begin to elude anything remotely surrealistic or avant-garde. Try similarly categorizing the likes of Luis Buñuel, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Stan Brakhage, Catherine Breillat, or hell, even Michael Haneke.

Two Hollywood screenwriters really dove down into Groundhog Day and is a discussion you might find insightful:


The classical Christian interpretation of enlightenment is (3) A miracle of God.

This tells me the counterpoint to Groundhog Day is any Michael Bay movie, which are all (23) Struggle against God.

Situation Number Five - Love's Obstacles

Subplot (f) - a union of lovers prevented by a lack of congeniality between them

Becoming a truly good person.

Struggle against ones lesser self.


Existential doubt. Struggle against nihilism.

Groundhog day is a "boy gets girl" plot (Boy meets girl, boy redeems himself to win her approval, boy gets girl).

If I understand this right then these 37 'situations' are to be composed into specific 'plots' by mixing and matching.

This would be in contrast with the '7 basic plots'[1] and would yield much more specific results.

I wonder if they can be combined at random.. almost seems like they can be for pairs.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots

There's a whole body of work that I think could be categorized as "1 basic plot". Joseph Campbell I think did a lot about this idea, but Dan Harmon[1] always explained it best for me.

[1]: http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_...

thanks for this I think Dan Harmon is a creative genius really enjoying this explanation of story structure

And, according to Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon's screenwriting book, a successful movie should abide by a very simple 3 Act formula (paraphrased):

Act 1: Introduce Nice Guy

Act 2: Get Nice Guy stuck in a tree, throw rocks at him

Act 3: Get him down from the tree

Or, in other words, just watch Die Hard enough to get the idea.

Channeling the other comment tree, Groundhog Day never introduces any Nice Guy. The idea is that Phil develops into one over the course of the movie, although it's only apparent in the last (!) scene.

"Nice guy" just means "person the audience can relate to". Phil isn't nice, but he's definitely relatable (if that's a word).

This struck me in particular with Gilliam's The Zero Theorem which I saw recently. I generally really like Gilliam films, but I struggled with Zero Theorem precisely because the main character was so unrelatable.

People differ. I tried to watch the Sopranos on the strength of many glowing reviews along the lines of "the apex of television".

That failed. I can't stand the show because it has no sympathetic characters. Everyone is horrible to everyone else and in general.

I agree about Phil though.

My general impression, based on the success of shows like The Sopranos (and Breaking Bad--although that's more complicated) is that at least a significant slice of the US audience is more willing to tolerate unsympathetic protagonists than was historically the case. Films have always been more varied but they don't require the ongoing commitment that a TV series does.

Aristotle said that the basis of interesting writing is conflict, and writers have been copying him ever since.

A plausible character with believable internal conflict is more interesting than a plausible character with external conflict - although ideally you want plenty of both.

Audiences like a certain amount of ambiguity, especially if they sympathise with the challenges a character faces.

But the old formulaic plot books are largely nonsense. I have a version from the late 19th century which predates silent movies by a few decades, but still claims to reduce drama to the same tropes.

It doesn't work - except maybe as light entertainment. The book is full of references to plays that have been almost entirely forgotten now.

Really good writing - Shakespeare, ancient Greek comedy/tragedy, a few more modern examples - works on a much deeper level than a trivial plot taxonomy.

I feel the same way about Seinfeld as you do about the Sopranos.

I am thinking someone should do a similar list for technology news. For instance:

- A renowned researcher gives hope to solve a long-standing problem.

- A famous hacker releases some cool software (or hardware blueprints) as an open source project.

- Please take a minute to pay homage to somebody who accomplished great things.

- A pressing social problem became even more pressing.

- A noble individual gains a legal victory over a faceless institution.

- A corporation announces structural changes.

..and so on. And then perhaps somebody could write categorization software based on the list.

Renowned researcher [asgard1024] gives hope to solve a long-standing problem in [technology news].

These interpretations are so silly. You can classify plots into any number of anything based on any merit. Will it be of any value though? Meh.

I understand the natural human desire to figure out how stories work, but this is not how it's done.

On that topic, the best explanation I have ever read is the book "Story" by Robert McKee. I recommend it to everyone who is interested in the subject. It may still be imperfect, but he is very good at explaining things that are actually practically useful for writers and make a lot of sense.

I've heard people talk about there being two basic plots:

    - stranger comes to town
    - stranger leaves town
You could similarly say that there are two basic plots:

    - love
    - hate
Or even:

    - love/hate
    - indifference
This is all very silly. Why not say that there is only one basic plot: - something happens (or not)

There are no classifications that are both neutral and useful. A useful classification corroborates a thesis, and, in this case, asserts an ordering or structuring of some set of objects.

We could pick any arbitrary, discrete attribute and classify plots by each gradation of this attribute, like the above. Putting items in this classification is fun, but it doesn't generate knowledge if the classification does not convey some additional meaning.

A phylogenetic tree or a periodic table impute some ordering on the natural world that allows us to make meaningful predictions about undiscovered animals and chemical elements. They also support scientific theses about evolutionary biology and modern chemistry. They are not neutral (purely descriptive) classifications.

What additional knowledge do any of these story plot classifications give us?

>What additional knowledge do any of these story plot classifications give us?

Well, at the very least, it's a nice store of writing prompts.

What I would say is that it's less of a classification and more of a map. Out of the vast space of possible stories, here are the sections of story space which tend to get told again and again. Why? Because these are the sorts of stories are of interest to our silly human brains.

Here's a story. One day a man bought a newspaper. Then he saw a giraffe, and he threw the newspaper into a river. The Queen of Denmark bought a trombone. Was that a good story? No, it was dull, incoherent and meaningless, just a sequence of actions. We can't identify with them at all.

Here is another story. One day a man met a woman. But the Queen of Denmark kidnapped the woman. So the man went and rescued her. Now that's a much better story! It needs a bit of fleshing out, but it's precisely the sort of sequence of actions that humans like being told about, over and over again.

It's somewhat bizarre that humans should enjoy hearing lies about stuff that never actually happened, but we do -- only very specific types of lies about very specific types of stuff. This list is a vague attempt to map out the specific types of stuff that people like hearing about, and from that we can get insight into our own psychology.

I agree. A list of common story structures can be effectively used as a heuristic in synthesizing new stories from these structures, and this list does an extremely terse list of common themes.

It's definitely fatiguing to generate these repetitive stories, and I would argue that there are literary traditions (still alive today on television, in film, in music!) where your surreal, absurd, existentially nihilistic story about giraffes, the Queen of Denmark, and the law-man beating up the wrong guy would fit in nicely!

This critique is a bit broader than the specific complaint about structuralism (which leads us to garbage like Joseph Campbell's Monomyth/Hero's Journey):


You're thinking of this plotlist as some sort of taxonomic abstraction. For the writers of light entertainment like movies and serials, this is a pragmatic resource that can be used to generate deliverable work product. There's absolutely no need for this list to be systematic, exhaustive, or made up of orthogonal vectors.

You seem to think it is a competition to reduce the number of plots down to a low number as possible.

More it is an interesting experiment into analysis between films.

I'm calling these classifications "reductive."

Unfortunately, this kind of structuralist analysis can be useful but it's limited. In contemporary critical analysis, it has been supplanted by (or augmented with) more useful techniques. These techniques are more capable of drawing meaningful distinctions between structurally similar works.

For example, this simplistic thematic classification will miss a lot of the meaning in surrealist or absurdist works like those of Jodorowsky (or even a contemporary BBC3 comedy like _Snuff Box_!)



The basic of all plots is the story.

A story is a series of events centred on the actions of one character.

A story is about the character facing a difficulty, and demonstrating which action the character took to overcome that difficulty.

Sometimes some of the first attempts at action fail, causing further difficulties.

Stories are an innate part of how humans think. There is a lot of solid research suggesting that there is a part of our brain that automatically transforms times series of events into stories, automatically, and without our knowing it.


The story is the basic organizing principle of our memory, our justice system, pretty much all of society.

See also: http://bigthink.com/overthinking-everything-with-jason-gots/...

If I had to describe humans to aliens I'd say: "Creatures with a loss aversion that create stories."

1919's condensed version of http://tvtropes.org/.

Good that this topic came up now - in two days, another NaNoWriMo starts[0]. Even better, there's a lot of useful things for amateur storywriters in the comments here! Bookmarked!

[0] - http://nanowrimo.org/

David Mamet breaks storing telling down into.

Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don't get it? Why now?

Your link is better -- Wycliff Aber Hill was obviously reporting the same list. Hill has added his #3, "miracle of god". He's also mangled the names of some situations; "falling prey" is totally opaque, while "falling prey to cruelty/misfortune" isn't.

Donnie Darko is, what six or seven of these?

This is a fun read. Whatever plot, the end then comes only between (1) Fair (2) Not Fair ending.

There's 38: Memento.

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