According to This 1919 Writing Guide, There Are Only 37 Possible Stories
From love and disaster to “a miracle of God,” the 96-year-old manual outlines every known plot
The struggling screenwriter need never fear writer’s block again! A 1919 writing manual, unearthed by Slate's Rebecca Onion, outlines the 37 basic plots of any possible story.
The 96-year-old manual is called Ten Million Photoplay Plots, and it organizes dramatic situations "without sub-classifications and classified according to their various natures." It was one of many books written by Wycliff Aber Hill, a prolific peddler of advice-on-writing books, and apparently, a connoisseur of plot. Hill also wrote Ten Million Photography Plots. And if those 20 million weren't enough, he also wrote several volumes of The Plot Genie.
Hill wasn’t the only person who tried to condense the essence of storytelling down to simple rules. Frederick Palmers created an "encyclopedia" of 36 plot situations in 1922, a Christopher Booker outlined seven basic plots in 2005 and earlier this year, Matthew Jockers used computer analysis of more than 40,000 novels to conclude that all literature follows only six possible stories.
In his book on photoplays, or screenplays, Hill outlined his 37 types of stories, as well as the sub-classes of each, offering "concrete illustrations of their application as well as suggestions for other variations." He listed "Happy Situations" such as "Rescue," "Lost loved ones recovered," and "A miracle of God." "Disastrous Situations Precipitated Without Criminal Intent" scoops up any story about "Pursuit," "Rebellion," Daring effort" and "Enmity between kinsmen." "Rivalry between kinsmen," however, falls under the classification of "Pathetic Situations."
At Slate, Onion has republished Hill's full list, as well as pages from Ten Million Photoplay Plots that break down each situation. Hill clearly found some plots better than others. He described "Adultery" as:
This is the situation that is worked overtime in the large number of 'sex plays' that we see on the screen today. Just why the search for a dramatic situation should suggest this one to so many writers to the exclusion of all others is difficult to comprehend, unless it is a lack of information concerning the many other possibilities.
Ten Million Photoplay Plots certainly set out to remedy that problem.