Monday, October 6, 2014

Monday writing: Georges Polti's dramatic situation of supplication

In an English class a long time ago, I remember my teacher posing this question: "How many plots are there?"

I remember it being a written multiple choice question, perhaps a worksheet. The answers were something like "Who knows? Thousands, maybe millions, an infinite number," "thirty-six," "twenty," and "just two." I remember scoffing at the last three. How could anyone say there are just two plots, let alone twenty or thirty-six? I mean, there are far more books than that, and they are all different!

Well, as I came to find out in that class, plots can be generalized and placed into different categories, so even though the details might be different, the underlying plot could be identical in two otherwise completely different stories.

So, each one of those answers multiple choice answers was actually "correct" according to how you personally view plots. I think two is too low a number (basically, that would categorize plots as either internal conflict or external conflict), but as a writer, it definitely helps to be able to categorize my plot in some way.

One set of plot categories was described by a nineteenth century French writer named Georges Polti. Specifically, they are thirty-six dramatic situations that he felt encompassed all story plots. As suggested by many, some of the situations are a bit outdated, so most people don't pay much to mind to them in favor of more modern (and fewer) plot categories. I agree, though I still find them interesting and would like to talk about each one.

The first situation is called "supplication." If you have terrible vocabulary skills like I do, here is a quick definition: a humble and earnest request. Right away, that sounds a bit old-fashioned. It also sounds like an odd way to describe a plot.

The basic elements of the supplication plot is the Persecutor, the Supplicant, and the Authority who has the power to grant the request. The description for the Authority further says that he often does not know if helping the Supplicant is the right decision.

A basic summary of a supplication plot is that the Supplicant is harassed by the Persecutor to the point where the Supplicant must beg the Authority for assistance. For example, perhaps a fugitive is running from the cops and begs an innkeeper to hide him, or perhaps a homeless woman is begging for charity after being estranged from her family. Typically, the Supplicant may have actually done something gravely wrong, but you are made to feel great sympathy for the Supplicant and hate for the Persecutor. Even though the Authority often doesn't know if he should help the Supplicant, you want him to help the Supplicant. You recognize the desperation of the Supplicant and want him to get what he needs.

You can see how this general description could be expanded into a full plot, and once you understand the core of it, it actually isn't old-fashioned at all. Even in our own lives, we see examples of Supplicants and Persecutors and have experienced being in both roles, though it is being the supplicant when we suffer the most which can allow a writer using this plot to stir a lot of emotions in readers.