Friday, May 10, 2013

Can a Plot Become Obsolete?

TOF has a soft spot in his head for taxonomy.  When he was younger and maintained a sort of library in his basement - and his milk-cousin still remembers how TOF charged her an overdue fine on a book she kept too long - TOF began to notice structural and thematic similarities among the SF stories he devoured.  [Some of those books still have bite marks; but the fantasies were hard to swallow.] 
  • Galactic empires, decline and collapse of.  
  • Time travel, serial closed loop.  
  • Alien contact, hidden aliens among us.  
  • etc.
Inspired by the four-letter classification of alien beings in James White's Sector General stories, Young TOF set about taxonomizing all of his SF books and short stories with 4-letter codes.  The details are now thnakfully lost in the mists of time, but the first letter was a broad overall category, such as the aforesaid galactic empire; the next level, a detail within that category, such as galactic empire in decay; and so on.  The whole thing eventually was set aside.  Was a story about an alien galactic empire classed under Aliens or under Galactic Empire?  Still, TOF could not shake the feeling that there were underlying structural similarities among groups of stories. 

Later, it turned out he was not alone. 

Enter Polti

Georges Polti (1867-1946) was a French writer, critic, and theorist - and what self-respecting French litterateur is not a theorist? - who possessed a masterful command of the theater.  Based on a remark by Goethe that there were 36 dramatic situations - and Schiller's inability to find even that many - he set about cataloging and typing them, supplying for each situation examples from ancient and modern theater, occasional novels, and even historical and everyday events.  Criticized by Etienne Souriau for artificially tweaking the list in order to achieve the magical 36, he did not, in TOF's undeniably humble opinion, achieve a true taxonomy, in that the canonical 36 were not apparently organized as to species, genus, and family.  Some indeed seemed to be the same situation, though they may have appeared distinct to those with the sensibilities of an earlier generation. 

M. Polti did not claim there were 36 plots.  He claimed there were 36 distinct dramatic situations.  A plot is a series of encounters.  A novel might contain several of these situations; a short story may revolve around only one.   About one of the Situations, the first one, he made the curious observation that:
It is apparent that, in the modern theater, very little use has been made of this First Situation.
Can a Dramatic Situation go obsolete?  Why would this Situation fall into disuse? 

We'd tell you (TOF hears you say) if you would tell us what the @#$% this Situation is!

TOF is glad you asked. 

Situation #1.  Supplication.  

The necessary dynamic elements are:
  • a Persecutor, 
  • a Suppliant and 
  • a Power in authority whose decision is doubtful
The Persecutor accuses the Suppliant of wrongdoing, and the Power must makes a judgment for or against the Suppliant.   

This seems to TOF no more than the usual jury trial, with the Prosecutor, Defendant, and Jury as the primary actors.  But Polti's claim is that it is little used in modern theater.  He subdivides the Situation into three groups, and these in turn into sub-situations. 

1.A The Power is a distinct personage.  Shall he decide for the Persecutor out of prudence or apprehension; or for the Suppliant out of generosity? [3 persons]
1.A.1 Fugitives Imploring the Powerful for Help Against Their Enemies
1.A.2 Assistance Implored for the Performance of a Pious Duty Which Has Been Forbidden
1.A.3 Appeals for a Refuge in which to Die
1.B The Power is an attribute of the Persecutor himself.  He is of two minds.  Shall anger or pity determine his course? [2 persons]
1.B.1 Hospitality Besought by the Shipwrecked
1.B.2 Charity Entreated by Those Cast off by Their Own People, Whom They Have Disgraced
1.B.3 Expiation: The Seeking of Pardon, Healing or Deliverance
1.B.4 The Surrender of a Corpse, or of a Relic, Solicited

1.C The Suppliant element is divided between two persons, the Persecuted and the Intercessor.  [4 persons]
1.C.1 Supplication of the Powerful for Those Dear to the Suppliant
1.C.2 Supplication To a Relative in Behalf of Another Relative
1.C.3 Supplication to a Mother's Lover, in Her Behalf
TOF is struck by the evident arbitrariness of the least categories.  In a work structure breakdown the tasks at the lower indenture must be necessary to the higher indenture and collectively sufficient.  In this taxonomy, the third level seems scattershot.  The surrender of a corpse?  Really?  Why is 1.C.3 supplication to a mother's lover and not to the mother's husband?  (A French thing, perhaps?)  Why not a supplication to a father's lover?  Or are all these to be regarded as essentially the same?  Are the "shipwrecked" in 1.B.1 to be interpreted as refugees and displaced persons of all sorts? 

Most of the examples Polti lists are from ancient Greece, and the odd content of the list likely reflects the actual plots of these plays.  Perhaps they have not been sufficiently generalized.  Polti states that subgroup C does have modern examples and compares it to prayer for the intercession of saints among Catholics.  But he says that otherwise the First Situation is relatively rare  in modern theater...
...doubtless for the reason that the antique models have disappeared or have become unfamiliar, and more particularly because, Shakespeare, Lope and Corneille not having transformed this theme or elaborated it with those external complexities demanded by our modern taste, their successors have found the First Situation too bare and simple a subject for this epoch.  
But of course elaboration is possible, even if Shakespeare (or the transformative playwright of your own milk tongue) did not do so.  Subgroup C, he says, may have survived not only because of the Catholic example, but because the addition of an Intercessor is an elaboration, from three characters to four.  But Polti himself suggests ways in which the basic three characters can be elaborated -- and these to TOF suggest a more satisfying taxonomy. 
The Persecutor
  • one or many, 
  • voluntary or unconscious, 
  • greedy or revengeful, 
  • spreading the subtle network of diplomacy, or revealing himself beneath the formidable pomp of the greatest contemporary powers; 
The Suppliant
  • artless or eloquent, 
  • virtuous or guilty, 
  • humble or great; 
The Power
  • neutral or partial to one side or the other, 
  • perhaps inferior in strength to the Persecutor and surrounded by his own kindred who fear danger,
  • perhaps deceived by a semblance of right and justice, 
  • perhaps obliged to sacrifice a high ideal; 
  • sometimes severely logical, sometimes emotionally susceptible, or even overcome by a conversion a la Dostoievsky, and

  • as a final thunderbolt, abandoning the errors which he believed to be truth, if not indeed the truth which he believed to be error!
Polti writes:
Nowhere, certainly, can the vicissitudes of power, be it arbitral, tyrannical, or overthrown, -- the superstitions which may accompany doubt and indecision -- on the one side the sudden turns of popular opinion, on the other the anxiety with which they are awaited -- despairs and their resulting blasphemies -- hope surviving to the last breath, the blind brutality of fate -- nowhere can they become so condensed and burst forth with such power as in this First Situation, in our day ignored.

Working Up an Example

Let's pick 1.A.1 Fugitives Imploring the Powerful for Help Against Their Enemies

Suppose the Persecutor is many, voluntary, and vengeful.  The Suppliant is artless, guilty, and humble.  The Power is neutral and inferior in strength to the Persecutor, but has high ideals relative to justice. 

Now put in a container and shake vigorously. 
Anbar Hekeltone and Basheen Walapa have violated the tabus of Joraland.  They have fallen in love even though Basheen belongs to the same moiety as Anbar and even though all such alliances are negotiated by the clanmothers affected, not by the runaway hormones of the young.  What they have done is classified by all right-thinking Jors as incest and rape.  The tribe rises up against them (the Persecutor) and they flee into the surrounding wilderness.  But Snidely, the deputy headman of Joraland is determined to pursue them because he belongs to the proper moiety and the clanmothers had agreed to his suit for Basheen.  But Anbar and Basheen have heard of the great and powerful Oz who lives in a high castle and has a reputation for justice (the Power).  They decide to strike for the mountains and plead for his protection (becoming the Suppliants). 
In any realistic story, this will involve multiple dramatic situations.  Even if the main thrust is Supplication, an extended story will encompass multiple situations.  The story will open with Situation 22 (Sacrifice for Passion) developing into 13 (Enmity of Kin).  The body of the story will feature Situation #5 (Pursuit).  In the denouement we have #1 (Supplication).  Anbar and Basheen reach the high castle only to discover to their horror that the Power is a paper tiger and is weaker than Snidely and his minions.  By the Power's own lights (he is not a Jor) the Suppliants have committed no crime; but by law (of Joraland) they have.  Snidely surrounds the high castle with his minions.  Oz must:
  • stay out of it; refuse to decide at all
  • turn the Suppliants over to Snidely, succumbing to threats but upholding justice
  • defy Snidely and fight on to the end with his own (weaker) powers and
    • go down gloriously
    • miraculously triumph through bluff or chance

Now make it an SF story.  

Joraland is an alien planet.  Oz is an expedition from Earth.  Anbar and Basheen have committed a crime that makes utterly no sense to the Earthlings.  But while the Earthlings have way kool ray guns and space-ships, they are only a small survey crew and there is also that pesky non-interference policy of the Interstellar Union of Namby-Pambies. 
 The Suppliants are Earthlings who have committed a crime which we do recognize -- incest, rape -- but which the visiting aliens do not.  (In-group sex is normal; elopement is standard practice.) 

Elaborate on this story.  Fill in some details.  Cast your own story using a different scenario from Situation #1.  E.g., The Greeks demand the return of the Elgin Marbles (1.B.4). 


  1. So this is a CONTEST, right? I LOVE contests!

  2. Ironically, this actually resonates with a situation I had established in a novel series I've been working on for a while....

    The Persecutor is one, voluntary and revengeful; the Suppliant is eloquent, guilty, but great (though trying hard to learn humility); the Power is neutral, but wedded to a code of ideals that, while they compel fairness, also pose a potential obstacle to the Intercessor's ultimate goals.

    THE SITUATION: Paris deRennan, candidate for the order of True Bards in the Belmarean Empire, was expelled from the order on the eve of his final examinations when it came out he had been having an affair with his mentor and the man who would oversee his examination, the Circle Master Morivain du Blanchard. Rather than returning his Bardic medallion, Paris fled, keeping the talisman, and spent years pretending to be a True Bard when he was not. Now, at the behest of his friend Rosana dy Casturia, he has returned to petition for admission to the order after all, for Rosana needs the Bards' secrets of instantaneous long-distance communication to help build the alliance she needs to defeat the Kargoth Domination and the ancient Power behind it. Can Rosana persuade Morivain to forgive Paris's flight and imposture? And can the True Bards abandon the political neutrality so vital to their self-definition in time to save their realm?

  3. What I remember best about the situations was that they didn't seem very useful when it came to writing. The one example the book gave was taking your idea and trying to fit it into the situations instead of writing it -- you would have to write quite a bit to even know where it fit.

    1. To be fair, Ponti's scheme was not a How-To book on writing, but an entirely classificatory and enumerative one. It is not even (in my view) a systematic scheme, but a descriptive abstraction of a set of classic plays that Ponti considered. I think that one could take one or more of the situations and assemble them into an armature for packing with the clay of plotting, as I did off the cuff above. But I suspect that one may simply write and discover (as M. Jourdain discovered that he has "been speaking prose all my life") that you have employed one or more of the situations.

    2. There was definitely stuff in the book about using it to write -- which was not helpful -- so whatever its value as classification, it perhaps was touted a bit wrongly.

  4. Reading Polti's example, it's pretty obvious he's thinking of Antigone as the primary exemplar of the situation, and then brainstorming some variations.

    The popularity of courtroom dramas on TV has made this particular situation exceedingly common. On Perry Mason we root for the Suppliant, on Law & Order we root for the Persecutor.

    1. The Judgment of Solomon and the Judgment of Paris are also such occasions. :)

      Oh, and Night Court. And Phoenix Wright aka Ace Attorney. :)

  5. Ponti of Gor- Never had the Supplicant met a Persecutor who was so Persecutorial in His Persecutorialness; her Supplications supply Supplicated-

  6. I have a world I've been playing around in for some time and the more I read through the Polti classification and its components, the more I felt obliged to try something. I copied and pasted the whole kit-and-kaboodle into a Word document, then began to eliminate the parts I wasn't interested in dealing with. I rearranged bits, added them together and rearranged order until I had what I felt was a workable idea. I took some names from around the world; assigned them parts; added politics and policies that I'd already worked out...and a story emerged.

    I have to say that it has a completely different feel from anything else I've ever tried to write. If these are, in fact, dynamic elements that haven't seen the light of day for some time, it SHOULD feel strange.

    Strange in a good's the plot I came up with:

    In the skies of River, a "puffy Jupiter" on the border between a rigid Empire based on the purity of the Human genome and a republic based on the diversity of the Human genome -- citizens of both nations live in seemingly endless skies, harvesting and mining the clouds.

    Artem Popov is patriarch of a powerful pod of cloudwhales on whose backs his family has grown pharmacological and agricultural products for the planet for centuries, disdaining the politics of both Empire and Confluence, he and his deal only with the highest bidder. One day, Mason Doig, a young, bright intern on a Popov 'whale, and attending the Imperial University and Medical Center as part of a "peaceful coexistence" agreement, becomes enmeshed in the lives of a barge of minimally Human plague victims fleeing the crushing Deaths far below. Appealing to the Humanity of the University and Medical Center Chancellor, Nesreen Kalil, he sues for the care and healing of the refugees. When the barge crashes on Popov's cloudwhale, he claims sanctuary. Appalled and horrified, Nesreen sends sterilization troops against him. Shu-Hui Zhang, long-time medic on the Popov's pod is also a Second Cousin of Nesreen -- and once saved her life; intercedes on the behalf of the brash young Mason.

    If Nesreen backs down, she faces retribution from the Empire; if she does not, she ignores a long-standing debt from a member of her own family. Mason has laid his life and future on the line; Artem finds that he may be powerless to avoid a confrontation of right and wrong that he has always managed to avoid in the past.

    What will happen?

    At this point, the story structure is so strange...I don't know...

    Thanks for this thought-provoking essay!

    1. That outline sounds rather interesting. Write it.

    2. I wrote the story -- and it ends unlike anything I've ever written. Most strangely, I had to plot it taking into account the Polti quote you end with:

      "[Nowhere], certainly, [can the vicissitudes of power], be it arbitral, tyrannical, or overthrown, -- the superstitions which may accompany doubt and indecision -- on the one side the sudden turns of popular opinion, on the other the anxiety with which they are awaited -- despairs and their resulting blasphemies -- hope surviving to the last breath, the blind brutality of fate --nowhere can they [become so condensed and burst forth with such power as in this First Situation], in our day ignored."

      I have NEVER written about the "vicissitudes of power", typically figuring I understand the "life of the commoner" far better. But I found myself feeling...bad for my powerful main character.

      Also, while the story NORMALLY would have compelled me to write it from the "action characters" point of view, this structure forced me to write it from another point of view entirely.

      It was altogether a WEIRD experience - but strangely exciting. If you'd like to read the end result (about 8500 words), I'd be happy to send it to you. Otherwise, I'm going to put it away for a cool down, then polish and send it to ANALOG...

    3. I'll be interested in seeing it; but after you've had a chance to cool down.

    4. I'm off on another project, so it will be a bit. I'll contact you again when I'm done polishing.

    5. Dear Mr. Flynn - I just finished polishing the story mentioned above (now called "Into The Deaths") and was wondering if you'd be interested in seeing it still. If so, how would you like me to send it?

      If you're too busy now, that's fine, thanks for the IDEA and article -- I'll be sending it out to Trevor Qachri at ANALOG soon!

    6. If you would like to contact me directly, my email is

  7. I think it will be my next project -- ANALOG would be the market, maybe I can break into Trevor Quachri's stable!



 Recently, TOF happened upon the following list of words to avoid in one's scrivening and thought to share it with his Faithful Reader. ...