This 1919 Manual for Screenwriters Says There Are Only 37 Stories

Typewriter
Has anything changed in the past 100 years? 

I feel like there are lots of gurus and screenwriting experts out there these days trying to sell you the forms of stories or just the idea that there are really only 12 character archetypes, hell, I think I've written some of these ideas. 

But the truth is, people have been trying to scientifically break down the art of storytelling for ages. 

It's not new, and neither are the ideas around it. 

In fact, a recent document unearthed from 1919 says there are only 37 stories. So, that should take the weight off coming up with a new one. 

From Open Culture, "The year was 1919. America's biggest blockbusters included D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female, and The Miracle Man, which made Lon Chaney into a silver-screen icon. The many aspirants looking to write their way into the ever more celebrated and lucrative movie business could turn to a newly published manual called Ten Million Photoplay Plots by Wycliff Aber Hill.

Slate's Rebecca Onion, who is cited in the Open Culture article, says, "Hill, who published more than one aid to struggling 'scenarists,' positioned himself as an authority on the types of stories that would work well onscreen."

Check out the list below. 

I love this list, from "happy situations" and "rescue," to "loved ones lost and recovered," and "a miracle of God," You can still see some of these factoring into the stuff we make today. I mean, isn't Parasite just "pathetic situations"? 

And Titanic is "love's obstacles," AND "rivalry between unequals."

Hilariously, the broad application of "a mystery" really feels like it needs specificity. 

What are some of your favorites and how do you think they apply today? 

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2 Comments

There are really only three types of stories: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self. That's it. Everything else is derived from those.

August 24, 2020 at 4:52PM

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Shawn Montgomery
Post Production Coordinator / Director and Producer
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A couple years ago, Mike Figgis put together a book based on Gorges Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations from 1895 with current film examples; very similar. It's worth picking up for a modern interpretation.

August 24, 2020 at 7:27PM

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