The struggling screenwriter will never have to fear the writer’s block again! A 1919 writing manual, unearthed by Slate‘s Rebecca Onion, outlines the 37 basic storylines of every possible story.
The 96-year-old manual is called Ten million plots of photoplay, 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 writing advice books, and apparently a connoisseur of intrigue. Hill also wrote Ten million plots of photography. And if those 20 million were not enough, he also wrote several volumes of The genius of the plot.
Hill wasn’t the only person who tried to condense the essence of storytelling into simple rules. Frederick Palmers created an “encyclopedia” of 36 storyline situations in 1922, one Christopher Booker described seven basic storylines in 2005, and earlier this year Matthew Jockers used computer analysis of over 40,000 novels to conclude that all literature follows only six possible stories.
In his book on photoplays, or scenarios, Hill described his 37 types of stories, as well as subclasses of each, offering “concrete illustrations of their application as well as suggestions for other variations.” He listed “happy situations” such as “Rescue”, “Loved ones lost have been recovered” and “A miracle from God”. “Precipitated Disastrous Situations Without Criminal Intent” picks up any story on “Pursuit”, “Rebellion”, “Daring Effort” and “Enmity Between Parents”.
TO Slate, Onion has reposted Hill’s full list, as well as pages from Ten million plots of photoplay that break down each situation. Hill clearly found some plots better than others. He described “adultery” as:
This is the situation that is being worked overtime in the large number of “sex plays” that we see on screen today. Just why the search for a dramatic situation should suggest this to so many writers to the exclusion of all others is difficult to understand, unless it is a lack of information regarding the many other possibilities.
Ten million plots of photoplay certainly set out to remedy this problem.