We always think we’re discovering new things, just because we give them new names. And yet, we’re simply rediscovering the wheel.
At least that’s how I felt, when I read The 37 Basic Plots, According to a Screenwriter of the Silent-Film Era on The Slate.
In his 1919 manual for screenwriters, Ten Million Photoplay Plots, Wycliff Aber Hill provided this taxonomy of possible types of dramatic “situations,” first running them down in outline form, then describing each more completely and offering possible variations.
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.
Historians Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs point out that Hill’s book was part of a tradition, citing 19th-century playwriting manuals that likewise listed catalogs of “situations” that could provoke action and frame a plot. Nor was Hill the only screenwriter to publish a list of this type around this time; Frederick Palmers, whose Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia (1922) can be read on the Internet Archive, gathered 36 situations instead of 37.