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A DRAMATIST’S TALE: Playing the Variations Game by Sally J. Walker

There are no new stories, only variations

 One of my classes walks through the 36 dramatic situations Frenchman George Polti identified in the late 19th century. He drew his conclusions after a thorough examination of stories from the Greeks, Shakespeare, and his own contemporaries. I agree with Polti’s assertion that these situations are the fundamentals to every story told. That boils down to the statement “There are no new stories, only variations.” My personal creative writing philosophy is not to defy this concept but to use Polti’s 36 as a spring board.

Jung’s student, Joseph Campbell, gave storytellers “The Hero’s Journey” as an even more detailed plot structure that follows a satisfying pattern of challenge and triumph. It certainly works to control the focus of a time-constricted screenplay.

Some uneducated folk will denigrate genre tropes as predictable storytelling crutches. Aficionados of a particular genre actually admire the subtle weave of tropes into the fabric of a story. The key to writing a great genre story is to provide an unpredictable variation on Polti’s 36 WITH the elements expected of the genre.

So, how does a modern storyteller utilize this triad of Polti, Campbell and genre to create a fascinating screenplay that will excite investors and production folk . . . especially if it is a form of retelling? Enter your own triad.

PERSONAL TRIAD            

A storyteller’s personal triad incorporates Polti, Campbell, and genre by creating:

  1. highly motivated, fascinating characters,
  2. a uniquely complex, jeopardy-riddled circumstance,
  3. a demonstration of vivid and controlled language skills.

These three elements provide the unique variation in any story worthy of a studio reader’s time and the efforts of an army of production staff to put that story on the screen. All three are necessary to ignite the audience’s imagination and enthrall the mind so completely that the real world is forgotten. The story events may be based on one of Polti’s dramatic situations and unfold in the pattern of the Hero’s Journey using the images expected in a specific genre. What matters is the explosion of the imagination in such credible detail that the audience vicariously experiences the story WITH the characters.

Fascinating Characters

The writer has to juggle two factors to each character appearing in a screenplay: credibility and actor-appeal. Yes, even a minor character with one line of dialogue needs to be so vivid that any actor will be proud to have that role on a resume. The human essence of that character has to “pop” thus challenge the actor to become that human being. Ultimate details of appearance and action are not the writer’s domain but rely on the actor, director, costumer, make-up artist, etc. The writer’s job is to document an appropriate, vivid personality in every scene appearance and every spoken dialogue.

Unique Circumstances

Polti’s 36 situations lurk in the shadows of genre expectations. How many war films have been made? How was WAR HORSE different? How many love stories have been told? How was OUT OF AFRICA different? How many invasion stories have been told? How was AVATAR different? My contention is that the writer has to orchestrate “a uniquely complex, jeopardy-riddled” plot that the vivid characters are challenged to live in and survive.

Controlled Language Skills

Screenplays are not fine literature. The purpose of the narrative and dialogue is to spark the imaginations of OTHER film professionals to contribute the very best of their skills to the ultimate product, a finished film that will enthrall audiences. The screenwriter is challenged to write vivid but lean sentences that will resonate with all those other people and ultimately create a vicarious experience for the audiences. Complex, convoluted sentences, antiquated, technical or intellectual vocabulary and inappropriate English grammar are absolutely forbidden. One must write distinct and succinct sentences that “pop” the images and the characters. Though screenplays demand subtext and human manipulation the writing has to be pristine.

My personal opinion is that screenwriting is the epitome of writing disciplines simply because it incorporates the elements of all other forms: poetry’s vivid imagery, live theatre’s powerful dialogue, nonfiction’s logic, and fiction’s vicarious credibility.

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Sally WalkerSally Walker’s published credits include literary, romance and western novels, a nonfiction essay collection, several creative writing textbooks, stage plays, poetry, and many magazine articles on the craft of writing, including staff contributions to two international film magazines for 10 years. With 30 screenplays written, several under negotiation at three different studios and her novel-to-screenplay adaptation on her plate, Sally has a well-respected manager representing her in Hollywood. In addition to long time active memberships in such national writing organizations as RWA, WWA and SCBWI, she was president of a state-wide writers organization 2007-2011. She keeps to a strenuous writing schedule and still has time to work as Editorial Director for The Fiction Works, supervising acquisitions and sub-contracted editors, as well as Script Supervisor for material sent to TFW’s affiliated Misty Mountain Productions. Sally has taught writing seminars, both on-site and on-line, for over 29 years and is the facilitator for the weekly meetings of the Nebraska Writers Workshop in Ralston, NE.  For more information on her works and classes go to her website at

Sally is a long-time and much-loved instructor at SavvyAuthors.  Sally will be back in 2017, teaching her workshops at SavvyAuthors. Dates and classes will be announced in the near future. Check out all of Sally’s SavvyAuthors Classes. [/box]


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