There Are Thirty-Six

Mystery of the Missing Migrants — Charley Harper 1990

In 1895, a man by the name of Georges Polti embarked on an analysis of all great works of literature that could be found at the time, Greek classics, Contemporary French works, everything he could lay his hands on.

He determined that in all literature or performance there are but 36 possible dramatic storylines. The volume he published was called, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. I highly recommend checking it out on scribd. The range of conflicts and their descriptions are fascinating.

So why is that relevant to you guys?

Well, the first and not the most minor is that at some level, almost anything can be categorized or codified, even conflict. So in my discussions about making oneself replaceable, I urge people to remember that everything you do professionally, can be memorialized, then replicated, allowing you to replace yourself up to more imaginative, meta (no not that meta) pursuits.

This premise of categorization and codification is at the core of a lot of machine learning and artificial intelligence. But there are certain things that human beings just feel. It’s reminiscent of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous line about the difference between art and pornography, In the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). He opined, that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that, “I know it when I see it.”

While this intuition is a very human thing, it gives us this false sense that we’re the only ones that can do “it”. Let’s say we took these 36 categories and created a machine learning algorithm, using a universe of a thousand stories and told the AI, The Count of Monte Cristo falls under the category, “ Crime Pursued by Vengeance,” it would learn that The Shawshank Redemption is the same. Tell it that Julius Caesar is a story of “Revolt”, and it would deliver Animal Farm as a similar tale. Under the category of “Madness”, maybe you give the AI King Lear, it will probably return The Shining. Once given the parameters, it should be able to identify the theme for any story going forward, thus removing the need for a human being to do it.

As content creators, we think we have to come up with something new, but that’s actually not possible. Whatever you need to say, definitely fits in one of these 36 categories and has already been said by someone else.

Now that is not to say you shouldn’t keep creating, of course, you should, but try polishing how well you tell a story instead of replicating yet another “Hero’s Journey” construct where you’ve been sold some bizarre notion that your brand story reaches the dramatic heights of Bilbo Baggins or Luke Skywalker. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean your story does not have value. It simply requires a truth well told.

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