Week 17 – Working with Keyword Lists

“I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a life-time, I thought (and still think).“

Stephen King

This week we will be talking about the power of lists. Lists that try to classify human behavior, emotions and actions these emotions can trigger.

One of the most famous lists, when it comes to storytelling is Georges Polti’s categorization of every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance: >The 36 Dramatic Situations<.

If we have a closer look at some of these 36 situations, we immediately understand that each of them could be a perfect starting point for a story. Only some changes or an adaptation is needed, or you even take it one-to-one. For instance conflict with a god could become a story idea about a difficult father-son relationship. Or obstacles of love: don’t fall for an easy solution, for what comes in your mind first! What about the two lovers are two ideas, two dreams, two wishes that are meant to be connected, but…

Check out the full list, the keywords plus a short explanation. Sometimes you’ll get more or better ideas if you check out the exact term and explanation on Wikipedia:

  • Abduction: An abductor – the abducted – a guardian. The abductor takes the abducted from the guardian.
  • Adultery: Two adulterers – a deceived spouse. Two adulterers conspire against the deceived spouse.
  • All sacrificed for passion: A lover – an object of fatal passion – the person/thing sacrificed. A lover sacrifices a person or thing for the object of their passion, which is then lost forever.
  • Ambition: An ambitious person – a thing coveted – an adversary. The ambitious person seeks the thing coveted and is opposed by the adversary.
  • Conflict with a god: A mortal – an immortal. The mortal and the immortal enter a conflict.
  • Crime pursued by vengeance: A criminal – an avenger. The criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the avenger seeks justice by punishing the criminal.
  • Crimes of love: A lover – the beloved. A lover and the beloved enter a conflict.
  • Daring enterprise: A bold leader – an object – an adversary. The bold leader takes the object from the adversary by overpowering the adversary.
  • Deliverance: An unfortunate – a threatener – a rescuer. The unfortunate has caused a conflict, and the threatener is to carry out justice, but the rescuer saves the unfortunate.
  • Disaster: A vanquished power – a victorious enemy or a messenger. The power falls from their place after being defeated by the victorious enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the messenger.
  • Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one: A discoverer – the guilty one. The discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the guilty one.
  • An enemy loved: A lover – the beloved enemy – the hater. The allied lover and hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the beloved enemy.
  • The enigma: A problem – an interrogator – a seeker. The interrogator poses a problem to the seeker and gives a seeker better ability to reach the seeker’s goals.
  • Enmity of kin: A malevolent kinsman – a hated or a reciprocally hating kinsman. The malevolent kinsman and the hated or a second malevolent kinsman conspire together.
  • Erroneous judgment: A mistaken one – a victim of the mistake – a cause or author of the mistake – the guilty one. The mistaken one falls victim to the cause or the author of the mistake and passes judgment against the victim of the mistake when it should be passed against the guilty one instead.
  • Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune: An unfortunate – a master or a misfortune. The unfortunate suffers from misfortune and/or at the hands of the master.
  • Fatal imprudence: The imprudent – a victim or an object lost. The imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the object lost or wrongs the victim.
  • Involuntary crimes of love: A lover – a beloved – a revealer. The revealer betrays the trust of either the lover or the beloved.
  • Loss of loved ones: A kinsman slain – a kinsman spectator – an executioner. The killing of the kinsman slain by the executioner is witnessed by the kinsman spectator.
  • Madness: A madman – a victim. The madman goes insane and wrongs the victim.
  • Mistaken jealousy: A jealous one – an object of whose possession. He is jealous – a supposed accomplice – a cause or an author of the mistake. The jealous one falls victim to the cause or the author of the mistake and becomes jealous of the object and becomes conflicted with the supposed accomplice.
  • Murderous adultery: Two adulterers – a betrayed spouse. Two adulterers conspire to kill the betrayed spouse.
  • Necessity of sacrificing loved ones: A hero – a beloved victim – the necessity for the sacrifice. The hero wrongs the beloved victim because of the necessity for their sacrifice.
  • Obstacles to love: Two lovers – an obstacle. Two lovers face an obstacle together.
  • Obtaining: A solicitor & an adversary who is refusing or an arbitrator & opposing parties. The solicitor is at odds with the adversary who refuses to give the solicitor what they object in the possession of the adversary, or an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by opposing parties (the solicitor and the adversary).
  • Pursuit: Punishment – a fugitive. The fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict.
  • Recovery of a lost one: A seeker – the one found. The seeker finds the one found.
  • Remorse: A culprit – a victim or the sin – an interrogator. The culprit wrongs the victim or commits the sin, and is at odds with the interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
  • Revolt: A tyrant – a conspirator. The tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the conspirator.
  • Rivalry of kin: The preferred kinsman – the rejected kinsman – the object of rivalry. The object of rivalry chooses the preferred kinsman over the rejected kinsman.
  • Rivalry of superior vs. Inferior: A superior rival – an inferior rival – the object of rivalry. A superior rival bests an inferior rival and wins the object of rivalry.
  • Self-sacrifice for an ideal: A hero – an ideal – a creditor or a person/thing sacrificed. The hero sacrifices the person or thing for their ideal, which is then taken by the creditor.
  • Self-sacrifice for kin: A hero – a kinsman – a creditor or a person/thing sacrificed. The hero sacrifices a person or thing for their kinsman, which is then taken by the creditor.
  • Slaying of kin unrecognized: The slayer – an unrecognized victim. The slayer kills the unrecognized victim.
  • Supplication: A persecutor – a suppliant – a power in authority, whose decision is doubtful. The persecutor accuses the suppliant of wrongdoing, and the power makes a judgment against the suppliant.
  • Vengeance taken for kin upon kin: Guilty kinsman – an avenging kinsman – remembrance of the victim, a relative of both. Two entities, the guilty and the avenging kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the victim, who is allied to both.

Arthur Koestler – while referring to the >36 Dramatic Situations< – also mentions a list of archetypal patterns in literature:

  • The Promethean striving for omnipotence and omniscience
  • Individual against Society / Man and Society
  • From Oedipus to Schmoedipus, or shall we love mamma?
  • Polygonal patterns of libidinous relations (triangles, quadrangles, etc.)
  • War of the Sexes
  • Love triumphant, or defeated
  • Conquest of the Flesh
  • The hubris of Power
  • The hubris of Cleverness
  • The hubris of the Ivory Tower
  • The hubris of Sanctity
  • The Divided Heart
  • Conflicts between Love and Duty
  • Conflicts between Self-Preservation and Self-Sacrifice
  • Conflicts between Ends and Means
  • Conflicts between Faith and Reason
  • Puppet on Strings, or Volition against Fate

Abraham Maslow suggests a hierarchy of human needs: until the basic ones are taken care of, people don’t care much about the higher ones:

  • Core physical survival – life and death
  • Sex
  • Physical comfort, pleasing environment – clothing and shelter – physical fitness
  • Emotional balance and security – the feeling of love
  • Personal expression
  • Intellectual growth – learning and teaching
  • Spiritual enlightenment – religious discipline

Try to connect two or three of them for the outline of an idea. For instance: a very spiritual and religious man is looking for a partner (and sex). To compensate the contradiction between his conservative catholic education and his need for love, he starts expressing himself in a very strange ’artistic’ way.

Marshall Rosenberg also mentions some basic needs we all have. Some of them can be useful for us, for instance:

  • Choosing one’s dreams, goals, and values
  • Choosing one’s plan for fulfilling thoses dreams, goals, and values
  • Celebrating the creation of life and dreams fulfilled        
  • Celebrating losses of loved ones, dreams, and so on (mourning)
  • Creativity
  • Self-worth
  • Community
  • Honesty (the empowering honesty that enables us to learn from our limitations)
  • Trust
  • Protection from life-threatening forms of life, such as viruses, bacteria, insects, predatory animals, and so on
  • Order
  • Peace

Michael Allen (The Truth About Writing) has put up a long list of positive and negative emotions. In his book he mentions 33 positive and 46 negative emotions. Let’s have a look at only 10 of each group for the start. Each one could be a starting point for an idea, but again you can also combine two or three of them. How are these emotions created? What kind of situation can you imagine linked to each of them? You also can try to combine positive with negative emotions to create an emotional conflict right from the start. Or here’s another example: two couples set out for a day-trip to the woods. Assign two different emotions to each character, so that for all the four characters conflicts are unavoidable on the long run.

Positive emotionsNegative emotions
From the most powerful and pleasant to the mildest in strengthFrom the least powerful and unpleasant to the most intolerable
DeterminationDread Hate
Michael Allen: The Truth About Writing

In Marilyn Beker’s >Screenwriter activist< we have a totally different kind of list. She speaks of a Social Issue List. As you can see all keywords (there are 33 all together) are related to social or political issues, i.e. in the background often the question of power, who is in control resonates. Let’s have a look at some of them:

  • Addiction (smoking, drugs, sex, gambling)
  • Abuse of power (by politicians, the media, the military)
  • Breakdown of the family (divorce, single parent issues)
  • Criminal justice (capital punishment, violence, gun control, police corruption and brutality)
  • Censorship
  • Corporate greed
  • Education
  • Human rights
  • Homelessness
  • Immigration
  • Labor practices
  • Political corruption
  • Poverty
  • Racism and discrimination

Here’s her advice how to work with this list: “From the list in the chapter above, pick out those issues that “speak” to you. For each, write down what about it is interesting to you, what moves you emotionally about it and why you think it’s socially important. Keep in mind that the issues themselves are neutral. You can be either for or against an issue.“ (Marilyn Beker)

You should try to create a list by yourself, related to your biography or issues that may concern you. You can go back to Marilyn Beker’s Social Issue List if needed. Try to get a little bit more into detail, to be a little bit more precise, than just an image or a perception.

PS: And then there is the annual Black List, a list compiled from the suggestions of over 250 film executives. Although most of the one-liners are typically Hollywood, they can always serve as an inspiration!

Your turn!

1. Make a keyword list related to a topic you are familiar with. Play around with the list, find ideas.

2. Go back to the 36 dramatic situations and go more into detail. Turn the conflicts, the dramatic outline into something different.

3. What happens if you take away (one after the other) emotional balance, security, the feeling of love of a person’s life? How could this happen and where could it lead to?

4. Adoption, abuse of power by the media, censorship, the environment, refugee issues, labor practices and racism and discrimination: what implications can all of these keywords have? Brainstorm and make a mental map for each topic.

5. Go to the Black List. Change, combine, be inspired by the oneliners!

6. Check out the website EU most wanted. Every case is a potential story!

Films to watch

James Benning

  • El Valley Centro (1999) IMDB

Gerhard B. Friedl

  • Wolff Von Amerongen (2004) IMDB

Antonello Grimaldi

  • Quiet Chaos (2008) IMDB

William Klein

  • Who are you, Polly Maggoo? (1966) IMDB

Tsai Ming-Liang

  • The River (1997) IMDB

Koen Mortier

  • Ex Drummer (2007) IMDB

Pan Nalin

  • Samsara (2001) IMDB

Alain Resnais

  • Hiroshima, mon Amour (1959) IMDB

Agnès Varda

  • Daguerréotypes (1976) IMDB

Lars von Trier

  • The Element of Crime (1984) IMDB