I came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.
Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.
In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.
What’s all the fuss?
Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.
And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:
In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.
Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.
The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:
In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.
That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*
Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):