The Weird World of Plotto


PlottoI 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):

Plotto sample

But Plotto isn’t simply a list of plots. It’s a mix of motives, actions, characters and results with all the complexity of a mathematical model of quantum physics. If Cook had lived today, it would be released as an app writers would be shelling out good money for. At the very least, it ought to be a macro-dense spreadsheet.

Cook himself wrote an introduction manual for using Plotto, published in 1934:

Plotto is a new method of plot SUGGESTION for writers of CREATIVE fiction. Let us, here at the beginning of our course, place the emphasis on the word SUGGESTION, as well as on that other word, CREATIVE. In later lessons of the course we shall go more deeply into this matter of the interpretation of suggestion. For the present, however, it is merely necessary to note that the interpretation of suggestion results in creative work only when the constructive imagination builds with material hewn from the quarry of individual experience. In other words, we achieve Originality; and Originality is the ideal of the Plotto method of plot construction through the interpretation of plot suggestion.

Fascinating, but I’m not sure he simplifies anything by way of the intro. The book’s opening piece, Plotto 101, is somewhat easier to follow. Even so, it can make you giddy in your first attempts to figure it out.

Opening the book to read randomly is a bit like opening the I Ching at a random page: there’s clearly potent stuff here, clearly there are patterns; but what does it mean? How does one connect the words with a greater whole? And where’s my key to all these numbers, codes and cross references? I need a separate, laminated index sheet, a guide to all this to-ing and fro-ing.

Over on Cabinet magazine, Lytle Shaw wrote in a review of Plotto:

Even within this tiny horizon of recycled desires, however, Plotto’s user, attempting to follow Cook’s procedures through a plot sentence’s three clauses, is immediately thrust into a morass of numbered plot fragments, an endless inventory of floating motivations and gratuitous (or unreachable) conclusions. Parenthetical possibilities impinge on our progress, opening bureaucratic vortices of impossible plot-strand management, while holding out the lure of distant sentence completion—which always vanishes or folds inward upon closer inspection. Like the prototypical characters offered by Plotto, the novelist-apprentice is cast in rapid succession, too, as “a person of ideals,” “an erring person,” “a person subjected to adverse conditions,” and finally, “a resentful person.” “Stricken with fever in a wilderness country,” we come to know all of the variant flavors of B-Clause 267—“Misfortune”—while pining for the elusive C-Clause conclusions: emerging “happily from a serious entanglement” or, better, “foiling a guilty plotter and defeating a subtle plot.”

I almost feel I need to take a course in deciphering Plotto’s cryptic form before I can begin using it. It’s text-dense, without images, charts or diagrams that might help untangle it. A good editor today would be stuffing the pages with infographics.

NPR gives a good example of a simple plot:

Each plot is cross-referenced with other plots that combine well with it. For example, here’s plot 1,258: “B, a woman criminal arrested by A-6, a detective, seeks to effect her escape by artful strategy.”

Cook notes that this can be preceded by plots 448 and 1,309b, and followed by 3b, 10a, and 16a — which involves A-6 finally catching up to B, but then falling in love with her…

Some of the plots are just plain wacky. In plot 227, “B is unable to marry A because her father, F-B, in using B for his subject in a scientific experiment, has instilled a poison into her blood.”

Quite a few have many more associations and cross references that find the reader hopping back and forth through the book trying to sort it all out. But once you’re down the rabbit hole, it compelling to continue on.

Plotto is for would-be fiction writers and novelists, but also for anyone interested in crafting role-playing games. While researching it, I came across this thread about using it as a source of ideas for RPGs.

As a writer with a dozen unpublished (and likely unpublishable) novels in my basement, I’m always looking for anything that will help me craft fiction, help me develop a good plot line. i think I can handle the rest myself, but having a coherent, consistent plot sometimes escapes me (or so my novelistic attempts tell me…). Perhaps Plotto will be able to raise me out of that slump.**

Or maybe I’ll just read it at random, delighting in the convolutions and complexity… but what about those three or four novels I started in the past couple of years, but left incomplete on my hard drive? Do I hear their siren song calling me back?

~~~~~

* Among Polti’s plots are (full list on Wikipedia):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Pursuit: Punishment; a Fugitive
    The Fugitive flees Punishment for a misunderstood conflict.

Similarly, Christopher Brooker wrote The Seven Basic Plots in which he listed:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Which is a bit reductionist, compared to Polti, but even more so to Cook’s expansive list! Joseph’s Campbell’s hero cycle has also been used as the basis for plot-structure writing guides, and I have several of those titles among my library.

** I dragged them out a few months ago – none less than 20 years old – and started rereading. Some good ideas, there, but weak execution. Some awful dreck, too. I was younger, of course, when I wrote them, so perhaps youthful folly might excuse me. However, one scifi tale that spins out over 500 pages actually had me reading avidly until about mid-way when it unravelled and lost focus. Sigh.I suppose I might scan then OCR the first part so I can try a rewrite if I can smooth the plot into coherency, perhaps with the help of Plotto.