Plotto: A Plot Plotter

Michael Hayward

William Wallace Cook was known as “the man who deforested Canada,” thanks to his prolific production of Western and science fiction “nickel and dime” novels, and short stories published in the “pulp” magazines of the 192s. Cook died in 1933 and would probably be forgotten today were it not for a fascinating “writing aid” that he wrote and published in 1928.

Plotto (back in print from Tin House Books) describes a three-stage method for creating plots: simply follow the rules to come up with a unique plot that is all your own! First: select a Masterplot; next: add a Conflict Situation; finally: blend with your choice of Character Combinations, selecting from “an index of protagonists, each cross-referenced with supporting players who are tied to various conflict situations.” But Plotto also includes more than 4 pages’ worth of ready-made plots; for example, plot number 1443-b: “A, trapped by a falling tree in an isolated place, is unable to extricate himself, and dies.” A handy one-page guide to Plotto’s “character symbols” (A=male protagonist; B=female protagonist; GCH-A=grandchild of A; etc.) concludes with this fabulous bit of advice to writers: “X added to any character gives to the character a suggestion of mystery.”

According to the foreword, Plotto was used by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, and by Alfred Hitchcock. This is a completely absorbing book. All I can say is: “Curses to Tin House for reprinting Plotto!”—it is just a matter of time before Canada’s boreal forests are no more than a fading memory.

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