The art of mechanized storytelling, or what a cardboard robot has to do with melodrama and Law & Order.
You are an author about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single, basic plot: a conflict that needs to be resolved. Perhaps there are two questions to be answered: will my story have a happy ending or a sad ending? Perhaps the conflict has one of several distinct oppositions: man vs nature, man vs. technology, man vs. god or man vs. self.
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.
Plotto, reissued last month by Tin House, was a manual that aimed to mechanize the entire narrative trade. In his introduction, Paul Collins recognizes that Cook was something of a plot machine himself, once writing fifty-four novels in a year, more than one a week. Cook’s methods were developed into a Plotto Studio of Authorship in New York City, his book hailed as “an invention which reduces literature to an exact science.”
While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. The success of Plotto inspired other write-for-pay miracle workers. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.
Plotto was far more complex, and despite its careful categorization, still exceedingly hard to understand. It’s a narrative Dewey Decimal System of sorts, where each character-type is given a letter: the man is A, the woman is B, their relatives, such as a father or mother, would be F-A or M-B, and anything mysterious, be it a stranger or a strange object, is given the designation X, that ultimate letter of mystery. Conflicts have their own groupings, such as Love and Courtship, Married Life, Mystery, Misfortune, Idealism, Personal Limitations, Revelation, Helpfulness, Craftiness Stimulation, Mistaken Judgement, and Deliverance.
Each narrative in Plotto begins with “Masterplots” which are made up of several beginning, middle, and end clauses (e.g. “A person in love > Falling in love when certain obligations forbid love > Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.”) These permutations, which can number in the hundreds, are subdivided once again according to character and conflict into specific situations, the more than 1,462 individual plots that make up the bulk of Plotto.
In a record twenty years on television, Law & Order served up 465 somewhat distinct plots. Had the writers used Plotto, they could have provided the police procedural with at least sixty years of dramatic tension.
The plots of Plotto, each handily numbered, can range from the simple acts of love and deception…
1a. A, of humble birth, in love with aristocratic B, pretends to be a man of high social standing.”
…to more elaborate and melodramatic schemes:
9b. B’s cattle ranch was left to her by her father, and every man B hires as foreman makes love to her sooner or later, and is discharged. B hires A as a foreman on her ranch, and he promises to keep his place and not to make love to her, but B falls in love with him, and it present glad to learn that A’s sole purpose in taking the job of foreman was to win her love.”
Some plots might sound familiar:
61. B [the female hero], in male attire, is suddenly revealed to A, the man she loves, in her true sex.”
Others, less than familiar:
1282. A, a crook, commits a robbery and escapes in woman’s clothes. A had local fame as a female impersonator and A-6, a detective, makes use of this fact as a clue in apprehending A for his transgression.”
Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots is a reference guide that is at once dense, artful, and hilarious. Crack open the book at any page and you’ll find conflicts you never knew existed, between character A and character B, whose individual quirks manage to shine through. But while the handbook might take a mechanical approach to its subject, Cook recognized in the introduction that what he was providing was still a skeleton of a story, and it was the writer who must provide the art:
The plot in itself is purely mechanical… This machinery must not creak or complain as the story advances… And therein lies the art of the storyteller. Plotto, at least, holds this to be true, and as a corollary to the position thus taken, exalts the imagination as the greatest force in the world.”