Andrea/Cara here, talking today about the craft of writing a novel—to whit, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just come across a Momentous Discovery that’s made it easy-peasy. No more angsting over those piddling little inconveniences like character development, conflict and plot development. I have THE SECRET (she says with an evil chuckle).
And how, you may ask, have I stumbled on this magical Gift from the Muse? Lucky you—I am about to share it!
You simply have to go by The Book . . .Yes, yes, I can see you squirming, asking WHAT BOOK? Well, the answer is about to be revealed. (Those of you holding your breath may now exhale.) The name of this astounding tome is PLOTTO: The Master Book of All Plots!
A friend of mine recently gave me this Wondrous Resource after The New York Times Book Review ran a story on its recent reissue. It is—how shall I put this—absolutely, um, mesmerizing in a weirdly fascinating sort of way. Allow me to explain.
PLOTTO is the brainchild of William Wallace Cook, a pulp fiction writer of the early 1900s who earned the title of “the man who deforested Canada." He once said, “A writer is neither better not worse than any other man who happens to be in trade. He is a manufacturer.”
And oh, did Cook manufacture! Writing under a battalion of pseudonyms, he cranked out literally hundreds of books over his forty-four year career, in genres ranging from romance and science fiction to Westerns. (In 1910, he wrote 53 novels.) According to the introduction to the latest edition of this guide to bestsellers, Cook had the art of writing down to a precise science: 40,000 words divided into 16 chapters.
In 1928, Cook published yet another book—this one designed to show that he had come up with “an invention that reduces literature to an exact science.” PLOTTO was, in effect, a plot generator based on three elemental things: the protagonist, the conflict situation and the resolution. And within that trinity exist an infinite variety of combinations. As Paul Collins says in his introduction, Cook’s elaborate chart of how to construct a bestselling novel “resembles some utterly mad thesaurus.”
There are hundreds of character variations listed, each with a complex system of symbols. Same with plot and conflict. You check the master charts, and then can peruse several hundred pages of PLOTTO’s suggested combinations. Like Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s famous novel, you can then bring to life a unique creation of your own. Okay, don’t laugh— Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books, and Alfred Hitchcock are among the many people who credit PLOTTO with guiding them down the road to success.
In all honesty, I haven’t spent a great deal of time poring over the pages. However, despite my first impulse to dismiss the whole idea of a plot generator as ridiculous, I have to admit that there is a certain mad logic to his system. The idea that there are maybe 20 basic plots in all of literature is not unique to Cook. Critics and philosophers through the ages have mused on this, as well as basic conflict and character archetypes. I recently read an interview in which Lee Child, the famous author of the Jack Reacher thriller novels, waxes poetic on how he likes to think of Reacher as carrying on the tradition of the Knight Errant in medieval romance. Think about it—the tall, dark stranger who rides into town and solves a conflict, only to head off into the sunset once he’s played the hero.
I do plan to give PLOTTO a more careful look. How about you? What do you think of the idea of a master plot and character generator? Does it make you laugh . . .or gag? And do you have a favorite plot trop or character archetype?