'Plotto': An Algebra Book For Fiction Writing

Originally published on February 19, 2012 7:58 pm

It's been said that there are only seven basic plots in fiction. Pulp novelist William Wallace Cook would beg to differ.

According to Cook, there are a whopping 1,462 plots, all of which he laid out in his 1928 book, Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots.

Plotto has just been reissued for the edification of novelists everywhere. Author Paul Collins, who wrote the introduction to the new edition, tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Mary Louise Kelly that the book came out of Cook's need to sustain a punishing writing pace: In one year, 1910, he churned out more than a book a week.

"He was known as the man who deforested Canada," Collins says. "He had to systematize it. He was literally manufacturing fiction, to the point that when he wrote a memoir, he titled it The Fiction Factory."

Plotto looks like an algebra book at first: Protagonists A and B, and their numerically designated friends, rivals and relatives all combine and compete in pursuit of love, money, success and sometimes even a mysterious item X.

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.

Cook, like many pulp novelists of the day, clipped ideas straight from the headlines. He kept them in a specially designed card catalog, which Collins says is "basically the larger version of this book."

"It was sort of like a filing cabinet with all these plot elements," he says.

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."

But, says Collins, as off-the-wall as Plotto can be, it was actually quite influential in its day — and not just to aspiring novelists. A young Alfred Hitchcock, just getting started as a silent film director in Britain, sent away for a copy.

"It's had a particularly strong afterlife, I think, among screenwriters," Collins says. "A lot of this whole idea of formulaic plotting, especially in its early versions, like Plotto, actually was associated with movies, as much as with novels."

Collins says that while pulp novels like the ones Cook wrote may be mostly gone, Cook's carefully cross-referenced plots can actually teach aspiring writers a great deal about which plot elements go together best.

"You really do get a strong sense of how plot works," he says. "Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the Perry Mason books, said that he basically learned about plotting from Plotto."

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It's been suggested that there are just seven basic plots in all of literature, but author William Wallace Cook begged to differ. He argued there are, in fact...

PAUL COLLINS: One thousand four hundred and sixty-two.

KELLY: For example...

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: B's friend B2 makes an important revelation regarding A, which causes B to correct a serious error.

KELLY: Cook was a prolific pulp novelist. In just one year, 1910, he churned out 54 books, more than one a week. Cook wrote in every genre from romance to Western to science fiction. And to sustain that incredible productivity, he developed a detailed system of plots.

MONDELLO: 15AB, plain and humble working girl, falls in love A.

KELLY: Naturally, Cook decided to turn his method into - what else? A book. And "Plotto: the Master Book of All Plots" is our book this week. It was originally published back in 1928. It has just been reissued with an introduction by author Paul Collins who joins us now. Welcome to the program.

COLLINS: Oh, thank you.

KELLY: So explain to us how this works, because when you look through this book - it looks like this algebra textbook almost - you've got character A and character B, and then there can be B3 and A9, all, you know, pursuing mysterious X. I mean, in a nutshell, how has he structured this?

COLLINS: It's almost structured like this kind of mad thesaurus, basically, where you have these plot elements or these plot situations. And then each one is preceded by or followed by a bunch of numbers and letters that basically cross-reference you to a plot element that could proceed or could follow the one that you're looking at. The idea being that you can recombine them in kind of this wild number of combinations.

And this was actually something that for him arose out of necessity because he was, well, he was known at the man who deforested Canada. I mean, he cranked out this gigantic number of pulp novels, and he had to systematize it. I mean, he was literally manufacturing fiction to the point that when he wrote a memoir, he titled it "The Fiction Factory," and that's a pretty fair description, actually.

MONDELLO: 227B is unable to marry A because her father, FB, in using B for his subject in a scientific experiment, has instilled a poison into her blood.

KELLY: It's almost like a how-to guide for writers. Every possible permutation you have - you could come up with, he's come up with and he's made it into this guide. I mean, it's almost a way to mechanize fiction, I guess.

COLLINS: Yeah. And fiction was being mechanized at that point. When we describe a novel as formulaic, that's usually meant as a putdown. But it was actually a necessity for a number of writers at that time because pulp novels were this gigantic market. But it was a market that actually paid very little to the writers. So to get by, you had to do things like crank out novels every few weeks, or every week, in his case.

KELLY: Did he ever explain where he got his ideas from?

COLLINS: You know, to some extent, they actually came from newspapers. He would clip things out of newspapers as plot elements. And he initially had this filing system of - fairly elaborate filing system that he came up with. It was basically the larger version of this book. It was sort of like a filing cabinet with all these plot elements.

But, yeah, a lot of this actually started - as was actually really typical for pulp novelists, they would just draw stuff from the headlines.

KELLY: They must have been reading some pretty amazing headlines because some of these plots are just unbelievable. I mean, just to open - let's have a look through. Let's pick number 607, and I'll read. A and his friend A2, explorers, are alone in the jungle. A's friend A2 goes insane from eating the berries of a strange plant and makes a murderous attack upon A. This could be the next great pulp novel. What kind of guy was William Wallace Cook to sit around and thinking of these things, of, you know, berries of a strange plant and murderous attacks?

COLLINS: He was a pretty curious figure. You know, his memoir is almost completely consumed with describing the process of writing and of cranking out this stuff so quickly. By his own account, he went through 25 typewriters in the course of his career.

KELLY: Wow. Now, I have to ask. As you have leafed through these, do you have a favorite plot that he managed to come up with?

COLLINS: I think, off the cuff, that one of my favorite plot elements that he threw out, just because it's so weird. It's a - this one is - this is number 1367B. A has invented a life preserver for the use of shipwrecked persons. A, in order to prove the value of a life preserver he's invented, dons the rubber suit, inflates it and secretly by night drops overboard from a steamer onto the high seas.


KELLY: I'm sure we've all read that one somewhere.


KELLY: Well, I mean, it's easy to laugh looking back at this but this was actually influential in its day. You write that a young Alfred Hitchcock sent off for a copy.

COLLINS: Yeah, he did. He mentioned it in an interview in 1970 where he was talking about getting started in his career in Britain in the 1920s as a silent film director. He recalled ordering this book. He had to special order it from America. And one of the curious things about "Plotto" is that it's had a particularly strong afterlife, I think, among screenwriters.

A lot of this whole idea of formulaic plotting in its early versions, like "Plotto," actually was associated with movies as much as with novels.

KELLY: You know, it makes sense.

COLLINS: Yeah. I think in part because of the way movies were being pitched and developed, it was as a series of plot elements, particularly, I think, in the silent era.

KELLY: Well, do you ever find yourself watching a movie or reading a book and thinking, I recognize that. That's number, you know, 942B.


COLLINS: I have to say I've never read a book where a ventriloquist is freed from a tribe of cannibals because of his ability to throw a voice to an animal.

KELLY: But somebody out there is waiting to write it.

COLLINS: Yes. One of the funny things about reading "Plotto" is that you really do get a strong sense of how plot works. And that actually, in its own way, was influential. Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the Perry Mason books, said that he basically learned about plotting from "Plotto."

KELLY: That's author Paul Collins speaking to us about the new edition of William Wallace Cook's book "Plotto: the Master Book of All Plots." Paul Collins, thanks very much.

COLLINS: Oh, thank you.

KELLY: And we should also thank Bob Mondello who provided the dramatic readings from "Plotto."

MONDELLO: 1,175B. A and A2 are friends, but one of them is a criminal and a fugitive from justice. Which of the two is a criminal? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.