We often describe films or books as “formulaic”, but has anyone truly deduced the formula? Via Brain Pickings, William Wallace Cook wrote a novel per week and in 1928 created Plotto, a coded system of mechanized storytelling. Is the endless bounty of Law & Order Plotto’s modern incarnation?
You are about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single conflict that needs to be resolved. 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.
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. 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.