Plotto: The 1462 Plots Of Every Possible Story

plottooldWe 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.

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  • Liam_McGonagle

    The thing that I find troublesome about this is the implication, intended or otherwise, that each of the 1,462 plots is equally important and emotionally compelling.

  • Jackpw

    For some reason, this just makes me think of the Tarot

    • Fleming1972

      This would be an interesting book for bibliomancy.

  • DeepCough

    Yeah, just about any “new” story you’ve read these days–at least here in America–was already written down by Shakespeare or another English author from a century or so before. There is nothing original under the sun–it just has new packaging.

    • Anarchy Pony

      More or less.

    • saoirse1

      Actually Shakespeare never wrote any original stories.  Each and every last one of the plays in his cannon was a ripoff of a previous popular drama or culled from the annals of Holingshead, Saxo the Grammarian and the likes.

      Shakespeare’s contribution to literature was psychological realism of the characters.  Though some say he was just ripping off Cervantes as far as that goes.

      • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

        smells like Disney

  • EyeoftheAxis

    A literary companion for the music of PDQ Bach.
    Who needs human emotion and rational when you have a formula and plagiarism.

    PDQ Bach – The Unbegun Symphony – http://youtu.be/9rGVXLNQ3dY
    The folks at MIT seemed to enjoy the high brow / low brow humor of it. I can’t sit still for the entire thing.

  • Anon

    The thing that I found troublesome about this is the apparent ‘Copyfraud’.  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=787244

    Being published in 1928, it was subject to the 1909 Copyright Act in the US (though it seems Cook was Canadian) which means that the term of protection was 28 years from publication (in the US) – this Act also allowed for a renewal of the copyright term for another period of 28 years.  The following webpage lists the work as having no record of renewal (with a warning that this may not be dispositive) and concludes that it is therefore ‘probably’ in the US public domain:  http://www.kingkong.demon.co.uk/ccer/1928x.htm

    If it turns out that the copyright was renewed in 1956, then it would have been affected by the 1976 Act which brought the US into line with the Berne Convention minimum standards (despite not ratifying until 1988) by designating (including retroactively) the term of copyright to be life plus 50 years.  Assuming this to be so, the copyright would have expired in 1983, long before it could have been retroactively extended again by the 1998 Act.  Even if it was somehow subject to that extension (the 1998 Act did not purport to revive copyright in works that had entered the public domain – though see SCOTUS’s very recent Golan decision for the bizarre assertion that Congress does actually have this power http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/01/scotus-re-copyright-decision/  ), there is no way that the original copyright could have survived 2003, being 70 years after the death of the author.

    If you’ve gotten this far, you may also be interested in checking out ‘The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain: http://www.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?66+Law+&+Contemp.+Probs.+33+%28WinterSpring+2003%29

  • MrSta

    Yip. However, the pleasure is also in how it is told, not just the plot.

  • Dunzain

    Interesting.

    Well, there is also a “H.P. Lovecraft story generator”  if somebody fancy to google it.. :)

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