Thursday, May 23, 2013

Plotto (William Wallace Cook, 1928)

Good morning!

I came across this book, Plotto, on the "new arrivals" shelf catty-corner from the nonfiction desk. Usually, this shelf is piteously stocked with titles like How to Manage Your Security Bonds Investment or What Doctors Won't Tell You About Hyperthyroidism, but last month's batch included both Plotto AND a book called Liberace Extravaganza, and act like I wasn't on those like a duck on a june bug. 

This brightly colored edition is a reprint of the 1928 text by dime novel virtuoso William Wallace Cook. Cook, with extensive experience in cranking out stories for popular publication, improved upon French critic Georges Poulti's declaration that there are thirty-six essential dramatic situations by doing him 1,426 better. Yes, there are one thousand, four hundred and sixty two different plots in Plotto, and the literary aspirant can avail himself to all of them between the orange covers of this book. Stuck for ideas? Take a thumb through this tome and profit from Cook's vast wealth of knowledge on what makes the plot wheels spin. In 1910 alone, he wrote 56 novels. FIFTY SIX. NOVELS. That's more than one a week!

Some plots from Plotto:
  • A, of a proud old Southern family, impoverished in fortune, feels that he cannot ask wealthy B, with whom he is in love, to marry him.
  • A, in one pair of shoes, is meek and circumspect in his behavior when wearing another pair, he is wild and profligate.
  • A finds a note, somewhat ambiguously worded, which leads him to a wrong conclusion regarding the conduct of his wife, B 381 
  •  B is mysteriously murdered and A, innocent, is suspected of the crime 
  • A finds B dead, slain by the gift he had presented to her
  • A, through mistaken judgment, becomes estranged from his loving wife, B
  • A, struggling to overtake the fleeing apparition of his dead wife, B, falls from a cliff and meets his death 

This is just a random sampling-- according to author Paul Collins, who wrote the preface to the new edition and was interviewed about Plotto and Cook for All Things Considered in February of last year, there's a  plot involving a ventriloquist who is saved from cannibals by throwing his voice and making it appear that an animal is speaking to the tribe and advising them to spare his life, and something about an inflatable suit that allows a robber to leap over high fences in making good his getaway. Don't think I won't read this entire book to find out if those are actually in there. Collins says that many of Cook's ideas came from meticulously archived newspaper clippings-- and what a good idea! Reading turn of the century newspapers can yield b-i-z-a-r-r-e bylines from bygone times (reference my Chronicling America website readings on a previous blog post here...some doozys!), and I can just imagine a writer living in some garrett with a kerosene lamp and a battered Underwood trying to find a way to turn a newspaper headline into a paycheck endorsed by Crime Magazine Monthly.

Publisher Tin House's posthumous "interview" with author William Wallace Cook was interesting-- as he died in 1933 (probably from carpal tunnel), the responses are culled from biographical sources and Plotto itself. From that interview:

TH: Do you think the rules in Plotto could stifle originality? 
WWC: Plotto merely suggests, does away with rules and ask you to follow the bent of your own individual imagination, rightly controlled.All this may seem very simple to some of you, but nevertheless it is training your imagination along inventive lines. You are drilling yourself in the art of explaining circumstances in original terms. Not alone in story writing, but in every field of human endeavor, the highest success comes to those with an imagination highly developed and rightly controlled. That is, with an imagination that exercises taste and discrimination in dealing with suggestion. And note, please, that discrimination includes good judgment. Remember that originality is the soul of creative art, and to become a writer of truly creative fiction you must develop a facility in applying originality to your plot construction.When writing a story, you will invent circumstances in interpreting a suggestion and these circumstances will be original with you, and the story will flow easily along familiar lines of experience. We work originally, and we work best, with materials of our own. The suggestion alone is Plotto’s—the working out of the suggestion is original with you and is yours alone.

With a typewriter, Plotto, and a certain amount of pluck, your writing career is well on its way! (source)
I seem to remember at one point in an antique store seeing a Plotto wheel, or maybe a rip off of Plotto in the form of a wheel, that was a writer's aid. You would advance the little round pieces to contrive plot, character, setting, and obstacles. I wish I'd gotten it, because darned if I can't find a single thing about one online! Silent screenwriter Wynclffe Hall (below) wasn't satisfied to just be the author of Ten Million Photoplay Plots: The Master Key to All Dramatic Plots...oh no. He created "Plot Robot", an indexed chart for creating a multitude of variants based on eight basic plots. Look at his glasses! Look how much his robot looks like him! I wish I could find more about this, but the Corbis image below, this Slate article, and another article from Popular Mechanics seems to be about it.

What interests me about Plotto and other vintage how-to writing books is the instruction manual aspect of it all. When people wistfully chide, "Ah, they just don't make 'em like they used to!", my thought is that, with enough spark and attention to detail and the tools in your own hands, such as these texts, you CAN make them like they used to. All you need is the willingness to do so and the books themselves. Hostess manuals and home economics books and sewing pamphlets from the sixties' won't make you an actual, bonafide member of the Eisenhower era, but the very same maraschino cherry bedecked cake or highball cocktail or children's games or nipped waist gown can be had in your own home with proper scholarship and effort.  Disappointed that you've run out of potboiler pulp fiction to read? Here, you have at your command the very tools and knowledge of a turn of the century dime novelist, the benefit of all his experience and the breadth of his understanding, in handsomely bound volume! Something about that is incredibly appealing to me.

So! What do you think? If you're a writer, do you think you could use a book like Plotto to put some steam behind your typing? What farfetched plots from movies or books from this time period really get your imagination going? Let's talk!

If you're interested in taking a glance at Plotto without committing to its purchase or running out to the library to grab a copy, the text of the book in its entirety is on Internet Archive. You're welcome! :)

That's all for today, but I'll see ou guys right back here tomorrow for Photo Friday. Til then!

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