PLOTTO: Expanding The Conflict to Engage Your Readers
Mastering Plotto Training Series 4
Note: One of the master writers of our age was William Wallace Cook. Producing often a novel per week, he was also a student of dramatic plots. This lesson from his long unavailable “Mastering Plotto” book gives you inside tips on how to improve your story output by coming up with plots more simply. An online version of his PLOTTO is available from Gary Kacmarcik for the exercises below. Enjoy.
With this lesson we shall begin considering another angle of this method of Conflict suggestion.
You have noticed in the Conflicts that, in lieu of proper names, Plotto makes use of letter symbols, or of letters and numerals. These symbols represent the characters, the dramatis personae, of the Conflicts; they suggest, also, the relationship of subordinate characters to the protagonist, or the action suggested by the Conflict.
As an illustration: “Tom seeks to help Dick in a certain enterprise.* Tom, seeking to help Dick in a certain enterprise, does not know that Dick is a crook.**” Instead of using the names “Tom” and “Dick” Plotto’s Conflict 809 would phase the Purpose and Obstacle in this way: “A seeks to help A-5 in a certain enterprise.* A, seeking to help A-5 in a certain enterprise, does not know that A-5 is a crook.**”
Now, the use of “A” and “A-5” instead of the proper names, “Tom” and “Dick,” offers several practical advantages. We know at once that A is the leading character, the protagonist; and we know A-5 is a male criminal. Wherever a criminal appears in the Conflicts, the added figure, 5, will indicate it.
So the symbols make for a certain uniformity in suggesting the characters taking part in the Conflict. They have also, as previously stated, the additional value of expressing the relationship of subordinate characters to the protagonist, or to the action.
The use of these symbols, also, is a very practical aid in Conflict manipulations, since they may be readily changed, or transposed, to meet the varying needs of the moment.
The more intimate relationships, consanguineous or by marriage, have letter symbols. “F-A,” for example, is “The father of A,” “SN-A” is the “son of A,” and “M-B” is the “mother of B.”
It is merely necessary for the plottoist to remember that “A” is the male protagonist, and the female protagonist is always “B.” Other relationships than ties of blood or marriage are indicated by the use of numerals. Thus, “A-2” is a “friend of A,” and “B-2” is a “friend of B,” the “A” suggesting a man friend and the “B” a woman friend; and “bA-2,” if desired, would suggest a woman friend of A, and “aB-2” a man friend of B.
The relationship of the subordinate characters to the protagonist, or to the action, is invariably explained in the text of the Conflicts.
Manipulating Character Symbols
The main Conflict in a plot that is being developed will be the conflict, or situation, under the B Clause of the Masterplot. Subordinate Conflicts, if necessary, will have their character symbols changed, or transposed, to match the symbols of the Conflict whose ramifications are being studied.
In the heart of the text of Conflict 72, you will find a reference: “26a,b, ch A to A-2.” Conflict 26a reads: “A and B have never seen each other, etc.” If we were using Conflict 26a as explanatory of Conflict 72, our main situation, we would have to change 26a to read: “A-2 and B have never seen each other, etc.” Thus the changed symbol, A-2, would come into harmony with the text of Conflict 72. In this illustration, the reference suggests an explanation to account for the fact that A-2 and B, engaged to be married, have never seen each other. This, although important, is a minor point and, in such a case the literal use of the suggestion would be pardonable, although an original interpretation of the specific Conflict is to be preferred.
“Lead-ups” and “Carry-ons”
Reference numbers are prefixed and affixed to the Conflicts. Those prefixed may roughly be designated as “lead-up” Conflicts, in the sense that they lead up to the action of the main Conflict. The reference numbers affixed to the Conflicts may be called “carry-on” suggestions, in the sense that they carry on the action. Reference numbers in the heart of the Conflict text are usually, although not invariably, explanatory suggestions, useful always in studying the plot possibilities of the main Conflict.
Consider, for a moment, Conflict 239. A lead-up to 239 is “291 ch A to A-8.” Kindly turn to Conflict 291 and make the change so that 291 shall conform to 239.
Conflict 880a has a lead-up, “840 tr A & A-2.” This indicates that characters A and A-2 are to be transposed thus: “A-2 seeks to prevent his friend, A, from committing a reckless act that would have fateful consequences.” Then Conflict 880a: “A, by a stratagem of his friend, A-2, is saved from an act of folly, etc.”
Turn to Conflict 1052a. Lead-up 1369 suggests that A-4 is to be changed to A-8. Hold the page on which Conflict 1052a appears and turn to Conflict 1369. Read this lead-up, changing the symbol as suggested, in connection with Conflict 1052a.
Now we shall attempt a lead-up combination that is long and has several changes. It will be well to use pencil and paper, or a typewriter, and make a copy of each lead-up reference with the changes as noted. For this illustration we will use the Conflict we have just been considering, 1369. The combination lead-up is long and involved, and refers us first to suggestion 1143b. In 1143b we are to change A to A-8 and B to B-4. Please write out that Conflict with the changes as noted.
Now turn to Conflict 739, the middle term of the suggestion. Write out that Conflict, changing B to B-4.
Now consider conflict 1384, the third suggestion for the combination. B, here, is to be changed to A. Write out this lead-up with the change.
Now kindly turn back to Conflict 1369, our main situation. Arrange the combination Conflicts you have just written down above it in their proper order. All the lead-up Conflicts have been changed to harmonize with 1369:
“A receives half of an important message, X, and is looking for a stranger, A-4, who has the other half. The message cannot be read until both halves are joined.”
Note the difficulty that has to do with the “object X.” In our first term of the lead-up combination, X is revealed as a miniature. In our main situation, 1369, we are confronted with a problem; for the miniature is not said to be broken, and the two halves, as the lead-up stands, are already joined.
The constructive imagination of the plottoist could have a piece broken from the miniature, and that fragment in some manner fall into the possession of the stranger, A-4. Or, we might discard the miniature altogether and be even more original in our handling of the situation. Suppose the artist, A-8, has been hired by B-4 to paint two miniatures, one of herself and the other of A-4, her fiancé; and suppose that some of the lines of the concealed “map of great importance” are painted on one miniature, and the rest of the lines on the other. B-4, let us imagine, quarrels with her fiancé. She had intended giving her miniature to A-4, and keeping A-4’s miniature for herself; but when they quarrel, B pawns both miniatures; and A-4, discovering what she has done and not knowing that both miniatures “conceal a map of great importance,” redeems his own miniature from the pawnbroker.
All lead-ups would carry-on successfully to our main situation. A, with one miniature, would have to secure the other miniature from A-4 before he could have “the map of great importance” complete.
Another interesting study in the interpretation. of suggestion is afforded by Conflict 960a:
“A is a soldier, eager to fight but is commanded to retreat before a superior force of the enemy * A receives orders from his superiors which he considers discreditable **”
A reference leading up to this Conflict is embodied in suggestion 928b change A to F-A and SN to A:
“F-A is proud of his son, A* F-A’s son, A, dies a shameful, inglorious death, bringing dishonor and sorrow to F-A**”
A carry-on reference is affixed to 960a in a combination: “919c; 928 b ch A to F-A & SN to A.” The first part of this suggestion, and the second part with changes as indicated, would read:
“A, a soldier, is reported a deserter under fire* A, a soldier facing a large force of the enemy, fights against overwhelming odds until he is killed** Then: “F-A is proud of his son, A* F-A’s son, A, dies a shameful, inglorious death, bringing dishonor and sorrow to A**”
Here we have a tragic error in which the hero brings sorrow to his father through misinformation given out by the War Office. A would not retreat according to orders; consequently, he is supposed to be a “deserter under fire.”
An instructing study in manipulation is offered by this group of Conflicts. Instead of being a soldier, suppose A to be the cashier of a large firm and that he has a large amount of the firm’s cash in his possession. The junior partner of the firm employing A is a gambler, and sorely in need of funds. He comes to the office of the firm at night, while A is alone there, working on the books. He orders A to give him a large sum of money from the firm’s funds. A refuses, feeling sure that the money wanted is to be used for gambling purposes. Morally, A is in the right; legally, he is in the wrong, for the junior partner has a certain right to the money of the firm. There are hot words, a quarrel, and the junior partner draws a revolver to enforce his demands. In the succeeding tussle, the revolver is discharged, and A is killed. The junior partner takes the cash he needs, places the revolver in A’s stiffening fingers and scrawls a note in imitation of A’s handwriting to the effect that A is a defaulter, and has taken the easiest way out of his troubles.
This would interpret the suggestion we are studying, removing it from the sphere of military activities and giving, it a setting of civilian life.
A-2 is a wealthy man, and the friend of A. A-2 has a fear of burglars that amounts to an obsession. A, surprising a burglar looting his own home, discovers a rare and costly heirloom of A-2’s in the possession of the burglar. A does not want A-2 to know he has been robbed, and endeavors to return the heirloom to its owner at night, and by stealth. He uses the robber’s mask, effects entrance into A-2’s home by the same window the robber had “jimmied” and forced, and then, before he can return the heirloom to the place from which it was taken, he is shot and killed by A-2. To all appearance he is the real robber, for he has the loot in his possession.
Lesson 4 Exercises
1. What was the Masterplot you selected?
2. What Conflict did you exemplify the B Clause of your Masterplot?
3. Interpret originally two suggestions leading up to the selected Conflict.
4. Interpret originally two suggestions carrying on and terminating the action suggested by the Conflict selected under the B Clause of your Masterplot.