PLOTTO: Interpreting Conflicts With A Writer’s Originality
Mastering Plotto Training Series 3
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
One of the most important words in any language is Experience.
The immortal Patrick Henry
“had but one lamp by which his feet were guided, and that was the lamp of Experience.”
Richter was speaking of Experience when he said:
“The youngest heart has the same waves within it as the oldest, but without the plummet which can measure their depths.”
Had Spurgeon been writing of Plotto he could not have enunciated a more pertinent truth than this:
“Conflicts bring experience; and experience brings that growth in grace which is not to be obtained by any other means.”
William Matthews has his to say about Experience:
“The petty cares, the minute anxieties, the infinite littles which go to make up the sum of human experience, like the invisible granules of powder, give the last and highest polish to a character.”
And there is this by John Locke:
“Experience: in that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either about external or sensible objects or about the internal operations of our own minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking.”
From this brief symposium we may safely gather that Experience is an individual’s fund of knowledge; or, as Hosea Ballou writes:
“Experience is retrospect knowledge.”
Our contact with our fellows, and with the physical world, gives us our experience; and reflection upon such contacts, or the lessons derived from them, becomes the spiritual part of our fund of knowledge.”
It is impossible that this world should contain two persons of mature years whose fund of knowledge is exactly the same. As human beings differ in nature and in temperament, so the lessons they draw from Experience will vary. If it were possible for your Experience and my Experience to be identical, nevertheless the deductions drawn from those Experiences would widely differentiate our fund of garnered knowledge. We are individuals, and we individualize our findings. In that we all of us are Original.
Originality, therefore, means the interpretation of suggestion each according to his own Experience. The interpretation is not copied, imitated or translated, but it is new and genuine. It is inventive, also, and suggestive of new thoughts and combinations.
Let us consider a part of Conflict 618: “A is bored by certain duties he is obliged to perform.” Turn that suggestion over in your mind. Give yourself three minutes to reach down into your own Experience and interpret the duties which A is obliged to perform, and which bore him.
It must be clear to all of you, from this little demonstration, that Conflict suggestions cannot be interpreted in identical terms if these interpretations are original—that is, based on individual Experience. Now, again, let us take the second part of Conflict 618: “A, bored by certain duties he is obliged to perform, finds a way out—with unpleasant results.” Using your interpretation of the first suggestion as a basis, endeavor to interpret this second suggestion in original terms. You may have five minutes for this.
Another angle of Conflict suggestion is exemplified by Conflict 617, just above 618 in the Plotto Conflicts: “A shows his ignorance of the usages of high society by unpacking his satchel when a servant, A-7, is expected to do it for him. A, annoyed by a faux pas he has committed, seeks to ‘save his face.’
You will not actually use the satchel incident. This is a Specific, rather than a General Conflict, and A’s unpacking of the satchel is cited merely as an illustration. You will not be original if you make use of the satchel in interpreting the suggestion. What other faux pas could A commit? Perhaps some of you may have had an Experience of your own, or have witnessed, or have heard of some incident in which a person unused to the customs of “high society” committed a breach of etiquette, or transgressed the conventions. Fit that incident in here. Perhaps there are a few who will remember how, in “Joshua Whitcomb,” the rural protagonist found himself in a luxurious city home—an environment with which he was not familiar—looked around for a cuspidor, failed to find one, and thereupon took an expensive vase from the mantel and stood it beside his chair.
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.
Let us study for a moment the first part of broken Conflict 1136: “B sends a telegram to her maid, B-7, to ‘come at once.’” There is a veiled suggestion in this part of the Conflict. Reduce the Conflict to a Purpose. B needs the services of her maid. Where is the maid? Possibly away on a vacation. Why does B need the maid? A sudden and imperative summons compels B to take a journey, and she cannot travel without her maid.
These are but two of many interpretations of the suggestion. The latter half of the Conflict suggests the Obstacle: “B, intending to send a telegram to her maid, B-7, through error addresses the message to A.” Thus we have a situation. How could B fall into such an error? Presumably because A is very much in her mind—so much in her mind that unconsciously she addresses her telegram to A instead of to B-7. What is there between A and B which would make such a message as B has sent of vital moment? What circumstances would make the situation interesting? A might be a discarded lover, a worthy lover discarded through a misunderstanding. A might be a man with whom B has quarreled over a matter in which B is wholly in the wrong. Your Experience would suggest an interpretation of the suggestion which my own Experience would not indicate to me.
Glance for a moment at the first half of Conflict 1350: “A thinks himself obsessed with a fear of speeding automobiles.” A’s Purpose is implied: He thinks himself obsessed with a fear; and his implied Purpose is to free himself of that fear. Now note the Obstacle developed in the second half of the Conflict: “A, in order to disprove a fancied hallucination, deliberately throws himself in front of a speeding automobile which he supposes to be a phantom.”
Original interpretation of this suggestion will eliminate automobiles altogether. A might think himself obsessed with a fear of burglars. The suggestion of the complete Conflict is this: In order to cure himself of a fancied obsession, A faces a real burglar who is looting his home; and he supposes the burglar to be a phantom until—But we pause here, as we are getting into other circumstances which other Conflict suggestions will embody.
A might be a hunter in a wilderness, looking for deer. He might be obsessed with the fear that he will shoot another hunter by mistake. He sees a flash of white through the trees and undergrowth; in order to conquer his supposed obsession, he aims his rifle and shoots at something that is not a deer, and—Again we are at the end of Conflict 1350, and we pause to carry on with another situation.
A might be obsessed with the fear that he will be killed by a falling wall. In order to overcome his fancied obsession, he breaks through the fire lines near a burning building, and a wall topples.
We have gone a long way from speeding automobiles. Many interpretations of this suggestion will occur to you which could not possibly occur to me, since the fund of Experience upon which we draw is different.
When B, in the other Conflict, sends a telegram to her maid to “Come at once,” the wording of the message itself is only a suggestion. The text of the telegram could be altered as your original interpretation of the suggestion might demand. So, also, the text of the later conflict suggestion might be altered in any manner that occurs to your groping imagination. Whatever the suggestion suggests to your Experience, make the most of it.
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.
A Conflict suggestion carries with it no hard and fast rules of procedure. Suggestions from the Plotto Conflict set the imagination at work along lines germane to the story plot, and so long as the situation is exemplified the circumstances used in exemplifying it will make no change in the general trend of the B Clause of the Masterplot.
The interpretation in many cases will depart widely from the Specific Conflict’s concrete illustration; and that will be admirable, so long as the suggestion is bodied forth in your original interpretation. The interpretation of the suggestion may carry you far from the Conflict with which you are working; that will be well, too, for the suggestion has set your mind to working along new lines.
1. Conflict 705: “A, unable to conquer his misfortunes, seeks to escape them by committing suicide.”
Name three misfortunes which might bring A to such a desperate pass.
2. Conflict 588: “B, dying, reveals to her husband, A, a closely guarded secret which he finds greatly perturbing.”
What was the secret B revealed to A? Name three secrets she might have revealed.
3. Conflict 206: “A, in love with B, discovers that his rival, A-3, is unworthy, B seems to favor A-3.”
In what way is A-3 unworthy?
Why does B seem to favor A-3?
4. Conflict 1410: “A, endeavoring to solve a mystery, has for his only clue, X, the portrait of a beautiful woman painted on ivory.”
What mystery is A endeavoring to solve?
What other clue could there be besides the portrait?
How did the clue fall into A’s hands?
What is A’s reason for endeavoring to solve the mystery?
Give another reason for A’s attempting to solve the mystery
5. What was the B Clause of the Masterplot you selected?
What Conflict did you select to exemplify this B Clause?
Give an original interpretation of that Conflict.