PLOTTO Masterplots: How Writers Create Engaging Plots
Mastering Plotto Training Series 1
Note: One of the masters of creative writing in 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
Read and study this manual. It will teach you how to understand and get the most benefit out of Plotto.
Remember: Plotto is the greatest single aid in plotting ever offered writers. Make up your mind NOW to give Plotto and this manual the time it deserves. The best-known writers in the world own and use Plotto.
You are beginning the study of one of the most fascinating problems to be found in any profession. The problem deals with complications of incidents based on human reactions to the various stimuli of environment, each complication unfolding logically into a climax, or crisis, and then subsiding quickly in a denouement. To solve this problem crudely is one thing, but to accomplish it with an art in which the imagination exercises taste and discrimination is quite another thing.
In this life, there is no pleasure and no satisfaction to be compared with the act of Creating, or drawing upon our experience for the purpose of giving to the world something new, shaped out of materials as old as Man and quickened to life by the breath of the imagination. The artist may do this with a picture, the sculptor with a statue, or the writer with a fictional story—if it chance that each and all of them shall bring originality to bear upon the work.
There can be no hard and fast rules for Genius, and there are only a few simple guideposts that mark the path of Originality; and these guideposts merely exercise and develop the imagination on the progress toward the goal. As Memory is nothing more than the association of ideas, so Originality is nothing more than the combining of those ideas in conformity with an individual conception.
Each person that lives, has ever lived or shall live is, was or will be a collector of ideas combined into a certain thing called experience. My experience is not your experience; and that means that neither you nor I, when accomplishing original work, will accomplish identical work. If it were otherwise, there would be no originality in the world. Originality is our response to the stimulus of suggestion in individual terms of our varying experience.
Plotto is a new method of plot Suggestion for writers of Creative fiction. Let us, here at the beginning of our course, place the emphasis on the word Suggestion, as well as on that other word, Creative. In later lessons of the course we shall go more deeply into this matter of the interpretation of suggestion.
For the present, however, it is merely necessary to note that the interpretation of suggestion results in creative work only when the constructive imagination builds with material hewn from the quarry of individual experience. In other words, we achieve Originality; and Originality is the ideal of the Plotto method of plot construction through the interpretation of plot suggestion.
Every story, long or short, grave or gay, mystery story, detective story, love story, or what-not has one basic element in common; and that basic element is the Theme. A Theme is a general proposition defining the story’s type. “A man’s revenge for the treachery of a false friend,” is vaguely descriptive of a certain type of story. “Love in conflict with duty,” would be another Theme. Fannie Hurst’s powerful story, “She Walks in Beauty,” might have for its Theme, “The secret of a mother’s tragic weakness kept inviolate through the devotion and sacrifice of a daughter.” Frank Luther Mott’s strong story, “The Man with a Good Face,” might exemplify the Theme, “How the search for good uplifts and ennobles the Seeker.”
Themes are so general in their definition that any number of distinctly different stories may be written to conform to each one. “The Scarlet Letter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and “The Silence of Dean Maitland,” by Maxwell Gray (Mrs. Craigie) are vastly different as finished stories, although they embody a common Theme.
When a Theme Becomes a Masterplot
Plotto resolves the Theme into a general proposition involving the protagonist, the circumstances the protagonist is called upon to meet, and the outcome of the conflict between the protagonist’s purpose and the obstacle or obstacles it encounters. The Theme thus sets a pattern for the situations it comprehends, and so becomes a Masterplot.
In Plotto, the Clauses of the Masterplot are interchangeable, thus making it possible to evolve a Masterplot for any story that has ever been written, or that can be written. By reason of the interchangeable Clauses, thousands of Masterplots are made available, and each Masterplot may be the source of thousands of distinctly different stories.
Kindly turn to the Masterplot Chart in the Plotto book. (Also included in the Appendix of “Mastering Plotto”.)
Interchangeable Masterplot Clauses
Note, please, that each Masterplot consists of three Clauses, an “A” Clause, a “B” Clause and “C” Clause. Those three Clauses carry the plot technically from its introduction, through ascending action to crisis and on to denouement. The A Clause is the protagonist clause, the B Clause initiates and carries on the action, and the C Clause carries on and terminates the action.
Thus No. 1 of the A Clause, No. 1 of the B Clause and No. 1 of the C Clause, read consecutively, give the Masterplot: “A person in love, engaging in a difficult enterprise when promised a reward for high achievement, pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.” From this, Victor Hugo might have written his “Toilers of the Sea,” and from it, also, any number of writers could write any number of stories, all unlike, and yet all conforming to this general proposition.
This Masterplot has an unhappy ending, very powerful as Hugo’s master imagination deals with it; but the unhappy ending may be changed by selecting another terminal, or C Clause. “Emerges happily from a serious entanglement,” would be one change, “Achieves success and happiness in a hard undertaking” would be another, or “Rescues integrity from a serious entanglement” would be still another.
The A Clause indicates in a general way the character or the status of the protagonist.
The protagonist of A Clause No. 1 is defined as “A Person in Love.” This merely defines the status of the protagonist, whose character would develop from the situations, or whose character would develop the situations. The name of this particular character is legion. Such a protagonist brought about the siege of Troy, with all its mighty convulsions shaking earth and moving heaven.
Here in this Chart, as everywhere else in Plotto, the Clauses merely suggest. And this protagonist may have been “in love” at the beginning of the B Clause action, or the sentiment of love may develop as the B Clause action develops. The banal truth remains that there can be no love story unless there is a “person in love.” A person may pretend to be in love, but such a person would fall into the A Clause No. 11 category, “A Person Swayed by Pretense.”
Every story in which some phase of married life is the dominant Theme will have A Clause No. 2 for its protagonist, another Clause which defines the status of the leading character—“A Married Person.” Here again the name of the protagonist is legion.
The character of the person playing the stellar role is suggested in A Clause No. 3, “A Lawless Person.” If the doubtful experiment is tried of having a criminal for a hero, a sort of “Raffles,” or “Wallingford,” this A Clause would serve. It would also define a protagonist who rebels against less serious conventions and is the exemplar of his or her own sweet will.
“An Erring Person,” protagonist of Masterplot No. 4, may be erring in any manner suggested by the imagination, morally, legally, in judgment or otherwise.
“Benevolent Person” may be a philanthropist, or a kindly soul whose care and consideration have nothing to do with money, but with service.
“A Protecting Person” is one who seeks to save another from threatening misfortune in all the many ways which our complicated system of living make possible.
“A Person of Ideals” may be a person of false ideals, of criminal ideals or of worthy ideals.
“A Person Influenced by an Obligation” may be influenced by an obligation of his own, or by the obligation of another.
“A Person Subjected to Adverse Conditions” is a protagonist who is facing some sort of misfortune, or what he considers misfortune.
“A Resentful Person” is a protagonist who sounds any or all the deeps of revenge.
“A Person Swayed by Pretense,” may be swayed by his own pretense, or the pretense of another.
“A Subtle Person” may be subtle in good or evil methods, in admirable ways or in ways that are pernicious.
“A Person Influenced by the Occult and the Mysterious” could be a Cagliostro, or the victim of a PLOTTO Cagliostro.
“A Normal Person” may be a protagonist whom the world considers normal, although that does not obscure his individuality. We all have our own dispositions, and the normal person does not depart so widely from the traits or conventions as to place himself in any of the other A Clauses already enumerated. He might be normal throughout most of the action, and become abnormal in the C Clause.
A Clause No. 15 is the first Clause of the indefinite Masterplot. If any protagonist can be devised that is out of harmony with any of the other A Clauses, here is the place for that character.
You will note that the Clauses are so constructed that they will serve for either a male or a female protagonist. In that respect, they are impersonal.
The propositions shadowed forth by the B Clauses are self-explanatory; and so, also, are the vague definitions of the C Clauses.
The question may be asked: “Well, what about those thousands of Masterplots? They are not plots.” No, they are not plots.
A Masterplot is not a plot; a plot calls for detailed suggestions, and the Masterplot merely suggests the Theme and provides a string upon which to thread the situations exemplifying it.
By approaching the plot through a Masterplot, however, we define the story’s limits and provide a basis for the situations it embodies. The general suggestions of the Masterplots, as you will discover later on, lead us to concrete suggestions for cutting the cloth of situation to correspond with a pattern Theme.
Kindly observe that there are fifteen A Clauses and fifteen C Clauses but sixty-two B Clauses; and that all the Clauses are interchangeable, so that any A Clause may be used in juxtaposition with any B Clause, and with any C Clause. Each of the A Clauses has sixty-two variations when used in connection with the B Clauses, and each of the sixty-two variations has fifteen more variations when running the gamut of the C Clauses.
Masterplots: Simple and Compound
For practical story-writing purposes we may consider Plotto Masterplots either as Simple or Compound.
A Simple Masterplot will consist of one A, one B and one C Clause. A Compound Masterplot will consist of combinations of A, B and C Clauses—combinations of all the Clauses or of any one of the Clauses; all combinations in A to be formed of A Clauses, in B of B Clauses and in C of C Clauses.
Only the advanced plottoist should attempt the use of Compound Masterplots, since they involve a complexity of Conflict suggestions with which only the trained imagination may deal to the best advantage. Nevertheless, it is well that the beginner in the Plotto Method should have some knowledge of the manner in which the Masterplot Clauses may be amplified.
Compounding the Masterplot Clauses
The A Clauses, for illustration, might be combined in a single Masterplot, thus: “(1) A Person in Love, (7) A Person of Ideals…” Here the status as well as the character of the, protagonist will be defined in general terms. Again: “(1) A Person in Love, (7) A Person of Ideals, (8) Influenced by the Occult and the Mysterious…” “(3) A Lawless Person, (4) Erring and (11) Swayed by Pretense…” “(1) A Person in Love. (14) A Normal Person, (4) Erring and (10) Resentful…”
The character, or the status and the character, of the protagonist will depend upon the action suggested by the B Clauses. B Clause Combinations may be illustrated as follows:
“(1) engaging in a difficult enterprise when promised a reward for high achievement, and (43) seeking to overcome personal limitations in carrying out an enterprise…” “(38) Committing a grievous mistake and seeking in secret to live down its evil results, and (39) forsaking cherished ambitions to carry out an obligation, and (34) embarking upon an enterprise of insurrection in the hope of ameliorating certain evil conditions…” “(50) Being impelled by an unusual motive to engage in crafty enterprise, and (48) assuming the character of a criminal in a perfectly honest enterprise, and (22) following a wrong course through mistaken judgment…”
The C Clauses in a similar manner may be compounded, as: “(7) Reverses certain opinions when their fallacy is revealed, and (9) achieve success and happiness in a hard undertaking.” “(12) Rescues integrity from a serious entanglement, and (8) achieves a spiritual victory.”
Beginning With a Masterplot
Rarely perhaps does a writer begin a story with a set Theme before him. He is more likely to begin with a striking situation, and develop the situation forward and backward until presently, consciously or unconsciously, he feels the Theme and marshals his situations to its pattern. Now, with the Plotto Masterplot Chart, we may begin with a Masterplot and select our situations to correspond with it. For the present, this is considered the most practical means for gaining a comprehensive working knowledge of the Plotto Method.
A Masterplot selected from Plotto will suggest, vaguely perhaps, the situations to be used in writing a story around it. From an identical suggestion, however, no two of you could write a story that would be at all similar,—except as to Theme. Drawing on your own experience for situations, and for circumstances explanatory of the situations, all stories from an identical Masterplot would be original and different.
Lesson 1 Exercises
1. What A Clause would you suggest for the protagonist of the old story of “Robinson Crusoe?”
2. What B Clause would you suggest for the same story?
3. What C Clause would you suggest for the same story?
4. What A, B and C Clauses would you suggest for the Bible story, “The Prodigal Son?”
5. Read any short story in current fiction and resolve it into its Masterplot.
Name of Story.
6. Invent a Masterplot of your own for the indefinite Masterplot No. 15.
The A Clause.
The B Clause
The C Clause.
7. What B Clause of the Masterplots appeals most powerfully to you?