PLOTTO: Using Author Suggestion to Enhance Conflict Drama
Mastering Plotto Training Series 5
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.
The fourth lesson concerned itself with the Conflict references. It had previously been observed that of all the hundreds of millions of people in the world, there cannot be found two whose experience with life, and whose spiritual reaction to all the circumstances of environment are identical. The experience of each one of us will vary, widely in most cases and at least in some degree in all cases. This fund of individual knowledge is what we draw upon when we achieve originality in any line of human endeavor. If we are too lazy, or too indifferent, to dig into the soil of our own experience in interpreting suggestion, we become imitators. If we go too exhaustively into the experience of others for what we want, we become plagiarists. The highest honor, and the greatest success of course, comes from turning over the soil in the Field of Originality.
“Style,” says Buffon, “is the man himself.” Dickens has a style of his own, and so has Thackeray. The great Samuel Johnson had a style running to the depth of polysyllables. If he wrote of minnows, it is said that he would have made them talk like whales. “Style is the dress of thoughts,” according to Chesterfield. And if we interpret suggestion originally, we should clothe that interpretation in a style of our own, a style that is original with ourselves—natural, easy and anything but “forced.” Here again the imagination is to be rightly controlled.
In writing your plot into story form, interpreting Conflict suggestion originally in narrative prose, be yourself. An individual style in narration will give due attention to restraint. The way an idea is expressed may make or mar the idea itself. We discover our own style by refusing to copy the style of others, by trying to be individual and natural in what we write, never disregarding the limitations or the technicalities of written narrative but adjusting to them our own virgin abilities. The way in which we shall write naturally and most forcefully, usually comes only after much painstaking effort in which we try simply just to be ourselves; in other words, to exercise originality. I write a story in one way, and you will write the same story in another way. The complete story will show a difference of style, a difference of phrasing; but we will be working with our own tools, and the result in each case should be original—and admirable, as everything original is bound to be.
The author of Plotto has selected certain suggestions, and he has called the suggestions Conflicts, and has brought a large number of these Conflicts together in a book. He has gone to Life for these Conflicts, and has endeavored to show their possibilities in the form of written narrative. There is nothing original in the Conflicts; for, before ever “Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre” human nature has been at work throning or dethroning the fortunes of Men. The simplicity of the ancient days has given way to the complexities of modern life, and yet human nature is much the same now that it was in the time of Cain and Abel, or of Helen of Troy. Here and there will be found the refining touch of the centuries, and yet you have only to scratch the veneer of the highest civilization to find the primitive man beneath. Selfishness and greed may be restrained by custom and convention, but when the white-hot emotions boil into action, they overflow convention and we have primitive drama or tragedy, as the case may be.
Reference suggestions prefixed and affixed to the Plotto Conflicts are the random selections of the author of Plotto. They fall in with his ideas as indicated by his experience; and they may not conform to your ideas or agree with your experience. You can take the author of Plotto’s suggestions as shown by the references and give them an original interpretation; or, you may search the Conflicts for something that comes nearer harmonizing with your own ideas.
A very successful editor suggested to the author of Plotto that he indicate these supplementary suggestions, primarily for the purpose of familiarizing the student with the Conflicts and with the possibilities of their manipulation. The suggestion was adopted; and so the Conflict references, thousands of them, are given to you in the book as you have it. Bear in mind, however, that they are merely the author’s suggestions and that it is your high privilege to discard the suggestions and be original in making your own references. Perhaps it is not only your privilege, but your duty as well as your pleasure. There is a fascination, too, in discarding the Conflict lead-up and carry-on suggestions and in calling upon your imagination to supply you your own. Among its other uses, the Classification of Conflicts by Symbols is designed for this purpose.
“Broken Conflicts” are those Conflicts whose terms are broken, and divided by a star or stars. For instance, Conflict 545 reads as follows: “B’s husband, A, fails to return home. A blizzard is raging, and B fears A has suffered a misfortune in the storm* B meets her death while searching vainly in a storm for her husband, A **” This is a broken Conflict, and the whole, or either part of it, may be used. If the first half is to be used, that fact should be expressed by a dash and a star, indicating that the Conflict is to be used up to the first star. If the second half only is to be used, the fact would be indicated by a star, a dash, and a double-star.
All Conflicts are classified in the Classification by symbols. Conflicts not starred are given entire, while broken Conflicts are classified as fragments. The number of the Conflict is appended to each whole or broken Conflict in the Classification, and is thus easily referred to in the Conflict groups. In the Classification by Symbols, also, the Conflicts are brought together under their various subgroup headings, so that a situation in Love’s Beginnings, Married Life, Mystery, etc., may be quickly referred to in the sub-group for which a situation is desired. As an added convenience, possible terminal situations are indicated by the numbers of the C Clauses of the Masterplots.
Let us experiment with the second half or broken Conflict 690:
“A, taking a sea voyage, is shipwrecked and cast away on a desert island**”
The first half of the Conflict gives us a motive for A’s taking the voyage: “A takes a sea voyage in the hope of recovering his health*” We are assuming that this will not serve, and we are looking for some other motive for the sea voyage on the part of A. We turn to Conflicts in A in the Classification by Symbols. Numerous suggestions are offered for the imagination to work upon. For instance, the A Conflicts in Love’s Beginnings has this: “A, who knows nothing of the sciences, pretends to be engaged in scientific research.” His pretentions involve him in a sea voyage, and the shipwreck results. Thrown “on his own,” and compelled to battle with Nature for his very existence, he develops most unexpectedly the scientific side of his character.
Another suggestion from A Conflicts in Love’s Beginnings: “A has taken vows that proscribe the love of woman.” Suppose, now that a woman, B, is shipwrecked with A on the desert island, as in Louis Tracy’s “The Wings of the Morning.” A new situation develops.
A suggestion from Love’s Misadventures: “A seeks to escape annoying manifestations of love.” He takes a sea voyage to get away from the fair sex. Suppose, as in the previous instance, he is cast away on a desert island with an attractive young woman? Here the imagination will find the beginning of tense drama.
Another suggestion from Love’s Misadventures: “A is a crabbed, disagreeable person whose misfortune it is to find no pleasure in life.” He takes a sea voyage, is shipwrecked and cast away with, or without, an attractive young woman. In one case, his character will undergo a change through his battling with Nature for existence; in the other case, he falls in love with the young woman, and the necessity of supplying both her wants and his own, will give him an interest in life through love and cause his nature to undergo a change.
A suggestion from A Conflicts in Misfortune: “A, a doctor, is a fugitive from justice.” He is escaping from the authorities, and that is his reason for the sea voyage. What follows? Almost anything may follow, for the opportunities for tense drama depend merely upon the circumstances attending the shipwreck. The attractive young woman may also be a castaway, love interest develop, A concealing the fact that he is a fugitive from justice. Suppose the woman, B, A’s companion in misfortune, is involved in the transgression our doctor protagonist has committed. Suppose, through B, he discovers his supposed crime was never committed?
Thousands of possibilities will suggest themselves through the scanning of Conflicts in A. When B enters the situation—if she does—the A and B combinations will offer a wealth of suggestions.
A, cast away on his island, will not be limited by the A Conflicts. As a carry-on, glance for a moment at combinations in A and X: “A loses a valuable diamond, X.” Or, “A finds a valuable object, X, apparently of great value.” Or, “A finds a valuable object, X, between the leaves of a Bible.” Or, “A highly prizes an object of mystery, X, carries it about with him and is unaware of the fact that his possession of X is fraught with terrible danger.” And so on, ad infinitum.
Some of these suggestions would deal with A’s experiences after the shipwreck, and while he is on the desert island. In A and A-8 combinations, a lead-up might be used involving the suggestion: “A, against his wish and inclination, has been left a fortune by a deceased relative, A-8.” He finances the sea voyage with his inheritance, is cast away, taught a lesson which proves the value of the inheritance, and when he is finally restored to home and friends has undergone a beneficial character transformation.
Any of the Conflict groups involving A might offer a suggestion for the imagination to work upon; or even the B groups with, or without the changing of B to A. Manipulation here is always possible, often with surprising results.
Let us consider Conflict 466a:
B is married to A, and they have one child, CH* B loves CH, but she does not love A** B loves A-3 and elopes with him leaving her child, CH, with her husband, A***
Looking through the sub-group Transgression, B and A-3, we find this: “B’s friend, A-3, mysteriously disappears while in B’s company* B is arrested on suspicion of having murdered A-3**” In the combinations, A, B, A-3 and B-3 we find this: “B deserting her husband, A, for A-3, discovers that A-3 is in love with another married woman.” In the combination, A, B and CH, we have this suggestion: “B’s love for her child, CH, left with her husband, A, when she deserted him, draws her back to CH and A.” And so on, again, ad infinitum.
Any conflict for which you wish to find a reference of your own will offer a lead-up and carry-on suggestion if you will take the character symbols of the situation you are studying and then look for that combination in the Classification by Symbols. If it should be a long combination, or an unusual combination with only a few Conflicts to choose from, drop one of the lesser symbols and look for the suggestion in the combination that remains. Symbol after symbol may be dropped until only A or B or A and B offer the combination to be studied. Usually the A or B, or the A-B, Conflict combinations will yield suggestions for any of the Conflicts.
By discarding the author’s references and searching for your own lead-ups and carry-ons, you will develop your situations in accordance with your own experience and ideas.
You are to write a short story during this course. In accordance with that idea, you have selected a Masterplot that appealed to you, you have selected a B Clause Conflict to exemplify the Masterplot, and you have used the author’s Conflict references to build up the plot, translating the references originally. You are now asked to search out references of your own for leading up to the main Conflict and for carrying the action onward and to a conclusion.
Use the Classification by Symbols, exercise your imagination and draw upon your own experience in interpreting the suggestions. Compare the lead-up and carry-on suggestions of your own selection with those of the author’s selection. You will find, undoubtedly, that you can work to better advantage with the lead-up and carry-on suggestions that you have selected for yourself.
If you find it necessary, you may change the C Clause of your Masterplot to harmonize with any finale which appeals to you as better suited to the working out of your plot, or to accord with any fresh idea that may be evolved during this period of plot construction.
2. What original Conflict are you now selecting to illustrate the B Clause?
3. What was your original C Clause?
4. If you have changed the C Clause to harmonize with a new B Clause, please give the New C Clause here:
5. Select originally another B Clause Conflict.
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