Plot devices

When would-be pulp writer Jonathan “Johnny” Briggs confronts writer's block, he's directed to use "The Writer's Friend," a spoof of plotting devices, in the 1941 movie “Blonde Ambition.”

When would-be pulp writer Jonathan “Johnny” Briggs confronts writer’s block, he’s directed to use “The Writer’s Friend,” a spoof of plotting devices, in the 1941 movie “Blonde Ambition.”

Help for writing your yarn

The year is 1935. On every street corner, newsstands are brimming with pulp magazines. Readers young and old thrill to the battles of G-8 and Operator 5, to the adventures of The Spider, The Shadow and Doc Savage.

You are a pulp writer. Seated behind your Remington typewriter, your fingers dance and the pages fly: trench-coated private eyes and sultry gun molls, hard riding sheriffs and gun-slinging desperadoes, fearless spacemen and bug-eyed monsters — for a penny a word, you can do it all.

It’s Friday night. After a long day at the keyboard, should you have a bite of supper or just go to bed? The phone rings. It’s the editor of Strange Science Magazine, and as usual, he sounds like he’s double-parked.

“I need a 50,000 word space opera,” he barks. “On my desk, first thing Monday morning!”

So much for supper and so much for bed. You pull the cover off your typewriter, brew up a fresh pot of coffee — and get out your story plotter.

As a pulp fiction writer, you are a professional. You have no time to sit and wait to be inspired — you must produce on demand. As much as you need your dictionary and thesaurus, you need your story plotter.

In a few minutes, your space opera is plotted out. One by one, the blank sheets go in and the finished pages come out: just like filling in a form.

And right on time, you are in the editor’s office. Smiling around his cigar, he takes your manuscript and signs your check. And he shows you the cover art of next week’s Thrilling Adventure: the Chinese Tong assassin raises his hatchet towards the terrified blonde, while the handsome American pilot rushes to save her. Short notice, the editor admits, but he knows you won’t let him down — because your story plotter never lets you down.

What is a story plotter? What are these magic books that, in the words of one critic, were “condemned publicly and used privately”? Where did these story plotters go — and where can you find them?


Creating dramatic situations

“Thus from the first edition of this little book, I might offer (speaking not ironically but seriously) to dramatic authors and theatrical managers, 10,000 scenarios, totally different from those used repeatedly upon our stage in the last 50 years. The scenarios will be, needless to say, of a realistic and effective character. I will contract to deliver a thousand in eight days. For the production of a single gross, but 24 hours are required. Prices quoted on single dozens…

“But I hear myself accused, with much violence, of an intent to ‘kill imagination! Enemy of fancy! Destroyer of wonders! Assassin of prodigy!’ These and similar titles cause me not a blush.”

— George Polti, “36 Dramatic Situations”

Georges Polti didn’t mean to set the world on fire. A French theater critic, he had heard that only 36 dramatic situations were possible upon the stage, and he set out to confirm it. He analyzed centuries of plays and novels. The result was a classification, a thesaurus of dramatic scenes.

But what an uproar it caused. From delighted writers, on the one hand, who had the full range of dramatic material placed at their fingertips; to outraged critics, on the other, who resented creative ideas being counted and fenced like a herd of cattle. And the debate rages on to this very day.

Polti’s “36 Dramatic Situations” appeared in English around 1920, and it caused an immediate sensation. (One is reminded of the recent fad, when all the Hollywood screenwriters jumped on the “Hero’s Journey” bandwagon.) It is still in print today. Polti’s lists of situations (and discussions of them) can be found on the Internet. And it has attracted a swarm of imitators, among them:

  • “The Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia” by Frederick Palmer (1920)
  • “Story Plotting Simplified” by Eric Heath (1959)
  • and more recently, “20 Master Plots and How to Build Them” by Ronald Tobias (1997).

But “36 Dramatic Situations” was the original, and it remains the standard to which all the others aspire.

In 1922, Polti followed up with “The Art of Inventing Characters” in which he classifies dramatic personality types — you guessed it — 36 of them.


Spinning a story

“You will be surprised to learn how some very knowing people have misunderstood Plotto. On glancing at it, some of the intelligentia have jumped at the false conclusion, that Plotto is a dictionary of situations, a mechanism that yields a cut and dried plot by the mere use of a thumb index. Plotto, to the contrary, merely suggests the situations for the plot, explains what is to be done through Purpose and Obstacle and even offers suggestions as to the way in which it should be done.”

— William Wallace Cook, the instruction booklet for “Plotto”

Unlike Polti’s “36,” which is a theoretical classification, “Plotto” is practical, a how-to-do-it manual. Like Roget’s Thesaurus, which began as one writer’s personal notebook, “Plotto” is one writer’s personal method, written and published for the benefit of others.

William Wallace Cook was a writer of early science fiction and westerns. For decades he cranked out dime novels for Street & Smith, at the dizzying rate of 66,000 words a week. (He tells his own story in “The Fiction Factory,” under the pen name John Milton Edwards.)

Cook’s dramatic theory is simple: “Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict.” “Plotto” lists hundreds of Conflict Situations: various Purposes blocked or sidetracked by various Obstacles. And the Plottoist (as Cook calls his readers) can create a plot according to three methods.

1. The Master Plot: This four-page chart is where a simple three line plot can be generated, something like this:

  1. A person with a certain characteristic (15 options)
  2. Gets into a situation (62 options)
  3. And this is how it turns out (15 options)

2. The Conflict Situations: Each of the Master Plot B options has one or more lists of specific Conflict Situations, distributed among 20 Conflict Groups:

  • Love’s Beginnings
  • Love’s Misadventures
  • The Marriage Proposal
  • Love’s Rejection
  • Marriage
  • Misfortune
  • Mistaken Judgement
  • Helpfulness
  • Deliverance
  • Idealism
  • Obligation
  • Necessity
  • Chance
  • Personal Limitations
  • Simulation
  • Craftiness
  • Transgression
  • Revenge
  • Mystery
  • Revelation

The Conflict Situations are the heart of the book. Each is a simple two or three line sketch, of someone doing something and something going wrong. They are numbered from 1 to 1462, and many are subdivided, pushing the total to well over 2,000. Each Conflict Situation is cross-referenced above and below, with suggestions for how the situation started and where it will go. The Plottoist can use these suggestions or ignore them and find his own lead-ins and outcomes. He is encouraged not to take the Conflict Situations as they are presented, but to change the characters and settings, putting his own spin on the situation, personalizing it.

3. Character Combinations: A special index lists the male or female protagonist with various male or female supporting characters: man and woman, man and boss, woman and mother — over 150 combinations, each cross-referenced to a number of Conflict Situations, offering a wealth of suggestions.

“Plotto” was first published in 1928. A seven chapter instruction booklet appeared in 1934. It was republished as “Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots,” in 1941.

In 1994, there appeared “Plots Unlimited,” by two individuals whom I will not name. “PU,” as I call it, is nothing more than a freshly typed copy of “Plotto,” with some of the language modernized and a few typos corrected. Cook is dismissed with one line at the bottom of the second page, and the “authors” pass off the book (and computer software) as their own creation. I mention it here only to warn my readers to avoid it.

“For more than 40 years, the author of ‘Plotto’ has been writing and selling stories, and out of this long experience he earnestly believes that here in ‘Plotto’ is Truth and a Method of Originality as firmly founded as Human Nature itself,” the instruction book to “Plotto” reads. “The author of ‘Plotto’ has given five years to the preparation of this work. He knows it is imperfect and that it would still be imperfect if he had spent a whole lifetime in its preparation. But he has proved that it is practical.”


Uncorking a plot

“With the aid of the Plot Genie, one does not have to wait for a rare flash of inspiration for a story. The Genie will provide a complete plot framework every five minutes, and I can show any author where it could have developed the plot structure of any story he ever wrote.”

— Wycliffe A. Hill, “Plot Genie: General Formula”

If “Plotto” was the dictionary of dramatic material, then “Plot Genie” was the encyclopedia. In its seven volumes, any author in any genre will find more stories than he will ever live to write.

Wycliffe A. Hill had, in his own words, a mathematical turn of mind. He dabbled in numerology and horse racing, and he loved to analyze things and find the underlying formula.

Around 1915, Hill submitted a scenario to Cecil B. De Mille, who dismissed it as lacking in plot. This sent Hill on a quest to find this thing called plot, starting with Polti’s “36,” and ending, 16 years later, with the “Plot Genie.”

(A preliminary booklet, “The Writer’s Guide,” appeared in 1927.)

The system begins with the Plot Genie: a cardboard wheel sandwiched between two cardboard sheets. Around the rim are printed the numbers 1 to 180 in a random sequence. By turning the wheel and looking through a slit, the writer obtains random numbers.

Next is the recording sheet. It provides a step by step plot skeleton consisting of incomplete sentences. An early version, called the Plot Robot, ran thus:

  1. The locale of our story is …
  2. And the first character is a …
  3. He loves the daughter of a …
  4. There is a problem …
  5. And an obstacle to love …
  6. Effort to solve problem brings complication …
  7. And to remove obstacle adds predicament …
  8. Consequent struggle results in crisis …
  9. Problem is solved by climax …

Here we have a build-up of dramatic tension leading to a climax, known today as a staircase plot. In each blank on the sheet, the writer fills in a random number from the Genie.

Now we turn to the Index Book. For each step of the plot, there is a list, or several lists, of 180 options. The writer looks up the number of each option and fills in each blank on the recording sheet.

You ask: Why use random numbers and prewritten lists? Why not fill in the blanks using your own imagination? Because your imagination will suggest the same tired old ideas that have already been done to death by countless other writers, Hill proposes. Picking elements at random lifts you out of your limited imagination, giving you directions and combinations that otherwise would never occur to you.

So our finished recording sheet might look like this:

  • Locale — 5 — Farm
  • Character — 153 — Publisher
  • Beloved — 62 — Mystic’s Daughter
  • Problem — 44/4 — Obliged to recover lost information or clue, opposed by distance.
  • Love Obstacle — 62 — Beloved doubts endurance of the lover.
  • Complication — 136 — An illicit love affair threatens loss of happiness to a loved one.
  • Predicament — 9 — Abduction is threatened by parties desiring valuable information.
  • Crisis — 77 — Learn that a loved one is a murderer.
  • Climax — 29 — Wherein the slain or wounded loved one proves to be the enemy in disguise.

Next, we fill in the holes. By asking questions about each plot point, we move from what happened to how and why, gradually stringing together these random elements into a coherent plot.

The original “Plot Genie (General Formula)” first appeared in 1931. Hill intended it merely as an exercise book in plot construction. But it proved so popular with struggling writers, that six Supplementary Formulas quickly followed:

  • “Romance Without Melodrama”: boy meets girl, boy loses girl…
  • “Action-Adventure”: derring-do in exotic locales
  • “Detective-Mystery”: whodunit puzzle plot
  • “Comedy”: not jokes or gags, this volume covers situation comedy and farce, according to the 31 Basic Comedy Situations; Hill was especially proud of this one.
  • “True Confession Story”: haven’t seen this one
  • “Short-Short Story”: 1,500 to 2,000 words with a surprise twist at the end.

The “General Formula” and “Romance Without Melodrama” were slightly revised in 1936. A few years later, five more formulas appeared in booklet form. I have seen only the first:

  • “Character-Atmosphere”
  • “Detective-Action”
  • “Western Story”
  • “Science Fiction”
  • “Weird Terror”

There may be another “Plot Genie” volume, titled “Light Love,” published in 1949. It turned up on the Internet briefly, and I could not determine if it was a new work or simply a reprint of an older volume. It was bought before I could be sure.

In 1940, Hill summarized his methods in “Plot Scientific.”

“The ‘Plot Genie’ is not by any means to be considered a toy,” Hill writes in the “General Formula” volume. “It is a scientific device which will faithfully help you build thousands of interesting story plots. However, in giving your creative mind valuable and stimulating exercise, it will provide you with a great deal of entertainment.”


Selling to the slicks

“Consequently, I don’t guarantee that you will find all the possible slick short-story plots here. But this you will find: a sound, empirically derived analysis of the fiction the top-paying magazines are using today (1952); and, if not all, then the great majority of the situations, gimmicks, plots (call them what you will) which slick editors currently think right for their readers.”

— Charles Simmons, “Plots That Sell to Top-Pay Magazines”

Turning from the pulps to the slicks, we meet Charles Simmons. Like so many others, he was inspired by Polti’s “36” to conduct his own research. But Simmons did not study isolated plot elements. Instead, he sat down with a big stack of back issue magazines. He read 350 short stories and analyzed their plots into 30 categories. After reading 50 more stories and seeing that those plots were repetitions of what he had already seen, he decided he had reached bottom.

Each chapter of “Plots That Sell to Top-Pay Magazines” details one category: quotes, plots, variations, characters, twists — everything the writer needs to know.

Sadly, “Plots That Sell” is out of print and barely mentioned on the Internet. So, here are the 30 categories that Charles Simmons identified:

  1. The Child Matures
  2. The Inexplicable Vice Is Revealed as a Virtue
  3. The Mysterious Situation Is Explained
  4. The Puzzling Identity Is Revealed
  5. The Hero Is Freed from his False Belief
  6. A Material Reward is Sought, and a Spiritual One Is Found
  7. Biter — Bit
  8. The Incompetent Hero Proves His Worth
  9. The Impossible Assignment Is Accomplished
  10. The Possible Assignment Is Accomplished
  11. Friends or Lovers Quarrel and Are Reconciled
  12. The Threatened Unity of the Family Is Re-established
  13. The Evil of a Bad Man Asserts Itself
  14. The Good-Bad Hero Comes to a Poignant End
  15. The Virtue of the Tempted Hero Asserts Itself
  16. The Aging Hero Finds Peace or Satisfaction
  17. The Hero Chooses the Wiser Alternative or the Better Person
  18. Girl Gets Boy
  19. Boy Gets Girl
  20. Boy and Girl Get Each Other
  21. Boy Loses Girl
  22. Girl Loses Boy
  23. Boy and Girl Lose Each Other
  24. The Hero Overcomes His One Failing
  25. Happiness Is Relinquished Because of Duty
  26. The Hero’s Doubt About Another Is Dispelled
  27. A Facet of Human Nature Is Revealed
  28. The Hero’s Vital Hope Wanes and Is Revived
  29. The Validity of Magic Is Established
  30. Problem Plots (unusual structures)

In 1999, S. John Ross took a similar approach with role-playing games. He analyzed hundreds of them into 34 categories, with all their twists and variations. It can be found on the Internet as the Big List of RPG Plots.

These have been positive approaches to plot building. For a negative approach — advice on what not to write — we turn to “101 Plots Used and Abused” (1946) by James N.Young, former editor of Collier’s magazine. Here he describes the tired old story lines that every editor has seen a million times and that inexperienced writers should avoid.

Now you know how they did it. So, “Go thou and do likewise.”