Plotto: Avoid These Three Huge Mistakes

William Wallace Cook’s plot-suggestion system, Plotto, is woefully misunderstood, even by some of its biggest fans. Let’s take of three of the most basic mistakes that will prevent you from getting the most out of this wonderful plotting aid for writers and screenwriters.

Mistake 1: Taking Plot Hints Literally

At first glance, all plot suggestions in Plotto seem either too vague or too specific. The vague ones can be a bit of a puzzler, but the too-specific ones are easier to work with.

Let’s look at conflict #1419(a):

A, caught in a trap and held powerless under a huge burning glass, is saved by an eclipse of the sun.

This sounds a bit fantastic, but that’s not the problem, because it’s listed under “Occult and Fantastic” conflicts. No, the real problem is that readers often think you’re supposed to cut this conflict out and paste it down as-is, when, actually, you’re not supposed to. It’s only an example.

An example of what? Basically, of a situation featuring a self-operating killing machine that our hero escapes on his own, with the aid of a minor flaw in its operation.

Far-fetched? Hardly. This plot has been used before, in stories we’ve all heard of.

Real Stories Using This Plot

  • The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe, where the attention of rats and the slicing action of the pendulum itself allow the protagonist to roll out of its way.
  • Androcles and the Lion, by Aesop, where the reliably savage man-eating lion turns out to have a mind of its own, and chooses not to kill his old friend.
  • Partial credit for the laser scene in Goldfinger, though Bond talks his way out instead of doing it right, with a mirror or something.

Mistake 2: Not Understanding the Masterplot Table

Any A Clause may be used in conjunction with any B Clause and with Any C Clause.
Plotto, page 17

Most people, when they look at Plotto, notice that, if you read across the top of the Materplot table, the protagonist A clauses, the conflict B clauses, and the terminal C clauses seem to go together. And they do. Cook arranged them this way for convenience, so the most common A-B-C combinations will be close to each other.

For example, about the first Masterplot you encounter will be:

  • A1. A person in love,
  • B1. Engaging in a difficult enterprise when promised a reward for high achievement,
  • C1. Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.


But it’s only for convenience. You can just as easily take a B and C clauses from different regions of the table, like this:

  • A1. A person in love,
  • B59. Engaging in an enterprise and becoming involved with the occult and fantastic,
  • C8. Achieves a spiritual victory.

Most people don’t even realize that this is possible! In fact, at least two editions of Plotto (the Tin House Books Kindle edition, and Ashleywilde’s Plots Unlimited, format the Masterplot table according to the usual misinterpretation, making it less likely that you’ll ever figure out that you can use it the way it’s meant to be used, an an any-to-any manner, like my example above.

My own Norton Creek Press edition of Plotto avoids this problem, since is an exact duplicate of the original edition. But it introduces a less fatal form of confusion, since the book is supposed to use half-width pages for the B clauses, but neither my edition nor later press runs of the original edition do this (it’s not technically feasible with the printing process I used).

Basically, all you need to know is “pick any clauses you like from the A, B, and C columns.”


Mistake 3. Not Reading the Plotto Instruction Booklet

Pretty much the moment Plotto hit the presses, Cook realized that most readers couldn’t understand it, so he created a seven-lesson instruction course in the form of a Plotto Instruction BookletYou need this instruction booklet!

Original copies of the booklet are extremely hard to find, though sometimes a old copy of Plotto will include one, perhaps tucked in a pouch on the inside front cover.

I’ve republished the Plotto Instruction Booklet as a stand-alone title (in paperback and Kindle form). Tin House Books includes it at the back of their edition of Plotto (too bad—it should be in the front).

You can use the Plotto Instruction Booklet with:

  • Original copies of Plotto, printed by Ellis Publishing company between 1928 and 1941.
  • The Norton Creek Press edition of Plotto.
  • Plots Unlimited, printed by Ashleywilde. (Plots Unlimited is a bowdlerized version of Plotto.)

There you have it. Three things you can do to turn your Plotto-ing around.



William Wallace Cook’s Plotto Featured on BBC

plotto_cover250Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, and its author, William Wallace Cook, were recently featured on BBC Radio, in a program called “Miles Jupp and the Plot Device.” Listen to it here.

Jupp goes into Cook’s tremendously prolific writing life, the difficulty of getting a copy of the original printing of Plotto, and the fact that Plotto does not drop a finished plot into your lap, but takes some effort to master. (Cook later wrote a Plotto instruction manual to clarify how to use the book, which I’ve posted to this site.)

Jupp also discusses Plotto’s influence on at least one other writer, Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. Every story introduced a new crime and new characters, which required a new plot.

How prolific was William Wallace Cook? At one point he worked with one, two, or even three stenographers at the same time, dictating one story to each in rotation, and filling in any gaps by sitting down at his typewriter and working on a different story.

Is Plotto a magic plotting device? I think it is, sort of. It’s not going to write your novel for you, but when I took Linda Hamner’s excellent scriptwriting course, it was clear that any movie has enough twists and turns to cause serious brain-freeze, and a TV series or a novel is even more daunting. Personally, I think Plotto is a magic device for subplots, especially if you expect not to cut ’em out and paste ’em down, but to use them as a starting point, or even just to jog your brain into coming up with something better.