Philosophy of Writing – 20 – Plotto

Posted on April 25, 2013 by



I am friends with a few people of the professional writerly persuasion (the sort of people I can’t be close friends with because I’m in awe of them a bit too much and sometimes I’m terrified of sucking-up even though I don’t think I’m sucking up — anyway, you didn’t start reading this to hear even more of my cheap autopsychoanalysis) and one of them is a human spreadsheet and encyclopedia and unstoppable source of energy and lovely human being with a book fort in her bedroom, surrounding her armchair, bricks numbering in the upper hundreds, and she introduced me to Plotto.

Its author, William Wallace Cook, was nicknamed “the man who deforested Canada” for his seemingly limitless capacity to write five and ten-cent pulp novels one after the other. After he’d done this for a while, he decided to analyse and systemise his method for plotting such books — thus was Plotto born in 1928.

The current publishers have left the original text untouched. Per the contemporary norm, it’s filled with misogyny, colonialism, and a deep undercurrent of religion. The system itself is fascinating: Cook firmly believed that the Masterplot (Dasein?) of all possible books could be derived from his chart of 92 mix-and-match pieces, which he names “clauses”.

He’s right, if only because the final combination is “Any person, becoming involved in any sort of complication, meets any fate, good or evil,” especially if one considers narrators and protagonists to necessarily be “persons”. But even neglecting to use the single axiomatic Masterplot, it’s interesting how many books’ major themes can be derived from this chart.

My own: “An erring person, becoming involved in a mysterious complication and seeking to make the most of a bizarre experience, achieves a complete and permanent character transformation.”

The Bible: “Any person, becoming involved through curiosity aroused by mystery in a strange enterprise, achieves a spiritual victory [or, depending on opinion, “comes finally to the blank wall of enigma“].”


Once you have your Masterplot, you can proceed either to the Characters section of the book, where you can choose between 56 basic characters, or to the Conflicts section, where you can link together a few of the 1,462 conflicts that arise around your Masterplot. Conflicts are specific to Characters and to type of Masterplot (there are 3 types), so your selection of each will narrow down your choice of the others.

Plotto also provides Plotto 101, a quick-reference guide to the numbering in the text, an Introduction, which is more like an introductory lesson in the ethos and basic use of Plotto than the flattering blurb we’ve come to expect from introductions (although Cook does bear his own torch with er, vigour), and a full 40-page Instruction Manual complete with worksheets for practice. You have no excuse whatsoever to be confused about Plotto.

Today, I bought two beautiful notebooks to use as Plotto workbooks. They’re by “Apica”, a Japanese company, and their motto is “MOST ADVANCED QUALITY GIVES BEST WRITING FEATURES & GIVES SATISFACTION TO YOU,” which I think is just marvellous in context.