The master book of all plots



Plotto by William Wallace Cook - Image by Joshua David Bennett

That was how the Boston Globe announced the publication of Plotto in 1928. The author, William Wallace Cook, was an astonishingly prolific writer. In his best year, he pushed out 54 dime novels. When he finally retired from writing fiction he turned to real life, clipping directly from the headlines, distilling the stories onto cards. His idea was to write a plot generator so that others could follow his suit, using the seeds of stories in this book to mass manufacture their own works. And people did. Erle Stanley Gardner, the man behind Perry Mason, used Plotto. So did a a young Hitchcock, just starting into his directing career.


I picked up the book a few years ago, and have used it once or twice as the seed to a story. My creative method involves jamming different things together and seeing what sticks, a method I happily steal from Orson Scott Card. When I have two things that will mix well, but I know I need another ingredient, I sometimes pick up Plotto and generate an interesting sequence of events to add to the blend.

What does that look like? Well lets do a Plotto demo. There is a deeper method to this, but I prefer to start at random.


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Plotto Demo - Joshua David BennettHere’s our setup. Our main character, whom we will call “Alan”* is trying to find his inheritance, which his father has stashed away. And, just like a Choose Your Own Adventure, we pick a number and off we go.* Plotto always refers to the leading man as “A” and the leading woman as “B.” Yes, William Wallace Cook was a product of the 1800s. Don’t blame me.
Plotto Demo - Image by Joshua David BennettAlan fell into a ditch. Or a gorge. Or a canyon. What will he find at the bottom? Off to story seed 1409!
Plotto Demo - Image by Joshua David BennettTurns out there’s a mysterious locked room at the bottom of the chasm.
Plotto Demo - Image by Joshua David BennettUh-oh. Alan takes something from the room which turns out to be contraband!

Four or five steps is usually enough. I’ve used Plotto twice for a story, and the little “story snippet” that I generate never remains intact. I use this as a prompt, and then ditch most of the details and decide what makes the most sense for the characters and for a good read. If you have trouble with “what comes next?”, maybe Plotto can give you a jumpstart.


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