Interview with William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots

Masie Cochran

William Wallace Cook (1867-1933) was, understandably, unavailable for interview. The following is an imagined conversation with William Wallace Cook; his answers were culled from biographical information and passages in Plotto (available here).

Tin House: How long did you work on Plotto?

William Wallace Cook: For more than forty years, I wrote and sold fiction stories, and out of this long experience I earnestly believe that here in Plotto is TRUTH. I gave five years to the preparation of this work. I know it is imperfect, and that it would still be imperfect if I had spent a whole lifetime in its preparation. But I have proved that it is practical.

TH: So you think Plotto has a practical place in the creative process?

WWC: Plotto is the greatest single aid in plotting ever offered writers. Make up your mind now to give Plotto the time it deserves. The best known writers in the world own and use Plotto.

TH: Did any artists take issue with the formulas found in Plotto?

WWC: You will be surprised to learn how some very knowing people have misunderstood Plotto. On glancing at it, some of the intelligentsia 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.

A very great and successful author told me that “he could never use it in his work.” A publisher in London, England, remarked: “Plotto will be condemned publicly—and probably used privately.” But the American author and the London publisher spoke hastily. They had not penetrated to the real nature of this work by scanning its possibilities in originality. Even the accomplished author, the author who has “arrived,” will find in the Plotto Conflicts the fire needed.

TH: How was Plotto devised?

WWC: I began by devising the Masterplot Chart, and because of my long experience in story writing, I found the Masterplots sufficient for my purposes of plot suggestion. But when these Masterplots were submitted to other writers, there was the objection that they were not concrete enough in their suggestions. To make the Masterplot supply the need, the Conflicts to exemplify them were devised—calling for the most intense application over a period of years. I made use of the conflict suggestions in my own work, always with the utmost success. In fact, I have been told by the publisher who has used most of my output of fiction for forty years that, contrary to the rule, my “work grows better as my years increase.” And that is because of Plotto.

TH: Do you think the rules in Plotto could stifle originality?

WWC: Plotto merely suggests, does away with rules and ask you to follow the bent of your own individual imagination, rightly controlled.

All this may seem very simple to some of you, but nevertheless it is training your imagination along inventive lines. You are drilling yourself in the art of explaining circumstances in original terms. Not alone in story writing, but in every field of human endeavor, the highest success comes to those with an imagination highly developed and rightly controlled. That is, with an imagination that exercises taste and discrimination in dealing with suggestion. And note, please, that discrimination includes good judgment. Remember that originality is the soul of creative art, and to become a writer of truly creative fiction you must develop a facility in applying originality to your plot construction.

When writing a story, you will invent circumstances in interpreting a suggestion and these circumstances will be original with you, and the story will flow easily along familiar lines of experience. We work originally, and we work best, with materials of our own. The suggestion alone is Plotto’s—the working out of the suggestion is original with you and is yours alone.

TH: What if you gave a classroom of writers the same Masterplot?

WWC: A Masterplot selected from Plotto will suggest, vaguely perhaps, the situations to be used in writing a story about it. From an identical suggestion, however, no two of you could write a story that would be at all similar—except as to theme. Drawing on your own experience for situations, and for circumstances explanatory of the situations, all stories from an identical Masterplot would be original and different.

TH: Will you give us an example of a Masterplot?

WWC: Simple or Compound?

TH: Please explain the difference.

WWC: A Simple Masterplot will consist of one A, one B, and one C Clause. A Compound Masterplot will consist of combinations of A, B, and C Clauses—combinations of all the Clauses or of any one of the Clauses—all combinations in A to be formed of A Clauses, in B of B Clauses, and in C of C Clauses.

TH: Compound!

WWC: Only the advanced plottoist should attempt the use of Compound Masterplots, since they invoice a complexity of conflict suggestions with which only the trained imagination may deal to the best advantage. Nevertheless, it is well that the beginner in the Plotto Method should have some knowledge of the manner in which the Masterplot Clauses may be amplified.

TH: I think we’re ready…

WWC: B (female protagonist) and A (male protagonist) are a happily married couple living in a city. A and B learn they were married under false pretenses and suffer an estrangement due to mistaken judgment. A-3 (male rival or enemy of A begins calling on B. A, fearing he is losing the love of B, pretends to take poison with suicidal intent. A and B emerge happily. ** (249)(262a, b, c) (1461b)

TH: Have you seen Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith?