Tale Spinner

William Wallace Cook (1867-1933) claimed to have worn out 25 typewriters in as many years turning out hundreds of nickel and dime novels, all of them written in the same format, 40,000 words divided into 16 chapters of five single-spaced pages each. At the end of his career he published his system for generating plots, billed as “Plotto, an invention which reduces literature to an exact science.”

The “invention” is really a list of story ideas, all molded to Cook’s basic notion of a plot: “Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict.” The protagonist wants to find happiness in love and courtship, married life, or enterprise; he encounters a conflict and must reach a resolution. What makes the book fun is the absurd specificity of some of the ideas. Here’s an example:

(b) (1083)(1287)
A has invented a life preserver for the use of shipwrecked persons*
A, in order to prove the value of the life preserver he has invented, dons the rubber suit, inflates it and secretly, by night, drops overboard from a steamer on the high seas.** (1414b) (1419b)

The numbers refer to elements that might be varied, to related plots, and to character types that might figure in the story. Varying the combinations might produce several million different stories. This is certainly formulaic, but, Cook said, “There are any number of highbrow authors who will ridicule this invention in public and use it in private.” (In fact both Alfred Hitchcock and Erle Stanley Gardner admitted in interviews that they’d read the book, which went through multiple editions.)

The numbered master list gives 1,462 plots, all linked with character symbols and apparently all thought up by the author. The full text is on the Internet Archive.