When I heard about this book I just had to get a copy. Plotto is the work of William Wallace Cook (1867 - 1933), a prolific churner-out of pulp novels in many genres. He was quoted as saying, “A writer is neither better nor worse than any other man who happens to be in trade. He is a manufacturer.” To prove his point, he created Plotto in the 1920’s, a book that aimed to help a writer generate every conceivable plot for a story, built around three essential elements: protagonist, conflict situation, and resolution. You start with an initial situation, and then let the book’s organization guide you through various possible plot twists and outcomes.
Despite its dismayingly complex-looking system of letters and numbers, the book was a huge success, and has now been reprinted in a lovely new edition by TinHouse Books of Orgeon. Can one still use Plotto to come up with a workable plot for a story or novel? Yes, you probably can, but one thing you quickly become aware of when using the book is that it’s also a time machine: following its combinatorial logic takes you back to the attitudes and mores of the time it was written, where “A” is always a male protagonist, often struggling to succeed in order to win the love of “B,” the female protagonist, whose stern father objects because “A” is poor... etc. It’s a plot-world of maiden aunts and avenging wrongs and surprise inheritances and the transgression of stratified social classes. It's an entertaining and illuminating book just to browse through, to see what was thought of as a "good story" back then.
Someone ought to try updating the book to the 21st century. What you’d still end up with, of course, is a catalogue for selecting prefabricated, formulaic plots.