Not every book on how to do something is to be found in one of our How To categories, of course. How to take care of your liver is in Health, and how to take care of your turkey liver is in Cookbooks. How to write books or short stories should be looked for in Books and Authors. There have been many such books: one or two authors, say some critics, were actually better at telling other people how to write than at writing anything themselves.
I was therefore unsurprised to find that I had never heard of anything written by Wycliffe A. Hill, inventor of the Plot Robot. Hill claimed to have been a Hollywood scriptwriter: after one of his scripts was blasted by Cecil B. DeMille, he decided to devote himself to devising better plots for scripts, and was eventually kind enough to pass along his work to others. His publishers decided to call his series of books The Plot Genie, feeling perhaps that the general public was more familiar with genies than with robots. (This was 1934, you see.)
What I have here is one of his supplemental volumes, with the plot genie or robot tuned to the short- short: a story that runs to no more than a page or two. There is the usual section on how to write, with a selection of good examples. Then we get down to the machinery of the robot.
He has set the basic elements of the short-short story at seven: Locale, Character, Motivation, Obstacle, Method of Attack, Crisis, and Climax. Under each of these headings he has placed 180 different possibilities. You can pick one number and follow it through the alternatives, or you can choose random numbers and see what the plot robot picks out for you. Under Locale, for example, you may wind up with “the Bowery”, “A dude ranch”, “In the trenches”, or “in a questionable house.”
Having chosen where your story takes place, the robot picks your protagonist from another 180 possibilities, from “a scrubwoman” to “a moonshiner”. Then you choose why this character has become involved in your story: Does he “desire to escape from a bad habit”, or “desire to outwit a lawless gang”, or is she acting on “an unholy impulse to do something wrong for experimental purposes”?
Obviously, we can’t have our protagonist just do whatever it is and be done, so there must be an Obstacle: “a bashful nature”, “the safety of a child”, “inclement weather”, or “the danger of occult interference”. They must go up against this Obstacle with a Method of Attack: “the use of sex appeal”, “A strange emblem or symbol is placed as a signal”, “a plan to commit arson”, or “a wrong address is given.” This then leads to a Crisis when things go wrong: “about to be slugged”, “one is unwittingly about to break the heart of another”, “A loved one is about to fall into a trap set for another” or “Disaster is threatened by a boomerang”.
The whole thing is resolved—not necessarily by a happy ending—at the Climax: “It is discovered that a supposedly absent person is present”, “The enemy or persecutor is lured into a clever trap”, “Wherein a character suspected turns out to be in the service of the law”, or “In which maternal love saves the day.”
The result of all this choosing is, as Mr. Hill points out, only a “formula”, the basic outline of a plot. Style, he says, is needed to fill out the framework. (More than style, actually: if you choose the ending where the enemy is lured into a clever trap, YOU still have to figure out what the trap is.) He has an interesting section wherein (he likes this word) he gives the basic plot skeleton of a number of successful stories and sends you out to find the stories to see how the authors developed the framework. (He does NOT claim they came up with these plots using his robot; he’s just showing how it COULD be done.)
I do wonder how this worked for Mr. Hill. Maybe he made enough money from his Plot Robots (there was one for comedy, one for action-adventure, one for detective-mystery, and one for “romance without melodrama”) that he didn’t need to write anything else. Maybe he labored away in radio writing or screenwriting under contracts that meant he didn’t get credit. Or maybe he preferred to work at jobs that involved the numbers (his only other book, written after the war, seems to have been on how to predict the outcome of a horse race.
Anyway, if you’d like to try writing short-shorts, you will find this opus in Books & Authors, near the books on character construction, the description of landscape and setting, and the use of poisons (for mystery writers. The use of poisons in the garden will be found in Gardening, and the use of poisons on customers at Book Fairs who complain about the sorting will be found in my office.)