The Formulaic Writer – Part Three

Hello and welcome back! I’ve been remiss in getting this blog back onto anything resembling a regular schedule — I hope you’ll bear with me.

As promised, the Formulaic Writer series picks up again today, continuing our look at various formulae and methods for idea-brainstorming for writers. We’re going to take a look at a couple tools today — one nearly a century old, and a couple of others which are more recent.

First up: Plotto – A New Method Of Plot Suggestion For Writers Of Creative Fiction. Yeah, it’s a mouthful, and honestly, it’s marvelously bonkers. Written by William Wallace Cook and published in 1928, Plotto is, weirdly, almost like a bizarre system of algebra for creating plot ideas, put together by somebody who in today’s world would probably be diagnosed as being on the spectrum. It’s got this marvelous late-20s mad-scientist kinda feel to it (and, unfortunately, the expected occasional bit of early-20th century racism & misogyny), and really does come up with interesting combinations which definitely spark ideas.

You can download the public-domain book in various formats at the Internet Archive, but a kind soul has created a a hyperlinked online version, which includes a gender-flipper switch (the AB at the top of the page, which reverses the codes used in the text for male and female), and a randomizer (linked from this intro page, under “Getting Started.”).

I could give you a detailed run-down of how to use Plotto, but the gentleman who produced the online version has been kind enough to summarize here. Briefly, though:

  • You select one of the “A” clauses, which define the initial state of the protagonist.  There are 15 of these.
  • You then select one of the “B” clauses, which is the overall action of the story. There are 62 of these.
  • Finally, you select one of the “C” clauses, which is the resolution of the story.  There are 15 of those.

That gives you the basic framework. You then expand the “B” conflict — an index of possible conflicts is given for each “B” clause, and you choose one for your starting point.  Each conflict has a set of before and after suggestions that can be used to expand the conflict in either direction — and of course, these are presented numerically, which sends you to that entry, which ALSO has before and after suggestions to expand it, allowing you to work backward (to the “A” clause), or forward (to the “C” clause).  It’s all bizarrely convoluted and odd, because like I said: mad-scientist 1920s story-writing algebra system.

It’s all really fascinating, though, and really worth digging into — because it absolutely does spark plot ideas.

But perhaps you’d like something a bit more modern?

The Snowflake Method.

This method of creating a story is the invention of Randy Ingermanson. His idea is based on the fractal concept. Specifically, he was inspired by the mathematical exercise of the Koch Snowflake. (Briefly, creating a snowflake structure by manipulation of an equilateral triangle.) He applies it to writing by starting small, then building up until it starts to look like a story. The tool he suggests for doing so is rigid time management, where you concentrate on one particular task, which builds on the tasks before it, until a story starts to take shape.

The steps of the Snowflake Method are:

  1. 1-sentence summary: the “high concept” idea. A one-line blurb, 15 words or fewer. Take an hour on this task.
  2. Expand sentence to full paragraph, using the three-act structure or whatever other method you prefer. Again, take an hour.
  3. One page summary for each character, exploring their personal storyline, motivation, goal, conflict, etc. An hour for each character.
  4. Expand each individual sentence in summary (#2) to a full paragraph, expanding on each idea. Take a few hours on this.
  5. 1 page description of each major character, and half-pages on the minor characters — a “character synopsis”, more descriptive than step 3. Take a day or two on this.
  6. Back to expanding the plot — Take each paragraph from #4 and blow it up into a full page synopsis. (1 week.)
  7. Expand character descriptions from #5 into full “character charts” — tons of detail, even if you think it won’t make it into the story (birthday, history, etc.). The idea by this point is to make them as real in your head as you can make them.  (1 week)
  8. Turn the multi-page summary from #6 into a scene breakdown, by whatever method you prefer (spreadsheets, index cards, Scrivener, etc.).  This takes as long as it takes.
  9. (optional) Expand each scene from spreadsheet into multi-paragraph description of that scene (you may not want to do that, keeping that for the draft, or that might be how your scene breakdowns already work). Again, this will take as long as it takes.
  10. Start writing first draft.

It’s a bit gimmicky, sure — and more than a bit hand-wavy in sections, but I like the idea of timed work, and going from small to large as more ideas come.  A bit like sculpture, building up a figure with bits of clay until the form appears.

We’ll take a look at another

The One Page Novel

This is a formula designed by Eva Deverell, who teaches a course on it, and it’s an 8-stage method, using a fill-in-the-blanks method, designed to fit on one page. Interestingly, it has you coming up with your plot stages out of order — you plot in one order, but the stages appear in the story in a different order:
Plotting order:

  1. Resolution
  2. Stasis
  3. Shift
  4. Trigger
  5. Quest
  6. Power
  7. Bolt
  8. Defeat

Story order:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. Quest
  4. Bolt
  5. Shift
  6. Defeat
  7. Power
  8. Resolution

Each stage is described as follows:

Stasis: the character isn’t living to their full potential – opposite state to Resolution.
Trigger: an internal or external impulse (or both) forces the character to take the first step towards their Resolution state.
Quest: the character enters the new world of adventure, meets mentors or allies and makes a (bad) plan to solve the problem the Trigger created.
Bolt: the (bad) Quest plan inevitably goes wrong.
Shift: the character makes the paradigm shift necessary for them to inhabit their Resolution state.
Defeat: the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Power: the character finds a hidden power within themselves that allows them to seize the prize.
Resolution: the character is living up to their full potential in their Resolution state.



That’s it for today’s installment.  I’ll be coming back to this topic again next week, and we’ll look at some more brainstorming tools and methods.

Tomorrow: Friday Music! See you then.


Food For Thought

I had been planning on continuing my Formulaic Writer series today, but it’s being pre-empted — so I’m sorry to the half-dozen or so of you who might be reading that(😊), but I’ll be picking that up again tomorrow.

I wanted to talk about something I’ve read today which is making me think.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Matt Colville, a longtime creator in the game industry, just broke the record for tabletop game Kickstarters, raising 2.12 million dollars on a combined project to produce a Strongholds sourcebook for D&D, and pay for dedicated studio space for his streaming channel..

Today, he posted an after-action report, detailing the story of setting up and running the Kickstarter, and I urge you to read it. There’s a lot of important stuff to absorb there, about preparation, expectations, and more.

One of the things that I found most fascinating, however, is this section, where he talks about the big RPG forums:

“On old forums where folks have been talking about D&D for 20 years, people are trying to reverse-engineer our success. None of them can fathom what’s going on. They’ve never heard of me. Is there really this much demand for a Strongholds & Followers book for 5th Edition? Have we all been doing this wrong the whole time?

I am a member of these forums. On some of them, I had tens of thousands of posts back in the late 90s and early 2000s. Back when that industry was my job. None of these people remember me, and why should they? They’re all newcomers from my point of view, and I’m a nobody from theirs.

Some people try to frame the discussion in terms of Streaming. “The Rise of the Streamer.” None of these people know who streams what, so they assume I am a popular streamer. Some of them know I’m not but in their minds, being on YouTube and being on Twitch is the same thing. I’m watching the birth of a new generation of Grognard.

I interject and try to explain. The success of the Kickstarter is the success of the YouTube channel. There’s no way to understand it otherwise. I don’t think they’re really interested in my opinion. What do I know? I’m no longer part of that world. I feel very little connection with folks in tabletop now. I realize to me, now, this hobby is something that happens at the table, but the community happens on twitch and youtube and reddit and twitter. Those are my native environments. I’m pretty sure most of the posters on these forums have no twitter account. They talk about twitter like it’s a sign of the downfall of western civilization. What would they have made of Elvis and his swiveling hips in the 1950s? Would they have been on the right side of history then?”

I’ll admit this has been echoing some thoughts I’ve been having over the past few years, about the dichotomy between what a lot of the game industry thinks is the Tabletop Games community, and what the community actually IS… and how our misinterpretation is leading us to over-weigh a minority of loud, backward-looking voices, and how that’s not only bad for our businesses, but also bad for the hobby.

In a discussion over on Twitter, game designer James Wallis floated this idea, which, given the realities of where things are and where they’re probably going to continue to move, is brilliant.

I think I may steal this idea. It’s a good one.

Anyway. There’s a lot to think about.


Friday Music

Hey there, folks.

The Formulaic Writer will continue on Monday. But today is Friday, and that means Friday Music!

As always, these are some tracks which drifted through my head this week, and so I’ve collected them here for you, like a little mixtape, so you can put them in your earholes as well.

The callipygian portrait over to the left there is the album cover of St. Vincent’s most recent album, MASSEDUCTION. I’m a huge fan of her work — it may seem like exaggeration, but I honestly think that music history may eventually categorize her, along with a number of other female contemporaries (like Jannelle Monáe) as influential artists of the same caliber as Prince or Bowie. A bold prediction, I know. In the meantime, here’s the title track from the new album: St. Vincent – “Masseduction.”

Back in the earlier iterations of Friday Music, I was quite enamored of mash-ups. I haven’t listened to any new ones in quite some time, though. Stumbled across this one recently, though, and was blown away. It’s the perfect blending of Motley Crue’s “Looks That Kill” with Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” that I never knew I desperately craved. Bill McClintock – “Look Again (Motley Crue vs Steely Dan).”

Recent stuff by Bruno Mars has never failed to get my ass moving, with a smile on my face. Throwbacks to classic funk and soul are right up my alley, and you’ve gotta love lyrics like “Throw some perm on that attitude, ‘cuz ya gotta RELAX.” Bruno Mars – “Perm.”

Of course, if we’re going to throwback to classic funk and soul, that puts me in the mood for some genuine 70s gold. This track was all over the radio in 1976 (I was seven years old), and I’ve always loved the deep smooth sound of his voice. (Interesting note: the backing musicians are the MSFB, the studio group who worked for Philadelphia International, and whose best-known recording was “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, better known as the theme to Soul Train.) Lou Rawls – “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”

Another throwback — but this time to a time (the late 90s) when a throwback to another time (the late 30s and early 40s) was briefly popular. Yes, kids, I was a sucker for the horribly hipster Swing Revival. I hadn’t thought of this song since then, but it drifted across my iTunes random shuffle, and it all came flooding back: Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – “Zoot Suit Riot.”

A Google commercial featuring Sia made me remember the first time I ever heard her sing, long before she became known as a solo act in her own right — she was providing vocals on a few tracks by the English downtempo electronica act Zero 7. This was the first single from their 2001 debut album, Simple Things, and I utterly fell in love with their sound. Plus, one of the best opening lines ever: “I lie awake, I’ve gone to ground…I’m watching porn in my hotel dressing-gown.” Zero 7 – “Destiny.”

I have long been a fan of Dead Can Dance, although I’ve always struggled to describe them. Not a band, per se, nor really a duo. More like a “musical project,” although that sounds odd. Wikipedia tells me that Australian music historian Ian McFarlane describes them as “constructed soundscapes of mesmerising grandeur and solemn beauty; African polyrhythms, Gaelic folk, Gregorian chant, Middle Eastern mantras, and art rock” — and I suppose that captures some of what they are. This, a track which goes through parlor music & chanting, settles into the ethereal before finally giving us lyrical poetry, is my favorite of their songs. Dead Can Dance – “Ullyses.”

That’s all for this week, folks. See you back here on Monday for the next installment of The Formulaic Writer, and again next week for more Friday Music. Have a great weekend!