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Thursday, September 8, 2011

101 Plots--Used and Abused for your pleasure

I was looking downstairs for some items and saw a thin volume on top of a box of books. Sure enough, it was a book titled 101 PLOTS –USED AND ABUSED, by James N. Young, The Writer, Inc., publishers. I’d gotten it from one of the “bargain book” outlets over twenty years ago, probably for less than $5. Originally written in 1945, the revised edition was reprinted in 1961, which is what I have. It is only 71 pages and while some of the items in it are very outdated, it is frightening how many of these plots I recognized, reinterpreted and combined into an “everything old is new again” movie script or book.
Of course, the first thing I did was check to see if it was still available. First, I checked Amazon, to find it selling for $99.95, WITH the dustcover. It is the 1961 edition I have, in very good shape, but no dustcover.
Ooohhh! How interesting. So, I checked Alibris, a website for antique and out-of-print books. They were selling the 1946 edition in “good condition” for $85.50 for one of my favorite websites, Better World Books.
Still, IF I should ever want to get rid of my copy, I’m betting I could get a decent sum. All in all, a pretty good investment.
In the Forward, Young tells about getting a call from a friend, who has a great idea for a story, that just happened to his cousin/friend/uncle/whatever. The author bursts his bubble by interrupting, telling the rest of the story and saying it is Plot No. 46. (A pickpocket/thief returns a favor by helping the protagonist escape.)
Don’t you wish you could do that?
“In this little book you will find briefly outlined a number of old plots (with a few of their many variations) which have become hackneyed through much use….Old though they be, the skilled craftsman can still reclothe their bones so as to produce the illusion of novelty.” Mr. Young worked as an editor, so he compiled his list from what he saw submitted, but also wrote himself.
Rule Number 1 is from Francis Lewis Wellman, author of The Art of Cross-Examination.  “Rule 1 for every writer should be: Write a certain number of hours every working day in the week. Whether you’re in a writing mood or not, write: Let nothing, other than illness, keep you from your typewriter!”
Rule Number 2 is from our author. “And, however impatient you may be, never submit a story to an editor until it is as near perfect as you can make it. Work over your plots again and again, before you start writing. Live with them, take them out to walk with you, sleep with them. Edit your stories line by line, word by word; and, if necessary, rewrite them again and again…and again…and yet again. When you have put the finishing touches on a story, when you have done your ultimate best, hold it for a time—with a little further thought you may be able to improve it.”
Rule Number 3 is on page 15, where our author is trying to write his own story for publication. “Which reminds me: One of the most important things the beginner must learn, if he hopes to succeed, is how to avoid the use of cliches. Many a piece of fiction never finds a market simply because of the author’s choice of trite words. If you are a beginner, go over your stories before you send them out, and delete as many hackneyed words and expressions as you can—and as many adjectives! This, take it from me, is good advice.”
He includes the super short story he gave to his editor, called “A Song in France.” It was his fifth draft. Remember, that was in the pre-photocopier days of the manual typewriter. I remember those and carbon paper, don’t you?
In fact, I have this very typewriter from my mom and dad on my quilt case.

Then, he goes into the plots, with the addendum in the headline “(With twenty-four extra, for good measure).” He numbers them, each one paragraph synopses, sometimes with generic character names.  While most would not sustain a novel, I recognized these old chestnuts, every one.
Number 114 is the: It was only a dream. (Remember that whole season of “Dallas”?) Number 55 is the: He’s dead, but the reader doesn’t find out right away. (Remember “The Sixth Sense”?) Number 72 is: The husband went off to war and was reported as dead, but returns years later, having just been captured. (Remember “Castaway”?)
So, it’s safe to say, anything we write has been written before. How many secret baby, fake marriage/engagement, misunderstanding keeps them separated books have you read the past few years? Quite a few from me, but I know I’ll keep buying them and reading them. It is simply up to us to make it interesting, different and worthy of our readers’ dollars.