Let’s Raid Wikipedia!

Who else needs a break from IFComp 2010 awesomeness?

The sad fact is that the Wikipedia article on Plot is abysmally skeletal.  Like an underfed chicken.  And, let’s face it, plot is a super-interesting topic!

A couple times, over the years, I’ve tried to add things to this entry, only to have some “editor” come along, compare the differences and say to himself (apparently):

What is this?  Someone has altered the meaning of this paragraph.  Revert!

–Generally without doing any basic research to see if the new meaning is more factually correct.

BUT, this time I think I’m starting to make some headway.  I’ve got the Latest Reverter saying, “Ok, ok, fine, just go away–”  (Didn’t you love to hear that from your parents?  It was basically carte blanche:   go ahead and paint the cat a better color, just do it quietly!)

You know what I think we need?

A history of plot.  Currently they just have Freytag’s pyramid, which is all anyone says about Freytag and isn’t even why he’s cool.  We can put in some Aristotle to give Freytag some context, work in some Agusto Boal, maybe, for an alternative point of view, and then get modern–

I dunno, you guys tell me:  Who talks about the function of plot in modern video games?  In CYOAs? 

I mean, this is Wikipedia.  We really should have something more than Freytag’s Pyramid.

C’mon, guys.  Pitch in.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 3:48 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , ,

Freytag’s Technique of the Drama (and AutoBlurb, live)

This is such a great book I’ll squeeze it in here, sideways.

Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is a long, older book that’s available online. A very useful, insightful, and overlooked book.

Freytag says that the dramatic is not emotion and not action, but it is emotion conjoined with action; it is action that is undertaken for emotional reasons. (Shades of Foster-Harris, but with a different palette.) He says drama is composed of play and counter-play: the play is what the hero does and the counter-play is what is done that has an effect on his psyche. He argues that the tragic should be an essentially ethical force which the hero must fulfill (again the resonance with F-H).

He breaks drama into five parts, with three crises joining them. The five parts are the introduction, the rise, the climax, the fall, and the catastrophe. (He only deals in the tragic; no happy endings here.) The three crises are the exciting moment (or exciting force), the tragic moment (or force), and the moment (or force) of last suspense.

He goes through Romeo and Juliette to show how to use minor characters like chess pieces to push around the major characters and make things happen. Indeed, he steps through the process of making a germ of an idea into an entire work — not formulaically, but nevertheless with an eye to the practical and useful.

There’s a slightly typoed pdf of his book here. You can get image-only scans online quite easily.

(That link broke somehow.  It’s fixed now.  I guess I can’t link directly to the pdf.  But the pdf is available for free download on the newly-linked page.)

Meanwhile, AutoBlurb is live and online! You can get completely fresh, random plots generated by clicking these links: Here for classic Polti plots, or here for Polti plots souped up with sci-fi contexts taken from S. John Ross’s Big List of RPG Plots.

Note:  AutoBlurb online does all kinds of weird things with punctuation.  I don’t know why; I don’t have ready access to the online version to streamline the generator file.  These formatting troubles don’t show up if you use the desktop program.

Published in: on November 17, 2009 at 8:34 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Emotion + Action Story Formula

This formula combines the Foster-Harris emotional formula with the Lester Dent action formula.  It aims at a story 6,000 words long.  If you’re just tuning in and don’t know about these guys, check out the tags on this blog for the background.

The goal here is to create a story with action and emotional conflict, where the emotional conflict motivates the action, and the action is emotionally significant.


1.) Use the F-H system to design an emotional conflict of interest to you.  We’re using the words “emotion” pretty loosely here; the conflict can be between any two values that get a rise out of people.  For example, the conflict between power and identity.

In general, you want these emotions to be similar to each other, or lay claim to similar domains of activity.  So Love v. Hate is not the way to go.  Love v. Lust is better.  Also popular, according to Foster-Harris, are Pride v. Honor (big with men) and Status v. Love (big with women). (more…)

Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 1:49 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Q & A on Foster-Harris

Must emotions be about the future?

On the secret, hidden part of my blog, where I’ve posted my first story written to pulp formula, Wayne commented:

I’ve read Foster-Harris’ books and he’s excellent at explaining subjective POV.

His other notions are intriguing and I wish he had explained them more and gave more examples.

F-H says every fiction sentence should have an emotion looking forward and a fact looking back. Like “Angrily, he swirled.” Anger is an emotion but how is it looking forward? Anger is frustration at being stopped. How is swirling a fact looking back.

Well, there are different kinds of anger.  If the anger were about being stopped, then it would be “about the future” in the sense that the angry person didn’t want to be stuck on whatever had stuck them, but was already mentally trying to put themselves into the future situation, and stupid reality wasn’t keeping pace with them.

But your criticism is a very good one.  Emotions aren’t always about the future.  Foster-Harris is wrong on that point.

Some emotions are always about the future.  Fear, for example, doesn’t make sense if it’s not oriented toward the future.  You could image a situation where someone was fearful of something that technically had already happened — fearful of getting a bad grade on yesterday’s test.  They might know it had already been graded, but until it happens to them, until they get the grade, it’s in their future.

Other emotions are always about the past.  Regret, for example. (more…)

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 6:51 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Pulp Report – First Story Finished

Last night, I finished The Robot Murders, which I’m posting here.  I have to post it with a password, because part of the experiment is to try to sell it.  If you’d like to read it, write me with “pulp fiction password request” in the subject line. (more…)

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 1:14 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

The “Doc Savage” Pulp Story Formula – by Lester Dent

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here’s how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest. (more…)

Published in: on June 16, 2009 at 7:32 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , , , ,

Pulp IF? – Applying the F-H system to text game plots

In the last blog post, I reviewed the Foster-Harris formula for creating (let’s face it) pulp plots.  I argued that the F-H system is the minimal system for creating an emotionally salient plot.  Therefore, presumably, a F-H plot in a text game is the minimal design we’d need to get an emotionally salient piece of interactive fiction.

And I’m not saying that there is no emotionally salient IF out there, but the word on the street is that IF generally falls short of qualifying as “literature,” in contrast to pulp fiction (which is bad literature, but literature nonetheless).

So, what do we need to do to bring IF “up” to the standards of bad literature, according to the F-H system?


Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 12:48 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

The F-H System: Creating Plot for Popular Fiction

We’ll look at Foster-Harris’s system for plotting a story, omitting as much as possible his fits of lunacy.  Foster-Harris calls this a formula, and adopts a mathy notation for it, but it’s intuitive, and not something you could work through algorithmically.  On the other hand, as intuitions go, it is pretty formulaic.

Conflict Between Two Emotions

Plot (says F-H) is the conflict between two emotions, and the working-out of that conflict.  And you can use any two emotions.  For example:

love vs. pride

Next you must ask yourself the big question, whether this will be a story with a happy ending, or a sad one.  When a story has  happy ending, this means the main character has made the right choice, and when a sad ending, the wrong choice.  And F-H means the morally right or wrong choice.

For the morally right choice, which will be rewarded with a happy ending, he designates the plus sign; for the morally wrong, the minus sign.  So

love + pride = ?

Represents the plot, “When a character is forced to make a hard choice between love and pride, and chooses right, what happens?”


Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 9:41 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Foster-Harris: a 1950’s-era writing instructor

Foster-Harris (no first name given) was a professor of journalism at the University of Oklahoma.  He ran the creative writing lab there, which Writer’s Digest praised highly.  He intends his writing system for authors selling both to the “slick” magazines and the pulps, but he’s a bit disparaging of literary fiction, and the advice he gives makes me cringe.  The back flap says he “has been rated by his editors as one of the ten leading American writers for pulp magazines.”

Basically, the stuff he’s talking about his students writing is what I myself find cringeworthy.  But, it is cringeworthy in a way that is recognizably very often published.  For example:

Angrily he whirled.  The dark figure behind him had not moved, had not made a sound.  But now the sullen lids were wide open and the dull eyes had a chill, basilisk stare to them, like the eyes of a great snake.  Something incredibly evil in that silent stare, something smirking, something filled with cold, nameless horrors.  A thin chill seeping through him, Don grinned back with his lips only, and swung toward the door  (Formulas, 50-51).


Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 2:51 pm  Comments (10)  
Tags: , , , ,