Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Fluid or Unstatic Theory of Plots

Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer—well, at least since third grade when I wrote a Halloween story. Despite everything I learned in school before college on how to write a story, I felt that I was missing a huge key to unlock how to write. I found this key –at least the seed that could blossom in my mind—in a chance encounter in the campus library. I didn’t run in to Mr. Gardner, the prolific and best selling author of Perry Mason and many other novels, or any other great author. I ran into a book, sitting on a shelf by a bunch of other books on writing. The spine gave the main title: “The Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer.” Dubiously I pulled it from the shelf and then my eyes must have grown to the size of small moons as the front cover gave the secondary title “The Story Telling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner.”

I grew up on the Perry Mason TV show and I had read a lot, but not all of the more than 80 Perry Mason Novels. When I saw the title, I had to check the book out. When I finished reading it, I combed the used books stores to buy a copy (as it was already out of print by the time I read it.) Unlike many other books on writing that I have read before and since that moment, this book was written directly from an examination of the plotting notebooks, the notes, and the diaries that Mr. Gardner left behind. The book documents his struggles and his life, not just how he wrote.

Mr. Gardner’s notes made it clear that as an early writer, he was determined to turn his mind in to a plot machine—which was my goal as well when I discovered the book. To do this, he actually created a plot machine that he played with until his mind did exactly what the machine did. The plot machine was only a bunch of circle cut outs that had a spinner and plot elements on it. After playing with it and a few other elements (which I may blog about at another time) his mind was able to create the twisting plots.

The plot machine cardboard wheels consisted of nine circles, each answering a question. It was these nine questions that he used to plot out (most) of his 154 novels that he wrote under a variety of pen names. These questions were written to write murder mysteries, but they can easily be changed to fit any genre. The nine wheels, thus the nine questions that he used (and that I use as part of my plotting method) are:

1. The act of primary villainy

2. Motivation for the act of villainy: Villain resorts to crime because of desire for (“Note difference between a static and cumulative motivation. Better wherever possible to start with a departure from a cumulative murder motivation—gradually, inexorably, forced to a murder motivation.” Erle Stanley Gardner)

3. The villain’s cover-up: Having committed the act of villainy, the villain tries to conceal it or escape consequences, or to help carry out motive by

4. Complications which arise during and after the cover-up: In trying 3 or afterward, villain is confronted by complications incurred through

5.The hero’s contact with the act of villainy: The Hero contacts an but not necessarily the act of villainy either by chance or by deliberation

6. Further complications and character conflicts: When conflict has been joined and hero comes in contact with villainy there are certain complicating circumstances which make for character conflicts and story

7. Suspense through hero’s mistakes: The complications become involved with the suspense element

8. Villain further attempts to escape: Villain feeling net closing about him tries to escape by some further act which points to a more exciting dramatic climax when carried through

9. Hero sets solution factors in motion or traps villain.

The plot machine looks easy, but it isn’t. Nor, is it the end of how Mr. Gardner pulled his plots together. It is only one huge cog in his method that drove the rest. If you would like for me to blog more on this, please comment and let me know. If want to find the book (as I am reluctant to loan it out as my ex-wife loaned it once to one of her friends I never got it back and had to but another one at a hefty sum—per it sells for $71 to $125.00 as of today), look for “Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner” by Francis L. Fugate and Roberta B. Fugate (Sep 1980). ISBN-10: 0688037011 ISBN-13: 978-0688037017 Publisher: William Morrow & Co You might be able to still get a copy at your library or through the interlibrary loan system (which is why I have given you the ISBNs and the publisher).

To learn more about me, please visit my website and blog at


  1. Interesting post...sure, I'd be interested in more on this!

  2. I would LOVE to hear more, David!