The King of All Formulas
The incredible true story of the man who invented the Hollywood schlock machine.
Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.
Creaky as his apparatus now looks, Hill was onto something: Other plot wizards followed, including Plotto, the insanely complex 1928 creation of pulp novelist William Wallace Cook. (His pseudonymous memoir isn't titled The Fiction Factory for nothing: Cook once bashed out 54 "nickel novels" in a single year.) Rare and comically user-unfriendly, Plotto required its own accompanying instruction booklet—which, invariably lost or disintegrated in the intervening eight decades, leaves modern discoverers of the unaccompanied volume bewildered. Plotto resembles a thesaurus filled with cryptic codings and narrative fragments:
(b) (1083) (1287)
A has invented a life preserver for the use of shipwrecked persons * A, in order to prove the value of the life preserver he has invented, dons the rubber suit, inflates it and secretly, by night, drops overboard from a steamer on the high seas ** (1414b) (1419b)
(1027) (1418a; 1433b)
A sells his shadow for an inexhaustible purse (1354a) (1357)
A discovers his cigar will not burn. On investigation, he discovers that the cigar is merely a rolled paper, X, camouflaged with a tobacco wrapper—the rolled paper, X, being an important message (541) (561) (1369) (1400)
Hill wasn't about to lie down and take … well, whatever the hell this was. He responded in 1931 with an invention called the Plot Robot—an actual mechanical scriptwriting robot—that utilized "whirring gears" to mix "background, characters, and dramatic situations from a series of tapes." When that didn't take, he hit on the creation of increasingly dense Plot Genie books that used a board-game spinner for random plot generation. Soon Fortune magazine was covering Hill's juggernaut; his pricey guides moved thousands of units among screenwriters and would-be writers, and endless plot guides and po-faced Poltis have followed ever since.
And so the would-be formula advice genre that Wycliffe A. Hill created lives on … as do crappy formulaic movies. But if there was ever a man whose own life beggars belief from even the most random plot generator, and that reveals the ultimate sterility of formula plotting, it was Hill himself. In chasing the chimera of 10 million plots, he never let on that life—his own life—was far weirder and richer than any Plot Robot could imagine.
Hill had a secret: He could barely sell his own screenplays. In fact, his finances had been so dire that by the 1920s the cinematic sage drifted into grinding out cheap newspaper copy. While scratching away for his nickels, he befriended a crooked lawyer named—I am not making this up—Morgan Marmaduke.
Marmaduke represented—and I am also not making this up—serial killer Bluebeard Watson. A roving bigamist who dispatched nine of his 22 wives through bludgeoning or drowning, Bluebeard was now passing time in San Quentin by strangling birds that landed too near his cell window. He let slip to his lawyer that, after killing and burying his final victim, Nina Lee Deloney, in the hills outside San Diego, he'd stuffed $86,000 worth of Liberty Bonds into Mason fruit jars and buried them nearby. Marmaduke and Watson cut Wycliffe Hill into a deal to find the jars, and the hunt was on.
Hill spent five years searching and digging for the killer's ill-gotten gains, visiting San Quentin repeatedly and having Bluebeard Watson circle photographs to show him where to dig. Not only couldn't Hill find the loot, but after bickering with Watson, he sued the inmate for breach of contract—an attempt at recouping funds that one Los Angeles Times reporter charitably described as "optimistic."
Rather than exploit the story possibilities in the Barton Fink –ish hell-scape of his own life, Hill descended into the endless spiral of how-to hackery. But even Hill himself couldn't hack it anymore. By the end of his career, he appears to have been so disenchanted with the Hollywood dream machine, the one he quite literally tried to build,that his final publications include a 1945 pamphlet titled Why the Jew Gets the Money.
Perhaps that just proves his point. Hill, I suppose, succumbed to his own Plot Situation No. 35: "Mental Derangement."
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.