The Lester Dent Master Formula for Pulp Fiction Writing

Here’s the formula that Lester Dent used for writing his stories that I found online. It seems to move around, so I thought I’d post it here in it’s entirety. When I first started writing my Little Gou adventures this was the formula I had running in the back of my head as I wrote them. (I believe it’s in the public domain, although I confess to not being sure on that.)

I’ve also created a checklist of sorts based on this formula to plan stories with, which you can find here.

Enjoy!

Rob

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The Lester Dent Formula

Lester Dent, the American adventure and mystery novelist, was born in La Plata, Missouri, in 1904. The Dents moved to a remote part of Wyoming when Lester was two years old. While he was a telegraph operator for the Associated Press, one of his co-workers published a story in a pulp magazine. Dent read it and thought that he could probably write a story that was at least as good, maybe even better. And since he had the graveyard shift, he started writing at work. His first story was accepted by a pulp magazine, so he and his family moved to New York, where he became a full-time writer of pulp fiction.

He’s most famous for his many stories and novels about Doc Savage, a superhuman scientist and adventurer. With the money he made from writing, Lester Dent was able to do all the things that interested him. He earned an amateur radio license, a pilot license, and he passed both the electricians’ and plumbers’ trade exams. He loved mountain climbing and exploring deserts and the tropics. He spent three years sailing around the Caribbean on his yacht, diving for treasure during the day and writing Doc Savage stories at night.

Dent wrote more than a thousand pulp fiction stories, all with the same formula, which he detailed in an article that explained an exact formula for writing a 6,000-word pulp story.

***

This is one opinion. It is opinion of one who believes in formula and mechanical construction, for a pulp yarn. It is opinion of one believing:

1—Majority of pulps are formula.

2—Most editors who say they don’t want formula don’t know what they are talking about.

3—Some eds won’t buy anything but formula.

Framed over this typewriter, on a bulkhead of my schooner now anchored off a bay in the Caribbean while we attempt to raise a Spanish treasure, is an object which tends to make the convictions mentioned appear to be facts—or an unexpected hallucination.

The object on the bulkhead 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 written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

A year or so ago, a rough form of this master plot was handed to a man who still had a first sale to make. If recollection is correct, he sold his next six yarns written to the master plot.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else. The idea is apparently to get materials, get a plan, and go to it.

The rough form of this story plan, this master plot, will follow. But first, it might be a good idea to consider some of the materials.

It seems likely that “character” rates as one of the principal story-making materials. Many a yarn comes back with  “Inadequate Characterization” penciled on a rejection slip, and a scribbler works up a headache trying to figure out what the hell that meant. It might help to glance over some barn door variety characterization gags that most professionals use.

A fair idea is to make out a list of characters before starting a yarn. Then it’s conceivably a better idea to try to get along with half the list.

For a detective yarn, several characters may be handy, to wit: One hero. One villain. Various persons to murder. It may not be a sure-fire thing to murder women, some editors being finicky that way. Somebody for the hero to rescue is often handy, too. Female. Not female, though, if the editor has what he is wont to quaintly call a “no woman interest” mag.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader’s mind. Tag him. A tag may be described as something to recognize somebody by. Haile Selassie’s sheet and drawers might be called an appearance tag. So might Old John Silver’s wooden leg in Treasure Island. And movie comic Joe Brown’s big mouth. The idea is to show the tag to the reader so that he may thereby recognize the actor in the story. Instead of marching the character in only by name, parade the tag.

Mannerism tags may cover absent-minded gestures. Perhaps the villain (villainy at this point unknown) is often noted rubbing his eyes when in private or when thinking himself unobserved. At end of yarn, it turns out the color of his eyes has been disguised by the new style glass opticians’ cap which fits directly on the eyeball, and cap was irritating his eyes.

It’s nice to have tags take a definite bearing on the story. Not all can, however.

Disposition tags should not be overlooked. Is the character a hard guy? Does he love his women and leave ‘em—and later help them over the rough spots? This tagging might go on and on and become more and more subtle.

Characters usually have names. Occasionally an author is a literary Argus who writes a yarn carrying the actors through by their tags alone, then goes back and names them. This procedure is not necessarily to be advised, except a time or two for practice.

It is not a bad idea to use some system in picking names. Two characters in the yarn may not necessarily need names which look alike. Confusing the reader can be left to villains. If the hero’s name is Johnson, “J” and “son” names for the others might be avoided. Too, it may not be the best idea to go in for all very short names exclusively. And a worse idea is to go in for all long ones. Telephone books are full of names, but it’s an idea to twist them around, selecting a first name here, second one there. If nothing better is at hand, a newspaper, possibly the obit page, can help.

Now, about that master plot. It’s a formula, a blueprint for any 6000-word yarn.

A rough outline can be laid out with the typewriter, although some mental wizards may do it all in their heads. About a page of outline to every ten pages of finished yarn might serve.

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.

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

Here’s how it starts:

1.         A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE

2.         A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING

3.         A DIFFERENT LOCALE

4.         A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

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.

A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite?

Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain’s victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

Probably it won’t do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure–thing that villain wants–makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here’s a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled “Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned,” or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, “What’s the matter?” He looks in the book and finds, “El khabar, eyh?” To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it’s perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it’s a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Here’s the second installment of the master plot.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:

FIRST 1500 WORDS

1.         First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.

2.         The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

3.         Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.

4.         Hero’s endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.

5.         Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?

At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.

Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise’s tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They’re not real. The rings are painted there. Why?

SECOND 1500 WORDS

1.         Shovel more grief onto the hero.

2.         Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

3.         Another physical conflict.

4.         A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?

DON’T TELL ABOUT IT! Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until–surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader’s mind. TAG HIM.

BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.

THIRD 1500 WORDS

1.         Shovel the grief onto the hero.

2.         Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

3.         A physical conflict.

4.         A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happen logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water.

THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.

FOURTH 1500 WORDS

1.         Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

2.         Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)

3.         The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.

4.         The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest–are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

5.         Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)

6.         The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happen logically? Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING? Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?

12 Tips to Being a Super-Prolific Short Story Writer

An interesting article on how to be productive that I found on Io9.com tonight.

http://io9.com/5457388/12-secrets-to-being-a-super+prolific-short+story-writer

Although in the end the real secret is just write- lots!

Rob

The Hard Balance- Accessibility versus Readability in SF and Fantasy

Something I had to struggle with when I started to write Twin Stars was the simple question of how much Science Fiction I wanted to put into it. I know it should seem obvious, it is a Science Fiction story after all, but I wanted it to be open to almost anyone to sit down and listen and basically be able to follow it. Part of that was keeping it character focused and sticking to the more universal aspects that a listener can follow regardless of where it’s set. (The same thing that makes my Little Gou stories something that people who know nothing about ancient China can follow…) But, a big part of it was also deciding how many science fiction elements to include, and how many to leave out. The more I included, the harder it would be for non-SciFi fans to follow, and the less I included the more flavor it would lack.

In the end, of course, I worked hard to find something that was somewhere in the middle, but I freely admit that when push comes to shove I’ve always defaulted back to the sci-fi elements that almost everyone knows rather than trying to create new ones. A big part of this is because it’s audio, there’s no narrator, and I’ve long been aware that I can only work with what’s already in the audience’s heads. If I try to create too much new, or presume too much foreknowledge, then I seriously risk losing them.

An essay has just popped up on Tor.com about “Reading Science Fiction” that is probably worth a look, but it’s also an essay that gives me pause. Basically, the writer Jo Walton is trying to explain that there is a skill-set needed for reading science fiction- things that you have to know to understand it- and that the reason sci-fi turns many people off when they first approach it is that they simply lack that body of knowledge to put what they’re reading in perspective. Go give it a read, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay, so the thing that bothers me about that essay a bit is the idea that science fiction reader/writers should be writing works that require the audience to know their genres in order to be accessible. Isn’t that working against the whole point of creating works of art for people to read and appreciate? Doesn’t that kill their already limited audience when they say “go read other stuff and come back for us when you’re ready”? I’m not saying she’s wrong, but I do wonder about the consequences of this attitude of requiring the reader to know the rules before they can enter the game. People by nature are lazy, and the more you ask of them, the less they’re likely to want to do it. Isn’t this just keeping an already limited art form even more limited?

One of the interesting parts of most of the old masters of science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov, Smith, Herbert, etc) was that their work was generally written not for a science-fiction audience, but a general audience. I’ve read a lot of their work recently, and it’s struck me how accessible their work is, despite having some strong ideas and concepts layered inside those works. I can’t help but wonder if (as usual) in the effort to build upon the past, modern writers have been creating stories that are more complicated than they need to be, and creating their own ghettos of literature in an effort to be cool and on the edge of their genres.

You might say that this is just the genre evolving, as I think Jo Walton would say, but is the genre evolving or turning in on itself in a spiral of inbreeding that only one who has followed the path and cracked the code can enter? Is there any wonder that the only SF books that seem to be selling (and dominating the bookshelf space) are Tie-In novels that are (surprise!) written for a general audience, and young adult novels that are also written without the “rules” of science fiction in mind?

A friend of mine once commented that only someone who was so free of fantasy knowledge could have written Harry Potter, simply because she was a normal person writing for normal people, and didn’t even know there were “rules”, much less feel beholden to follow them. From the perspective of someone who knows how Fantasy ‘works” they’re horribly cliched books filled with gaping chasms of illogic and questions, but for a general young reader who knows nothing of how D&D and Tolkien have explained magic and made it all “make sense” they’re simply wondrous examples of imagination running free.

So which is better? Making the audience come to you, or going to the audience? Well, as usual, probably the answer is a muddle someplace in between. If you write completely for a general audience, the “in crowd” will hate you, but if you write too much for the “in crowd” a general audience will find you completely inaccessible. I guess finding that balance in between is one of the things that determines both whether you’ll be a successful genre writer and who your particular audience will be.

Me, I write to be read (or heard), so I’ll always err on the side of accessibility. It might mean that I’ll be ignored by many who prefer the deep chasms of genre knowledge and exploration, but at least I don’t have to worry about my work turning people off my favorite genres. Getting people to listen is the first step, content can come later, because if you don’t have an audience, you’re just talking to yourself in  an empty room.

Productivity Update 17/01/10

Despite a busy first week at school I managed to cast and put into production both Twin Stars episode 208, and Little Gou and the Kind Word. It’ll be nice to have Little Gou back again, and I have a couple more Gou stories planned for this year as well. (Likely the gap between Book Two and Book Three of Twin Stars will be filled with Little Gou stories.)

Twin Stars 209 is still giving me trouble, but I think I finally have a real handle on it. Why has it been so hard to write? Well, prior to this when I’ve been doing space battles they’ve all been skirmishes or largely off screen, so I could focus on simple tactics and note the battles rather than show them. In TS209, however, we have a huge fleet battle which is the central focus of the story itself, and needs to be explained clearly to the audience in some fair levels of detail so they can follow it. Not easy to do when you’re working in pure audio without a narrator!

I originally tried to write it as I do most Twin Stars battles, focused on the characters and the dramatic elements with the battle itself done in fairly vague terms. That failed miserably. The battle is the center of the episode, I can’t just dance around it like I usually do if I want it to work. In the end, I spent a lot of time playing (my personal passion) Go, trying out various wargames, re-watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and doing a lot of reading on the subject of space warfare. From this, I actually sat down and worked out the battle in real terms of strategies and maneuvers, and I figured out exactly what happens and how it happens. The end result is the battle is the story, and is now front and center throughout the episode. How the characters experience it and deal with it has become the window to that story, instead of the story itself.

I had thought that episodes like this would turn out to be the easiest part of Twin Stars to do, but as usual what looks easy when done well in presentation is actually damn hard to do when done in practice.

Things you can’t do in Audio Drama…

There are some things that are just pretty much impossible to do in Audio Drama, and one of them is extended action sequences like this… (with thanks to MadUnkieG for the video find…)

It may be possible to almost do this sort of thing by using narration and some clever use of dialogue, but it lose so much the question would almost be…why do it? I did have an idea for a D-Ranger episode that contained a sequence similar to this in some ways, but I’ve kept it shelved exactly because I’ve never been quite sure how to write it. Still, pretty cool to watch high level Parkour in action!

Review of Team Iron Angel on Alexa Chipman’s Blog

My original serial- Team Iron Angel: Black Dawn of the Golden Age – has been reviewed over on Alexa Chipman’s blog. It’s a critical but fair review that I’m still considering the points of, and would love any feedback on that people want to give. While she likes it overall, Alexa felt the method of introduction for that story didn’t work well in audio, and that’s what I’m considering since I rather like the way that one started.

For those who may have heard it a long time ago, it starts with the main characters introduced in rapid succession as they try to hunt down a malevolent golem on the streets of Paris. Each of the characters is introduced by the narrator, and then speak in turn with the narration separating their introductions. While I admit it’s a very visual technique I felt this was a more dynamic way to introduce them, and hoped it would work in audio. Did it? Well, this is one of those times I really can’t judge, but apparently one member of my audience thinks it didn’t. I can see her point, though, it is dynamic and quick, but perhaps that’s too fast for audio- where people need more time to get a handle on characters than they might in video forms. Lord knows, I’ve criticized other producers for doing the same thing with their superhero audio dramas as well. Perhaps it’s almost a hazzard of the genre?

Either way, go check out Alexa’s review if you get the chance. Like most of her reviews, it’s well thought out and worth reading.

Best and Funniest Review of Star Wars Episode 1 you’re ever going to see!

Actually, this is great lesson in both how to tell a story, and how not to do it. Worth watching if you can get over the annoying guy’s voice.

Rob and Gregg Taylor Discuss Writing on the Sonic Society

Last week I recorded a roundtable discussion with Gregg Taylor of Decoder Ring Theatre and Jack Ward that will air in 3 parts over the first 3 episodes of Season 5 of the Sonic Society.

Find the first part Here!

Rob

Racing toward the finish line!

Just as an update, I’m done writing the scripts for Twin Stars 204-207 and they’re basically undergoing pre-production editing. About two weeks back I had a sudden fit of inspiration and shot through 3 scripts in a week, but then hit 208 and it’s stopped me in my tracks while I puzzle it out.

Buildup is easy, I guess, but climax can be hard to write, especially when there’s a lot going on and it has to be conveyed in a short amount of time. I know what I want to do with 208, but actually doing it is the tricky part.

I really want to finish 208, because then I can focus on other things. I have a Samurai adventure 80% written I need to finish, more D-Ranger to write, and I want to do a Fantasy adventure story as well. All of these are audio drama, of course. ^_^

And the Winner Is….

Recently I was having a chat with a friend about writing and he brought up an interesting anecdote, he said that when the writer Grant Morrison was writing Doom Patrol (a comic he was famous for transforming during the 90’s) he had an odd writing rule: 9 times out of 10 when there was a fight the heroes would just win instantly and the story would move on.

Seems like an odd rule at first, doesn’t it? I mean, this was a Superhero book, which means that technically it’s about superpowered wrestling as the heroes bash each other around in power-fantasy escapades. To just have the heroes win the fight right away goes against not only the genre (it seems), but seems to kill a lot of the fun of wondering who will win! (Of course, one will assume Morrison didn’t tell anybody about this rule until his multi-year run on the book was over!)

But, there was a method to his madness, and it’s one I can now appreciate as a writer myself. The reason he did this was because he wanted to focus on the dramatic aspects of the book, he didn’t want it to be about superhero fights (which, when you’re wielding the powers of a god should be pretty quick!) but wanted it to be about the events that led up to that conflict. The conflict between the Doom Patrol and their opponents was a battle of wits, not strength. Once the power was applied to the right place the fight was already over, it was just about the characters finding that right place!

When he mentions this concept, I responded that I was intimately familiar with this style of writing because of my own focus on audio drama. One of the shows that inspired me to produce audio drama was Superman, the original “transcription features” (their fancy name for radioplays) that ran from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. In the majority of Superman’s adventures there are no superpowered beings at all! And while radio Superman might be a little less powerful than his comics counterpart he’s still likely one of the most powerful beings in his world.

So how do you write interesting stories about a guy like that for 20+ years? How can you keep the suspense going and threaten him? (Keep in mind, Kryptonite was a later invention, it didn’t exist for most of his radio run!) The answer is that the stories were never about Superman fighting people (although he did this a fair bit too), they were about him figuring out who to hit! As soon as Superman figured out exactly who the bad guy was (usually in the last chapter of a multi-part serial, right as they’re about to kill Superman’s companions for the story) then the story was effectively over. Superman would burst in, save the day, and the story would rapidly reach it’s conclusion.

The focus of the stories then was not the defeat of the villain then, but the mystery of unravelling the villain’s plans and learning how he was defeated. It’s much like a police story in a way, the police characters have the power to defeat the criminals, they just need to figure out who the criminals are and prove it before they can apply their authority-given powers. The drama is in watching them pin down the criminals, not in the takedown. (Whereas in a typical superhero comic, the story is a preamble to the real focus- the takedown.)

Anyways, to bring this all together, the reason I bring this up is because it really does apply to writing for audio in a big way. While it’s possible to do audio action-adventure stories with big fights and climactic battles (and I say this having done them many times, and seen some good examples of them being done) audio is just not a medium that lends itself to that style of storytelling. Those big long dramatic battles are very much a visual creature, be it in video or narratives, and without something to work with beyond just sound the audience can very easily become lost or bored.

This can make audio storytelling very hard sometimes, especially for a generation raised on visual adventures and drawn-out battles in their media entertainment. Sometimes when I write I find myself having to rethink my pacing because I’m pacing it for a visual storytelling not audio. I’ve also had to look to other genres outside of action-adventure genres to figure out how to make up for the loss of the action visuals in my stories. (Like Superman OTR writers did, I’ve been studying works of mystery and suspense to learn their techniques and how I can apply them better to adventure stories.)