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.
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?