I’ve been a big fan of pulp writer Lester Dent’s Master Story Formula for a while. I consider it perhaps the simplest layout for a plot-driven 4-act action/adventure story structure I’ve ever seen, and it really does make it easy for almost anyone to plot one of these stories just by following the formula. (Notice I said “plot”, writing it may be another matter.) I’m not alone in this, as many writers have used, commented on, and modified this formula over the years since it was first published.
Recently, I sat down to think about how to improve the formula and make it into a more efficient checklist form for planning purposes. I edited it down to the essentials, added questions, and turned it into a true formula. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m debating about editing the pulp-iness elements out of it, but I thought I’d share it to get feedback and in case it might help new writers or experience writers who are looking to try their hand at writing this kind of story.
Naturally, this formula is like “training wheels”, you should feel free to use it as needed and then dispense with it when the time comes. However, it’s still a very viable and flexible 4-act structure, and I’ve heard of writers even using it as their basis for tales of comedy, horror, romance and even erotica! Also, remember that just because it says 1500 words doesn’t meant that you can’t make that 15,000 words and turn this into a novel writing formula, although that will require a lot more detail such as Michael Moorcock provides in his “How to write a book in 3 days” variant of this formula.
I recommend copy/pasting the following into a Word Processing Document so you can work through it as you go, and have it on hand as needed.
Lester Dent’s Master Story Formula Checklist
By Lester Dent, with Robyn Paterson
Go through the formula:
Pick From the Following (2 is optimal, 3 is great- make sure these are clear before you move on):
- A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
- A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
- A DIFFERENT LOCATION THAT THE READER WILL BE UNFAMILIAR WITH
- A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO
- 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 location? 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.
Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:
What three tags make your main character unique in the mind of the reader?
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. What is the Line?
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.) What is the problem to be solved?
3–Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action. Who are the main characters of the story?
4–Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words. What is the physical threat/conflict?
5–Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development. What is the 1st act twist?
(SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?)
SECOND 1500 WORDS
1–Shovel more grief onto the hero. What is the problem the twist leaves them with?
2–Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to another physical conflict. What is the second physical conflict?
3–A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words. What is the 2nd act Twist?
- 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 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.
- BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.
THIRD 1500 WORDS
1–Shovel the grief onto the hero. What is the challenge of the 3rd act?
2–Hero makes some headway. How do they overcome the challenge of the 3rd act?
3- and corners the villain or somebody in:
- A physical conflict. With who?
- A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words. What is the 3rd act Twist?
- DOES: it still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happens 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. Where is the hero at start of act 4?
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.) What is the situation the hero finds themselves in?
3–The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn. How do they do this?
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. What is the final overhanging mystery?
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.) What is the final twist?
6–The snapper, the punch line to end it. What is the Final Line?
- HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happens logically?
- Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
- Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?
Review the above, and look for things you can improve upon. Now that you can see the story laid out before you, what needs to change? Often your initial choices for the first and second part will change now that you have a better idea of what happens in the third and fourth part. Maybe there’s a better location for this story. Maybe you have a better idea of how the villain will menace the hero. How can you make the action more continuous? Tweak the above and play with it- trying different approaches.
Get out there and write that story! Outlines are nice, but nobody buys outlines! They buy stories, and the story you’ve got now is a winner! So bring it to life and get it in front of an audience! Have fun!