Here we are at last. This is the last post in a five part series on how to write a short story the Lester Dent way. (Here's a link to the first article in this series: Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula.)
Today we're going to finish talking about Dent's master plot formula for how he wrote a 6,000 word short story.
The Final 1,500 Words
If you read my other posts you'll notice a familiar progression:
- A complication is introduced.
The complication can be anything that makes it difficult for the hero to attain her goal, or that outright prevents her from attaining it.
In The Princess Bride, the Man in Black's goal is to rescue Princess Buttercup, but there are complications. First he has to fight Inigo, a master swordsman, then Fezzik throws a massive boulder at him. Finally, the Man in Black must match wits with Vizzini. But then—surprise!—there's a reversal and the Princess is taken away from him again. Now, though, things are truly dire for all involved. Westley is taken away to a dungeon and strapped into (cue ominous music) the Machine.
But, again, it is the initial complication that kicks off the action. It's like a tiny snowball being rolled down a mountain heavy with snow. That tiny snowball, given time, can create an avalanche.
- The hero overcomes the complication.
The hero often doesn't overcome the initial complication right away. It could take several tries. It is usually only at the very end of the story that the hero has a flash of insight and wrenches victory from the jaws of defeat. (see: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)
- The hero, using his skill and intelligence, rescues himself.
It's important that the hero isn't helped, that he gets himself out of the fix he's in himself. After all, that's what heroes do! Even when they're so weak they can barely stand, they have to subdue their enemies themselves. If not with their brawn, then with their wit and a good bluff.
- The hero and the villain face off. This is it, the climax. This is where things will be settled one way or another.
Although both the hero and the villain probably have helpers, no one else can be involved at this stage. The hero must win—or lose—under her own steam.
- As part of the climax we learn the solution to the main mystery: How was the victim killed? We learn how the deed was done, who did it and why.
As you'll recall, what started this all off was a mystery. In Dent's case, it was usually a murder mystery. He wrote:
"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 mosquitoes or flies treated with deadly germs?"
In other words, introduce a mystery in the beginning. (Every time I think of the importance of introducing mystery into a story, or the importance of mystery in creating suspense, I think of J.J. Abrams' wonderful TED talk: The Mystery Box.)
Here, at the end of our 6,000 word story, we pull the curtain back and explain the mystery.
- The villain pulls something out of his hat, something that surprises the hero.
Here we have another All Is Lost moment, but then the hero turns things around. Perhaps the hero only pretended to be taken off guard, perhaps the hero had been deceiving the villain, playing him. Our hero turns things around to win the day.
- Final twist.
The final twist should come as a big surprise to your reader. If you've kept the villain's identity a secret—perhaps he has been wearing a mask, perhaps the battle is taking place long-distance, perhaps one of his minions has been standing in for him—now is the time to reveal it. The shock value is sometimes increased if, earlier, the hero met the villain under another guise.
- Wrap things up.
Make sure there are no unintended loose ends. If you intend this short story to be the first part of a series then it's fine to leave one or two minor threads unresolved. But do check your threads/arcs and make sure you've closed off all the ones you intended to.
- Close with a punch line. Have the hero say something snappy.
Dent, in his Doc Savage books, generally closed with something funny. An inside joke.
This was how Lester Dent wrote a 6,000 word short story he intended to sell to the markets of his day. This is an outline, probably a great outline, of how to write a pulp story. Dent wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s and, naturally, the markets have changed a lot in the intervening 60 or so years. That said, great fiction is great fiction. I think that to the extent Dent caught on to something lasting with his formula it will be as helpful in our day as it was in his.
It's up to you how to, as well as whether to, use Dent's formula. Dent never claimed that his formula was the only way of writing a story, only that it was his way. And, to his credit, he did sell a lot of short stories and during a very tough time--the Great Depression.
Sometimes when I'm stuck for an idea, sometimes when I just don't know what's going to happen next, it helps me to approach things from another perspective. If you are in that situation it is my hope that the simple act of reading these posts may help shake something loose and get you writing again. As long as Dent's guidelines are applied with thoughtful awareness, their use isn't going to turn an interesting story into an uninteresting one. On the other hand, it just might give a drab story a bit of life. (Also see Deborah Chester's post, Moon Alligators, for ways of spicing up a story.)
If a story works, it works. It doesn't matter how it was put together.
Previous posts in this series:
Photo credit: "2014-116 - lines" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.