This is the third in a series of articles I'm writing on Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula. Even though Dent wrote his formula down in, I believe, the 50s, it is still great advice for anyone wanting to write a fast paced action yarn. Here are the first few instalments:
Lester Dent writes:
a) Shovel the grief onto the hero.
b) Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
c) A physical conflict.
d) 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 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.
Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.
Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.
Trees, wind, scenery and water.
THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
Lester Dent gives basically the same advice for the second and third quarters. It's the same, only different.
Here's the structure of the third 1,500 words:
1. Introduce a complication for the hero. Either the villain makes a move the hero wasn't expecting or something the hero was counting on falls through.
2. Despite the complication/setback the hero has a minor achievement and comes closer to attaining his goal.
3. The hero's plan looks like it's succeeding. The important thing here is that the hero brings the fight to the villain and that the hero is active. He doesn't have to get into a fistfight with the villain--they don't even have to be in the same room--but there should be some kind of active confrontation.
4. Throw in another complication/plot twist. Either something happens that the hero had no way of either knowing about or preventing, or something he was counting on falls through. Perhaps someone he was relying on turned out to be a traitor or perhaps the villain has been luring the hero into a trap.
As a result of the plot twist the hero seems done for. Finished. He'll never achieve his goal. Not only that, it turns out we were wrong about what would happen to him if he failed. It's much, much, worse than we thought.
So, there you have it. We end the third section of 1,500 words with the hero in so much trouble there's no possible way he'll ever win. He's doomed.
The Essence of A Pulp Story
Dent sets out the essential elements of a pulp story; those things he felt define the form:
a. Physical conflict.
I think the key here is including conflict one could see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Conflict so concrete and particular you could film it. One can't film an emotion, only the effect of an emotion.
b. 2 or 3 plot twists.
In at least two or three places reverse the readers expectations. You, the storyteller, have set them up to think that a certain something is going to happen. For instance, the villain is playing video games in his parent's basement and the hero is creeping down the stairs to apprehend him.
Writers need to subvert the readers expectations. In the case of my example I might have the thing the hero took to be the villain really be nothing but a lifelike simulacrum put there to trick the hero into entering the villains lair. As soon as he does the doors slam close and locks and a foul smelling gas fills the room. The hero tries not to breathe but, eventually, is forced to. He slumps, unconscious, to the ground.
Suspense begins with a question: Will the hero escape the machinations of the villain? If so, how?
Readers know that the villain is setting the hero up for a big fall; the villain is able to anticipate the hero's every move, or at least he seems to be. Is the hero clever enough, resourceful enough, to spot the villain's evil trap before it's too late?
Dramatic irony is only one way of generating suspense. Here are a few articles I've written on the subject:
A menace continues to build/intensify right up to the final confrontation between hero and villain.
Although I'm not sure they're synonymous, the way Dent uses the word "menace" makes me think of stakes. The stakes, as well as the conflict between the hero and the villain, need to keep increasing right up until the end, right up until the hero defeats the villain (or vice versa).
Descriptions: Keep them simple.
In an action-packed, suspense filled, short story, descriptions need to be kept to a minimum. One needs to choose one's words carefully. In a book one can, perhaps, include a beautiful description that doesn't have anything to do with anything and get away with it. That's not the case in a short story.
That's it! If you're writing along with this then you've finished the third quarter of your short story. The end is in sight. How will the hero save himself and defeat the villain's dastardly plans? Stay tuned.
Photo credit: "remember last holiday" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.