Saturday, November 30

How To Write A Short Story

How To Write A Short Story

A beginning writer recently asked for advice on how to write a short story. My answer to her query was far too long for her post but I thought, well (silver lining) it's just the right length for a blog post!

The Question: Any comments, suggestions, tips or tricks for a beginning writer on how to write a short story?

If I could go back in time to when I first grappled with this question, here's what I would tell myself:

Before you start writing, have a good idea of the following:


- Who is your protagonist? Male? Female? A CEO? A Barista? Is she confident and capable or cringing and awkward?
- What does your protagonist want? What is his goal? Every protagonist should want something, need something, desperately.
- Your protagonist doesn't have to be nice, but she does have to be interesting. Your reader needs to be able to identify with her.
- It sometimes helps if you give your protagonist a quirk (a fear of snakes or an affinity for round numbers, and so on).
- Make your protagonist exceptionally good at something. It can be something relatively trivial like being able to tie the stem of a cheery in a knot with his tongue.


- Who is your antagonist? He will probably be a lot like the protagonist (every villain is the hero of his own story). 
- Make them a person. In the beginning I think it helps to make the antagonist a person rather than a tornado or the creeping evils of old age. I'm a person so it's easier for me to write about people. I just put myself in that characters shoes and change a few things.
- Make them strong. IMHO one of the easiest things to do in the beginning is not to have enough conflict. Interesting conflict requires a strong antagonist. Try-fail cycles are your friend. The hero has to fail a lot. This is easier and more believable if your villain is strong/powerful/wonderfully menacing. (Dan Wells mentions that one of the reasons Inigo Montoya killing Count Tyrone Rugen was one of the best scenes in the movie was that he tried 10 times to do it and failed.)

The Stakes

- Spell out the stakes--what will happen to the protagonist if she fails, what will happen if she wins.

Know The Ending

- Know how the story is going to end. If you know how the story is going to end then you can figure out the stakes.

Short Story Structure

In a short story the structure can be simplified. Sometimes it's just 

- The beginning. This is the setup. It's where you'll introduce the characters, the setting, the heroes goal, the antagonist (generally: whatever it is that is preventing the hero/protagonist reaching their goal.)
- The middle. The hero tries to achieve his goal three times. The first two times the antagonist successfully blocks him/her but on the third try, because of what the hero has learnt, because of who he/she is, the protagonist succeeds. (Or perhaps they fail, that's up to you.)
- The end. Show the aftermath (we see the result of the hero either obtaining or failing to obtain his/her goal).

As I said, this is the advice I would give to myself if I could go back in time. Everyone's different. That's why it's important to write (a lot!) and find out what works for you. If something strikes you as true/helpful/useful in the above, take it, use it. If you disagree with any of it, ignore it. There's no one way of writing (thankfully!).

Photo credit: "IMG_5186" by Savara under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Wednesday, November 27

Writer's Block and Perfectionism

Ever stared at a black piece of paper while any semblance of an idea bled away? I think we all have. 

Writer's block is insidious, a very real villain that can sneak through your mental shields in all too many ways. It has many causes, but chief among them is the evil of perfectionism.


It's not necessarily that we lack ideas; sometimes, occasionally, this is the case but often it's not. Often we're simply hypercritical of ourselves: with emphasis on "OUR". 

We look at someone else's work, someone who has been published by a publisher we respect and admire, by a publisher we would love to be published by, and we are less critical. 

When I was in school our class was given two poems to read, one composed (this is what we were told) by a famous poet and the other composed by an undergrad. Invariably more people said they liked the published poet's work. Then we were told our teacher had switched the attributions. The poem we had been told had been written by a famous poet had actually been written by an undergrad, and vice versa.

The moral: don't be hard on yourself. Your perceptions of your own work are biased. Even if you're a successful writer, each new manuscript feels like a fresh step into the abyss and there are never any guarantees. 

Don't edit yourself.

Don't edit yourself. Not on your first draft. Not when you're still at the stage of finding--to use Stephen King's metaphor--the bones of your story. 

Yes, absolutely, put your prose--and your story, your plot--under the magnifying glass of editorial critique, your own and others, before you let your literary creations out into the world, before you set them free to run where the many critics of this world can, and will, find them.

Time and time again professional writers have said they doubted themselves for much of their first draft, doubted that anyone else would want to read their scribbles.

But they continued.

Perseverance. That's the key.

Perseverance and a certain mulish obstinacy. Stubbornness.

I said that to one of my non-writing friends the other day, I said that writers had to be stubborn, and his eyes bugged out. "Don't say that!" he said. "It's not a good thing to be stubborn." Well, it is for someone who is churning out, scribbling out, ripping out, their first draft. 

Writing, that act of creation, is painful and messy and often produces something ugly, though (one hopes) not irredeemably so. That's what second and third (etc, etc) drafts are for.

No Ideas

What's that you say? What if you, really, honestly, have no idea what to write about?

I find that if I ever feel at a loose end about what to write, if I sit down to write and I hear the empty hiss of static and my mind turns as white and bland and devoid of creative energy/impetus as a white dry erase board, then I like to play with idea generators (see: Seventh Sanctum's Idea Generators).

Always--well, so far at least--what I've written as a result of this sort of writerly exercise bears not the slightest relation to the prompt I began with but it has, inevitably, coaxed my own ideas to come out and play.

In that vein, here is an article +Elizabeth S. Craig shared: Simple Solutions to Ten Common Writing Roadblocks. In it Leslie Lee Sanders lists a multitude of ways to help generate ideas and kickstart your creativity.

Happy reading and writing!


Photo credit: "Baby Bear" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution.

Tuesday, November 26

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Second 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Second 1,500 Words

This is the third post in this series. In the first post I went over the sort of things Dent said should be clarified before pen touches paper. In the second post we dove in and wrote the first 1,500 words.

Dent's master fiction formula applies to a 6,000 word story divided into four sections of 1,500 words each. Today, let's look at writing the second quarter.

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula

As we saw before, Dent wrote:

"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.

"No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell."

The second set of 1,500 words

Last time
- Introduced the characters.
- Talked about tags and traits. (Dent writes: "Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.")
- Set the hero's goal and demonstrated the stakes.

We introduced all our characters in the first 1,500 words. Last post, when we discussed how to introduce characters, I talked about tags and traits. Now, whenever we re-introduce a character we just mention one or two of their tags and traits to make sure the character is clear in the readers mind.

The Steps

This 1,500 word chapter should include:

1. "Shovel more grief onto the hero."

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

2a. "Another physical conflict."

2b. "A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words."

The Midpoint

Remember that this 1,500 segment/chapter will bring up to the midpoint so the surprising twist should probably change the way your character views the problem/the opposition. Often critical information is revealed to the hero, information that changes his (and our) perception of the antagonistic force.

Also, there is often a death (a symbolic death, or an ending of some sort) at the midpoint. (Keep in mind, too, that if the story has an upbeat, happy ending--if the hero achieves his/her goal--then this should be reflected in some way at the midpoint.)

Check your work.

Written it? Great! Now double-check to make sure you're on track:

- Is it suspenseful?
- Is the hero being menaced? (Is there strong opposition and high stakes?)
- Is the hero being battered about? Being knocked down? Endangered? Beaten up? If so, great!
- Do the events flow naturally from one to the other? Are your character's responses reasonable? Believable?
- Do you tell our show? SHOW!! Dent writes: 

"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."

A Minor Surprise

Dent holds: "When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page."

I take this to mean: Include a minor surprise or twist. 

Dent reveals that one way he accomplished this was to be, as he puts it, "gently misleading." For example:

"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."

An example from Sleepy Hollow

A recent episode of Sleepy Hollow (S1, E8: Necromancer) had us suspect (SPOILER ALERT) Andy Brooks (played by John Cho) of being completely controlled by the headless horsemen; it turned out (surprise!) Andy was under orders from the demon (the one he sold his soul to) to keep Ichabod Crane from harm. Why? Because the demon had plans for Ichabod (cue diabolical laughter). 

Great show, very fun. Anyway, that's another, more recent example, of writers being gently misleading.  

Photo credit: "first rain" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution.

Friday, November 22

Dan Brown's AMA on

Dan Brown's AMA on

I'm going to do something different today. Instead of continuing with my series on Lester Dent's Master Short Story Formula, I'm going to post the highlights--what I think are the highlights--of Dan Brown's AMA.

Naturally, since this is a blog about writing, that's what I've focused on. 

Dan Brown's AMA on Reddit

What follows are direct quotations. I have, occasionally, broken text up into paragraphs so it will flow better, but I haven't altered the content. Whenever you see "..." in the text, below, it occurred in the original.

Throckmorton_Left asked:
Your work receives a lot of criticism from the world of literary "experts," and yet is incredibly well-received in the marketplace. Ignoring both your critics and your financial success, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your career as a writer?

Dan Brown:
People for whom creativity is a profession have little choice but to take their critics lightly. The alternative is to care deeply what people think… and, in doing so, lose all spontaneity and creativity.

As crazy as this may sound, I would much prefer to write a book that sparks passionate reaction (even a negative one) than to write a book that evokes apathy or indifference.

Yes, I wish everyone loved the books I write, but that’s not how it works for me… or any author, for that matter. When you’re a creative person—whether a writer, a painter, or a composer—all you have to guide the process is your own taste. You create the novel/painting/symphony that you yourself like, and then you pray like hell that someone shares your taste. Those who do are fans…and those who don’t are your critics.

As for the aspect of success that is most rewarding to me…it is the luxury of engaging in the creative process every day as a job. I learned long ago that if I’m not actively creating something, I’m not happy.

Philbo1985 asked:
George R.R. Martin stated he feels here are two different types of writers, the architects and the gardeners, do you believe this to be true? If so which type are you?

Dan Brown:
I've never heard that said, but I'm a huge Martin fan, so I guess I owe you an answer. I'm an architect, without a doubt, even though so many ask me to garden more.

JohnAnderton asked:
What is your advice to aspiring authors?

Dan Brown:
Choose a topic about which you feel conflicted. That way, you will be able to argue both sides of the equation. Gray is always more interesting than black and white.

Another great one-liner:
Create something and throw it out before anyone can see it. Repeat the process until you create something that you can't bear to throw out.

PolkadotPink asked:
What are your views on religion? Are they the same as Robert Langdon's?

Dan Brown:
I believe that both religion and conspiracy theory stem from the same human need to believe that life is not random...that is, our need to feel like someone is driving the bus.

The idea that everything is random is a terrifying thought for most people, and when bad things happen, we prefer to believe that it was either "part of God's plan" or that the Illuminati did it.

Again, these words of writerly wisdom were taken from Dan Brown's AMA.

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person

Or not. Whether they're truths I'll leave to you to judge.
In the course of reading Dan Brown's AMA, I can across this link: 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. (Thanks to ratolibre1 for recommending it.)

6 Harsh Truths was written by bestselling author David Wong (/Jason Pargin) and is guaranteed to offend everyone who reads it, but probably for different reasons. And it's riddled with NSFW language. That said, he writes this toward the end of the article:
[M]isery is comfortable. It's why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.

Also, courage. It's incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don't create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.

It's so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people's creations. This movie is stupid. That couple's kids are brats. That other couple's relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I'd better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something.

Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create -- be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship -- you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they'll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.

Just remember, they're only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people's work is another excuse to do nothing. "Why should I create anything when the things other people create suck? I would totally have written a novel by now, but I'm going to wait for something good, I don't want to write the next Twilight!" As long as they never produce anything, it will forever be perfect and beyond reproach. Or if they do produce something, they'll make sure they do it with detached irony. They'll make it intentionally bad to make it clear to everyone else that this isn't their real effort. Their real effort would have been amazing. Not like the shit you made.
That I believe. It expresses something I've felt for a long time about many of the criticisms leveled against creative efforts.

Writing this post lightened my spirits. While the feeling sticks I'm going to rush off and continue work on the first draft of my WIP. Cheers!

Photo credit: "Grungy-Furry" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Wednesday, November 20

How To Write A Gripping Scene

How To Write A Gripping Scene

This material is drawn from Chapter Four of Dwight Swain's book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Dwight Swain writes:

"What I offer here is merely a beginning. [...] Once you've mastered the elements of the form; experience and study of published copy will teach you how to vary it in terms of your own taste and judgement."

In other words, this is just a beginning, a hasty sketch. In the end, you are your own best teacher. As in writing, so in life: as you come upon new information extract what resonates with you and ignore the rest. 

Today, I'm going to share my notes from Techniques regarding scenes. The next post in this series will be about sequels, and how scenes and sequels work together to create a story.

What is a story?

A story is a chain of scenes and sequels. 

Scenes are units of conflict, of struggle.

Sequels are units of transition that daisy chain scenes together.

Today I'm going to talk about scenes, what they are and how to make them more gripping.

What is a scene?

A scene is the powerhouse of conflict and struggle that moves your story forward.

As Dwight V. Swain writes:

"[A scene is a] blow-by-blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."

And, of course, by "somebody" we mean the focal character.

What does a scene do? What are its functions? 

a. To provide interest for the reader.
b. To move your story forward.

Let's take these in turn.

a. A scene captures the readers attention.

How does a scene capture a reader's attention? Glad you asked!

A scene pits the hero--or at least the point of view character--against an opposing force.

DS holds that each and every scene must provoke this question in the reader: "Will the character win against the opposition?"

b. A scene moves the story forward.

DS writes that each and every scene you write should change your character's situation. Note, though, that change doesn't always constitute progress toward the character's goal. (But progress always involves change).


A scene is unified by time. There are no pauses, no breaks, in its flow.

Scene Structure

Here is the skeleton of a scene:

a. Goal
b. Conflict
c. Disaster

Boxing Example

This is DS's example.

Goal: Our protagonist wants to knock out the other boxer.

Conflict: Wary circling, "feinting, punching, counterpunching".

The protagonist lands a blow, the other boxer goes down. 
The protagonist slips up, the antagonist lands a knockout punch. 
The protagonist goes down.

Disaster: The protagonist tries to rally but he can't. He loses the fight.

The three parts of a scene:

a. Goals

In a scene your hero will want one of three kinds of things.

a. Possession of
Possession of something. A girl, a job, a jewel. Possession of treasure, of something desired.

b. Relief from
Relief from blackmail, domination by others, fear, and so on.

c. Revenge for
Revenge for a slight, a lost, a betrayal, and so on.

Goals are concrete

i. "A goal is not a goal until it's specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it."

"Ideally, this decision should focus on a target so explicit that you might photograph your hero performing the act to which he aspired."

ii. Your character must decide to act.

He can't be forced into action. Even if the hero is being blackmailed, they have to decide to purse the goal of their own free will (or so it must appear).

Goals: Explicit and Implicit

There are two kinds of goals:

- Goals of achievement (explicit)
- Goals of resistance (implicit)

This example is courtesy of DS:

John, our focus character, is on a date with Suzy, the girl he wants to ask to be his wife. (Keep in mind Techniques was originally copyrighted in 1965.)

George, John's rival for Suzy's affections, breaks up John's date and tells him never to see Suzy again.

Immediately, John acquires a goal: to prevent George from taking Suzy from him. This goal is implicit. It is one of resistance. 

George, John's nemesis, has a goal of achievement: to win Suzy's hand. 

Goals of achievement and goals of resistance complement each other.

Whenever the villain acquires a goal of achievement the hero acquires a goal of resistance, and vice versa.

b. Conflict

DS repeats this several times: Conflict is opposition.

Conflict implies "two entities struggling to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose."

The hero struggles against the antagonistic force that opposes him, or her, attaining the goal. This opposition between the hero and the antagonistic force, this clash, provides the opposition that represents the engine of a story, it is the fuel that generates narrative drive


When a character meets with opposition the hero must state his case. Your readers need to know what your hero is going to attempt.

If your hero lets the opposition get the better of him, if he walks away when he meets resistance, then we conclude either:

i. The hero didn't really have that goal.
ii. The hero lacks strength of character. In this case, the reader will lose interest.

After the initial opposition has played out, additional difficulties must be brought into the situation to keep up the momentum.

- More hindrances
- More obstacles
- More complications

Make it harder for the hero to win his goal.

How is this accomplished?

The difficulty level must be increased and the stakes must escalate.

DS writes: "Emphasize the strength of the opposition. Build up the forces that block ... [your hero]."

For example, let your hero "receive new and unanticipated information that makes the situation worse."

c. Disaster

Disaster is a hook.

"A hook is a devise for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything--in this case, a reader."

Here's the question we want the reader to ask when he/she is presented with a new obstacle to the hero achieving his/her goal: What will the focal character do now?

Also, a disaster is a "[s]udden and extraordinary misfortune; a calamity."

The end of a scene must "raise an intriguing question for the future--a question designed to keep your reader reading. / To that end, no better device has ever been conceived than the confrontation of your focal character with disaster."

(DS notes that the disaster doesn't have to be actual, it can be potential.)

A reverse disaster

A reverse disaster is where your focal character launches "some diabolically clever scheme to do in his foes," one that you just know is going to backfire in some way.

In this case the hooks you use to pull along the reader will be through questions like:

- "Are things really going to work out this well, this easily, for Hero?"

- "Will Villain fall for such a stunt? Or has he some trick up his sleeve with which to turn the tables?"

Disadvantages of the reversed disaster.

- It takes "initiative away from your focal character and gives it to the opposition. This forces your hero to wait [...] passively to see how said opposition is going to react."

The Scene: A Summary

Whatever you do, always conclude your scene with the story "pointed into the future: some issue raised that will keep your reader turning pages, ever on the edge of his chair as he wonders just what's going to happen now!"

That's it for scenes. In the next post in this series we'll look at sequels and then, finally, turn to how scenes and sequels fit together in such a way that they generate a story with just the right amount of narrative drive.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Its Big Country" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 18

Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure: The Second Plot Turn And Pinch Points

Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure: The Second Plot Turn And Pinch Points

This post continues my series on story structure. Here are links to the earlier posts:

The First Plot Point/The First Plot Turn (25%)

Whatever you call it, the events at the end of the first quarter of the story prepare the reader for the events at the midpoint.

In the hero's journey, this--the first plot turn--is the place where the hero enters the Special World, it's where he crosses the first threshold.

Two things happen:

a. The hero accepts the quest, and
b. The hero is locked into the quest.

Let's take these one at a time.

a. The hero accepts the quest

This doesn't have to happen at exactly the 25% mark, it can happen at any time in the first act. But it needs to be clear that the hero is entering the Special World of Act Two of their own free will. It must be the hero's choice. 

This acceptance doesn't have to be long and involved. It can be a subtle as a head nod. But the hero must intentionally take up the quest. It's a choice. 

Even if the villain is blackmailing her by threatening all she holds dear, still, the hero has to be shown accepting the quest. She sees the dangers, she knows what taking up this quest could cost her--she knows the stakes--yet she accepts. She commits herself to a course of action.

b. The hero is locked into the adventure

Something happens to "lock in" the hero. For example, at the 25% mark, at the tail end of Act One, Neo (The Matrix) is presented with a choice between the red pill and the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill he'll go back to his regular life, his ordinary existence. He will turn aside from the Special World of the adventure. 

If, on the other hand, Neo takes the red pill then his life will be irreversibly transformed as he is ushered into the true world, the world of the adventure, the world where the scales will, finally, be removed from his eyes and he will, at long last, discover the answer to the question: What is The Matrix?

I think The Matrix is one of the clearest examples of the hero being locked in to their quest, but once you start looking for it you'll see it in practically every movie you watch. 

The Second Plot Turn (75% to 95%)

I think of the second point turn as the third act twist

Here's how Dan Wells explains it: At the midpoint, the hero resolved to do something. At the resolution/climax the hero does what he resolved to do. This point, the second plot turn, is where the hero gets the last piece of the puzzle to finish the quest.

The hero realizes "he has the power" or "the power is within him" or some such variant. 

As Dan Wells says, when you see this sentiment in an outline, or just say it aloud, the concept seems cornball to the extreme, but it's powerful; that's why it's used so often. That said, Dan Wells reassures us that all genre novel outlines sound a bit silly, so don't let that hold you back.

In The Matrix Trinity tells Neo "I love you. Now get up!" He gets up  and wipes the floor with the agents of the matrix. Why? Because he's the one. He has the power within him.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry is the boy who lived. He's the boy who could find the philosopher's stone because he was pure of heart. He didn't want to use the stone, only to find it. He had the ability/power within him.

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke is told to use the force, that the power is within him.

Pinch Points

Pinch points add zest to your story and help keep it on track. 

Pinch points are where we see, first-hand, the antagonistic force and the dastardly things it is capable of. Pinch points apply pressure on the hero. They remind us of the central conflict of the story. They help push the hero into action.

There are two pinch points. The first is halfway through the first part of the second act and the second is positioned halfway through the second part of the second act. (see: Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive. That article contains an illustration of where pinch points fall in the three act structure.)

Note: Though both pinch points have the same function, since the stakes are constantly increasing, your second pinch point is going to give the hero a 'pinch' that's more like a punch.

If you use a three act structure in your stories then you'll know that the middle of the Second Act can seem to stretch out before you like the great swampy middle of despair. Pinch points can go a long way to keeping the story on track and reminding your readers what it's all about, who the big bad is, and what the hero is fighting for.

Examples of pinch points

These examples are courtesy of Dan Wells:

Loss of mentor

For instance, Gandalf's apparent death in The Fellowship of the Ring. I re-watched this movie last night; "You ... shall not ... pass!" and then: "Run you fools!" Fabulous scene. 
This was a vivid pinch point. It showed us the power of the Dark by way of the formidable beasts of power which lived it in its depths. If a beast of the depths could claim the most powerful of them, Gandalf, then what chance did the rest of the fellowship have? A great way of showing the reader/watcher the strength of the opposition.

Loss of everything

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the second pinch is a sequence of events. It begins when the hero, Harry, and his two friends, Ron and  Hermione, go into the dungeon and are presented with a series of trials. The last trial takes Ron and Hermione away and Harry is forced to continue on, alone.

*  *  *  *

That's it! Or at least, that's the nuts and bolts of Dan Wells' 7-point system. He has a lot more to say in the videos, especially about how this system applies to romance stories. And a lot, lot, more. Highly recommended.

Till next time!

Photo credit: "beaver moon" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 15

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

Today I'm going to talk about focal characters. I'm doing this because I want to examine how a focal character can be used to evoke reader identification and, therefore, emotion. The concept of the focal character is fundamental for a number of others--scenes and sequels for example--so I'm giving it a post of it's own.

My purpose here is to explore tricks and tips--methods--we as writers can self-consciously use to craft characters, strong vivid interesting characters, that will 'hook into' our readers emotions.

This post continues my exploration of Dwight V. Swain's marvellous book The Techniques of the Selling Writer

What do we want our stories to do?

We wish to manipulate the emotions of readers through our stories.

Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? But think of it this way. You go to a horror movie. What would happen if you weren't scared? You wouldn't give the movie a good review--or at least I wouldn't. 

What if you saw a romance movie and never felt the pang of love lost? Or an adventure movie and never once found yourself on the edge of your seat, breathless, wondering how the hero would get out of the fix he'd found himself in?

Given this--given that stories are all about the evocation and manipulation of emotion--the question for writers is: how does one evoke and manipulate emotion?

Answer: through characters. Specifically, one manipulates the emotions of our readers through manipulating the circumstances of our focal character.

So, really, what we need to know is how to create a focal character that has the capacity to evoke emotion in others. 

Evoking Emotion

As DS writes, "Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

(Note: For more information on motivation-reaction pairs see the post: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.)

1. Recognize that events by themselves lack meaning or emotion.

DS uses the example of a rainstorm. Let's say you're a farmer and your crops are languishing during a drought. In that case a rainstorm would be welcome. Ecstatically welcome.

On the other hand, imagine you're in light summer clothing and you've just paid a couple of hundred dollars to have your hair done. Also, you aren't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. Then it starts to rain. In this case the rainstorm would be most unwelcome.

The point is that events only begin to matter when they matter to someone. (And not just any someone. Your focal character. But we'll get to that in a minute.)

Instances/events have to be specific.

Take the example of the rainstorm. How much rain was there? Was it a drizzle or did the rain come down in a torrential downpour? What was the wind like? Strong? Weak? When did the rainstorm occur? Where? And so on.

Be specific. Added together all these details create the specific instance and bring the rainstorm to life, make it real.

You need a yardstick.

DS writes: 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. [...] We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance./In other words, a thing isn't just significant. It's significant to somebody."

Whether an event is perceived as good or bad depends on how your focal character reacts to it. 

The yardstick needs to be a character.

"The bombing raid is rated by whether we or our enemies are on the receiving end. [...] Chocolate bars are good, if I'm hungry; bad, if I'm trying to reduce; and so on."

Someone needs to feel, to think, to judge. This can only be a character.

Judgements are made with FEELING rather than LOGIC or REASON.

"Pure water is clear," is a fact. So is "the number two is even". Here's another one: The cat is on the mat.

Generally speaking, a fact matters to a person to the degree it affects them. If the fact affects them positively they'll feel positively about it ("Our company is giving out bonuses this year!") and vice versa. 

As Dwight Swain writes:

"Seven inches of rain in a night is a fact, so long as you merely see an item about it in the paper. Let it wash through your living room and ruin two thousand dollars' worth of furnishings, and it takes on true meaning and significance for you."

2. Your Focal Character is your reader's emotional compass.

I included the material, above, because it emphasizes the importance of feeling and judgement--of a yardstick--but all that has simply been to lead up to this discussion of the focal character. 

A story isn't about something out there in the external world, it's about the reactions of the characters you've created. It's about what happens to them and how they react to it.

Your story world is going to be filled with facts. These facts will only matter to your reader to the extent they effect someone, a character. The focal character.

A story concerns the focal character's reactions to what happens, to the facts and events of the story. A story is about "his feelings; his emotions; his impulses; his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts."

How do you make the focal character care about what's going on within the story world you create? (And, by extension, make the reader care?)

You give the focal character a goal, and you spell out what forces oppose him/her reaching that goal. You also spell out the stakes; that is, what will happen if the focal character achieves his goal, as well as what will happen if he fails to achieve it. Further, when you're spelling out the stakes, focus on what the focal character would win or lose emotionally

Facts are just facts, we're interested in emotions. Feelings.

The three main functions of the focal character:

i. "To provide continuity."

However much time passes, or places visited, the focal character gives your story continuity. It unites its disparate elements into a unified whole.

ii. "To give meaning."

It is your focal character's reactions that will determine whether a reader sees a certain event, a certain happening, as important or inconsequential. 

DS writes:

"Meaning ... is always a conclusion you and I draw about something from the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." 

For example, The reader's "attitude toward the rainstorm we cited earlier will be determined by whether the rain helps or handicaps the focal character".

In Indiana Jones and Raider's of the Lost Ark we have a trailer scene where the focal character, Indiana Jones, struggles to win a dangerous prize. We see him save a man's life only to be betrayed. We see his prize, a golden statue, taken from him and his life unjustly endangered. And we see his vulnerability--his fear of snakes. 

This is the context in which we view Dr. Bellog taking the golden idol from Indy. Everything Indy did before this point gave that event its meaning and shaped/determined our reactions to it.

iii. "To create feeling."

The focal character creates feelings in your reader. DS writes, "The biggest single reason that a focal character exists is to evoke them [emotions]."

Here's how it works:

Your reader needs a focal character, someone to either approve or disapprove of. Without an emotional compass your reader will have no feeling either way--either that or they'll be confused.

Take away: Your reader exists within the story by identifying with your focal character. It is this identification that sucks him into the story world.

3. Focal Character versus Viewpoint Character

The focal character is not the viewpoint character. Further, the focal character need not be the hero/protagonist.

Viewpoint character:
"A viewpoint character is someone through whose eyes we see all or part of a story. In effect, we get inside his skin."

Focal Character:
"... the person around whom the yarn revolves ..."

The focal character "will be the central and most important character, because he's the one who determines your reader's [emotional] orientation."

For example, "Sherlock Holmes is a focal character; the viewpoint is Watson's. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is the focal character .... the viewpoint, author-objective."

I'd say that in Bram Stoker's Dracula the viewpoint is first-person and floats between characters, depending on which journal or piece of correspondence is being read, but the focal character--the person whose story it is--is Dracula. 

Okay! So much for focal characters. The next post in this series will be on how to craft a scene your reader won't be able to put down. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 14

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion
One of my favorite books on writing is Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer because there he discusses, in depth, how to construct characters that evoke emotion in readers. 

The following information is contained in chapter three of Mr. Swain's book, these are my notes. I'm sharing them with you because no one ever laid out the whys and wherefores of how to elicit emotion in readers the way Mr. Swain does here.

As I've said before and I'll no doubt say again, everyone's different. If what Mr. Swain says works for you, if it helps you, then great! Use it. If not, ignore it. Different strokes.

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

Dwight V. Swain writes,

"Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

Specifically, feeling is built through the manipulation of motivation-reaction units.

Motivation And Reaction Units

First off, what's a motivation and reaction unit? Before I--or, rather, Dwight V. Swain--lay it all out, let's look at an example:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway. Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."
Not bad. There's definitely emotion there. I'd be interested in reading on. Let's sweep the curtain aside and look at how Mr. Swain did this.

First, though, some terminology.

The anatomy of a motivation-reaction unit:

1. Motivating stimulus
2. Character reaction
2.a: Feeling
2.b: Action
2.c: Speech

How to construct a motivation-reaction unit:

At it's simplest, a motivation-reaction unit consists of just two sentences. The first sentence contains the motivating stimulus and the second sentence contains your character's reaction.

So, for instance, in the above example:

Motivating stimulus:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway."

Character reaction:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

How to write a motivation-reaction unit:

a. "Write a sentence without your character."
b. "Follow it with a sentence about your character."

Let's unpack that.

a. Write a sentence that doesn't mention your character.

The motivating sentence has nothing to do with how the character sees the world, it describes how the world is. Dwight V. Swain notes that this is important because, if you mention the character in the motivating sentence, that mention could be enough to turn what is supposed to be a motivation into a reaction.

b. Write a sentence about the character's reactions.

While the motivation sentence was about the world, the reaction sentence is about the character. "It describes how he behaves in consequence of the action that takes place" in the first sentence.

For instance, in DS's example:

Second sentence:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

Stiff-lipped --> indicates Brad's state of mind.
Grinds out his cigarette --> indicates Brad's state of mind.

Note: You don't have to limit yourself to one sentence. "Often two, or three, or even more sentences may be needed in order to present a given motivation or reaction with proper impact."

That said, if you're a beginning writer, Mr. Swain advises you to keep to one sentence each for motivation and reaction, at least until you feel you've gotten the hang of it.

Now let's look at the motivating stimulus and character response in more detail.

The motivating stimulus & character response

What is the motivating stimulus? It's "anything outside your character to which he reacts."

A good motivating stimulus will have great significance to your character, it will be pertinent to your story and it will be motive. That is, it will act to push the events in your story forward.

A good character reaction will show--or at least imply--the character's feeling, his action and his speech.

Why does this work? In a word context

To a "considerable degree, your readers will draw their conclusions as to the meaning of the focal character's reaction on the basis of context". In this case the context is "the stimulus or motivation that provokes it".

This works especially well if this reaction is in response to an "objectively written, non-introspective, physical reaction".

"Thus, a film editor may place a close-up of an actor's face directly after a shot of an actress lying dead in a coffin. Invariably, the audience will thereupon interpret the actor's expression, however blank, as one of grief."

So, if "you want a particular reaction pick a stimulus that will evoke it. A good external motivation makes your character's consequent behavior completely logical to your reader."

Two tips:
- Link motivation and reaction tightly.
- See each motivating stimulus as your character sees it. See it with her background, her attitudes, her dynamics and insights. THEN let her react in character.

That's it! I hope something about this discussion was helpful to you. This information represents only a fraction of what Dwight V. Swain writes about in chapter three of Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Photo credit: "Sunset Bliss..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, November 12

Dan Wells' 7-Point Story Structure: The Midpoint

 Dan Wells' 7-Point Story Structure: The Midpoint

This post continues the series on Dan Well's 7-Point Story Structure (Introduction, The End & The Beginning).

You see a pattern here. First (as we discussed last time) we figure out how we want the story to end. Does the hero win the day? Lose big? Based on that, we start constructing our arc, how the hero changes over the course of the story. 

It's the same here. Knowing what happens at the midpoint helps us set up what's going to happen at the first plot turn. 

Story Arc

I talked a bit about this last time, but it bears repeating. I think that in writing there are no rules but one: there must be change. That said, what shape that change takes is completely up to you.

In general, there are two kinds of change, two sorts of opportunities for it: change in your plot and change in your characters. Let's call this external change and internal change.

External Change

All dramatic stories have external change. 

Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite movies but let's face it, Indy doesn't change. And, frankly, that's part of what I like about that movie. It's an action-adventure movie and isn't apologetic about it. 

But Raiders has a lot of external change. At the start of the movie Indy gets his prize--a golden idol--taken from him by Dr. Rene Bellog. At both the beginning and the midpoint Bellog says to Indy, (this is a paraphrase) "Anything which you have is mine to take." What happens at the end of the movie? Bellog is dead--face melted off--and Indie has the ark. So there's change. External change.

Internal Change

In most stories the main character will have both internal as well as external goals.

I read something the other day about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think it was the blog of one of the screenwriters from that movie. He pointed out that Charlie doesn't change. And I thought about it. That's true. He doesn't. Willy Wonka does. 

One of the nifty things about internal change is that, often, by meeting his internal need (the internal need drives the change) the hero finds the good trick out of the predicament he is in, often around the "all hope is lost" point.

(Maybe your story won't have an all-hope-is-lost point, and that's fine. But if it does, having your main character's solution to his internal problem help him figure out how to meet his external need is a neat trick.)

Shape of the Arc

The shape of the arc--this applies to both internal and external arcs--is completely up to you.

Often, a hero will start off weak, go through struggles, fail some--okay, fail a lot--but grow and change and, by the end, be strong enough to defeat the Big Bad. 

But that's not the only shape the arc could take. In a tragedy, the hero ends weak--he doesn't achieve his goal and often loses his life and/or the lives of those he loves. But that doesn't mean he has to start off strong. He could start off weak, become strong, then come crashing down. 

That said, if you're not writing a tragedy, often writers start the hero off weak and become strong. This is what Dan Wells does. But that doesn't mean the hero has to start off weak. They could start off strong, become weak, then become strong again. In actuality, the number of possible combinations is constrained only by your creativity.

There is only one constant, one rock-hard rule: there must be external change. (I mean, think about it. What would a story be without external change? A straight line. Reading such a thing would make watching paint dry look like a death match.) 

The Midpoint

At some point around the middle of the story the hero will start to move from their beginning state to their end state. 

For simplicity, let's say the hero ends on a note of strength. He achieves his goal, saves the day, gets the girl. Whatever. In this case we'd start him off weak. The town bully kicks sand in his face and goes off with the girl he has a crush on. And that's a good day for him.

(Of course you could take him/her from strength to weakness then back to strength again, or any combination you could think of.)

In any story, this transition isn't going to happen all at once, and the hero is going to relapse/fall back a time or two, but the midpoint marks a sea change. The hero is no longer a passive explorer of his new situation, of the Special World, now he takes the fight to the enemy.

As Dan Wells says--and also Larry Brooks and a number of others--the character moves from REACTING to events to ACTING on his own. In The Usual Suspects Keton kidnaps Keyser Söze's lawyer and tries to force him to give up his boss. The attempt is both short-lived and unsuccessful, but he tries, he takes the reins, or at least attempts to.

After the midpoint the hero will increasingly take the initiative. He will lead rather than follow, he will guide rather than be guided.

Further, this decision to stop running, this decision to turn and attack, has to be conscious. The hero must make it consciously and with intent.

A few things to keep in mind about the midpoint:

- In general, the midpoint will parallel the resolution of the story. If the hero achieves his goal at the end then the hero will have some degree of success at the midpoint

- Also, at the midpoint the hero will receive some information about his adversary--his nemesis/the Big Bad/the antagonistic force. This new information changes the way the hero understands/looks at/perceives the antagonistic force, at whatever force prevents the hero from attaining his goal. He gets a clearer picture and, as a result, his understanding of the story world--as well as his place in it--shifts.

Larry Brooks points out that sometimes it is only the audience that receives this extra information (see: story structure series: #6--Wrapping Your Head Around the Mid-Point Milestone.)

That's it for today! Next time we'll talk about the First Plot Turn.


Photo credit: "melancholic cat" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 8

Lester Dent: How To Write A 6,000 Word Short Story: The First Quarter

Lester Dent: How To Write A 6,000 Word Short Story: The First Quarter

This post continues my series on Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula.

The First 1,500 Words

1a. Introduce your characters early and in action.

The first quarter of our 6,000 word story is mainly going to be concerned with introducing the characters, the setting and setting up the problem/mystery to be solved. Also--and I can't stress this enough--bring them on in action

Dwight V. Swain writes:

The first time he appears, the character must perform some act that characterizes him.

Character can't be demonstrated save in action [...] [W]hen you act--ah, then the cards are down and we see the stuff you're really made of!

For this reason, you as a writer should devise incidents that will force your story people to reveal early--or at least hint at--their true natures, in action. Each must display, and thus establish, that aspect of himself which is of top importance to the story. Is your man a thief? Show him stealing. A scholar? Let him abandon the party for the library. Ambitious? Have him maneuver a chance to impress someone who can help him. (Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Excellent advice. I tell you, if push came to shove and I had to get rid of every single book on writing I possess save one, I think I'd keep Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Introduce all your characters early, not just your hero, and introduce them in action.

1b. Introduce your characters using tags and traits

A great way to introduce any character, but especially your hero, is through the use of tags and traits. [1]

Jim Butcher writes:
"TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character.
.  .  .  .
"TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry's traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit, so that it's easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling. (Characters)"
Here's how Lester Dent introduces Renny Renwick in his book, According to Plan of a One-Eyed Mystic:
Doc said, “This will be the first vacation you have had, Renny.”

“Yes. I'm slipping in my old age,” Renny said, grinning.

There was no truth in the statement, and they both knew it. Renny, with his great size, big fists, homely face, and his exclamation of, “Holy cow!” for every unusual situation, wasn't slipping. Not at all. The thing he still liked most was excitement.
That description was packed with information. We're told that Renny Renwick is getting on in years but isn't old. He's a workaholic. He's a big guy, not good looking but not ugly and he gets a saying: Holy cow. Also, even though he's getting on in years he's as capable as he ever was and he hasn't lost his thirst for excitement. 

Dent delivered all that information in a few lines.

Here's another passage:
"Doc Savage was a giant bronze man whose appearance was almost as astonishing as his reputation. His bronze hair was only a little darker than his skin, and his eyes, one of his most spectacular features, were like pools of flake gold always stirred by tiny winds. He was obviously a man of great physical strength."
- giant, strong, man
- bronze hair and skin
- startling appearance and reputation
- eyes "like pools of flake gold always stirred by tiny winds"

Dent's description was packed with information and was rolled out in a natural way.

Further reading:
- Jim Butcher's Livejournal: Characters.
- In June I wrote an article about Tags and Traits: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy.

2. Put The Hero In Danger

In Dent's words the hero "tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem" and, in so doing, he puts himself in danger. 

Be clear on what the villain's goal is and on what the protagonist's goal is. What obstacles will the antagonist put in the hero's way to prevent him/her derailing his dastardly plans? How can the hero avoid these obstacles? How might the villain anticipate the hero's next move and use it to trip him/her up?

3. In the first paragraph, the first line, introduce the hero and "swat him with a fistful of trouble".

I don't know if this is the sort of thing Dent had in mind, but in one of my short stories I have my protagonist being shot at in the first paragraph, then I go back in time half an hour and show what led up to it.

I think the important thing is to introduce a question very early on, in the first paragraph if possible. In his article, A Simple Way To Create Suspense, author Lee Child writes:
"As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer." 
For example, here's the first line of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
The question: What is abnormal and why are they making such a fuss about being normal? 

It doesn't hurt that J.K. Rowling inhabits her prose. What a voice! But, moving on.

Another great first line comes from Stephen King's It:
"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did end--began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain."
There's a terror, one that may never have ended, and it begins with something as innocuous as a newspaper boat. That kept me reading!

Granted the examples I've used come from novels, but it is the same principle. The important thing is to, in your very first sentence, place a question in the readers mind they would like the answer to.

A word of warning, though. This implied question carries a promise: that it will be answered and that the answer will have been worth the wait. 

In both It and the first Harry Potter book we're given, fairly early on, a  good idea what the answers are. What's abnormal? Harry and his ilk. What's the terror? It lives in the rain-swelled gutters, looks like a clown and likes to snack on little children. 

4. End with a twist

A plot twist "is a radical change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot of a novel [...] It is a common practice in narration used to keep the interest of an audience, usually surprising them with a revelation." (Plot twist, Wikipedia)

Examples of plot twists:

- Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke Skywalker's father in The Empire Strikes Back.
- Arch villain Keyser Soze turns out to be the unreliable narrator in The Usual Suspects.
- In The Sixth Sense the protagonist and point of view character turns out to be a ghost.

For more great plot twists peruse Wikipedia's list of plot twists.

Traditionally--looking at stories through the framework of the three act, eight sequence, structure--a plot twist (or plot reversal) occurs at the 25% mark and the 75% mark.

For instance, at the 25% mark of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy finds out that his mentor--the man who had the artifact he wanted--is dead. His daughter, a former lover of his and a women who really knows how to hold a grudge, was in possession of it.

At the 25% mark of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry finds out he's a wizard and is whisked off to Hogwarts. (The 25% mark is, roughly speaking, where the hero is locked into their adventure.)

Intensify the mystery

At their heart, I think all of Lester Dent's stories--like J.J. Abram's stories--were about mysteries. So, as Dent writes, it's important to "hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with". 

Our checklist for what we need to have accomplished so far:

a. "Does it have SUSPENSE?"
b. "Is there a MENACE to the hero?"
c. "Does everything happen logically?"

By the end of the first quarter of the story we need to have accomplished something. The hero needs to rescue someone, or find something out. Let's say the hero needs to rescue someone named 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?"
Another mystery is introduced. The key point is to send the story off in a new direction.

That's it for the first quarter! Next time we'll take our story up to the 50% mark.


1. I say, "Introduce the hero," but I mean "hero or heroine"; I use "hero" as meaning a protagonist of either gender. 

Photo credit: "Superior Fridge Perch" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 7

Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula

Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula

Lester Dent's Formula For Writing A 6,000 Word Short Story

Lester Dent writes:

"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.
"No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell."[1]

Note: Keep in mind that Dent wrote adventure/horror/science fiction stories, ones where a lot of dead bodies showed up. That said, his formula works for anything, even stories without dead bodies, just adjust it to suit your needs.

Who was Lester Dent?

Although Lester Dent created the superhuman scientist and adventurer Doc Savage the novels were credited to Kenneth Robeson, a name made up, and owned, by Dent's publisher.

Dent started out as a telegraph operator who wrote on the graveyard shift. One of his co-workers had sold a story for $450--which was a fortune at the time--and Dent thought, "Hey, I could do that!"

Turned out he was right.

Dent eventually wrote over 159 novels over 16 years--and that was just the Doc Savage novels! He celebrated his affluence by buying a yacht and sailing around the world.

Before he died in 1959 Dent decided to gift other writers with his formula for writing a 6,000 word story. 

Michael Moorcock's Summary of Lester Dent's Method

I'll get to a blow-by-blow of Dent's method shortly but here's a summary, courtesy of Michael Moorcock:

"... split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it. ... All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third. (Lester Dent, Wikipedia)"

Note: When I talk about Dent's method, below, much of it is a paraphrase.

Lester Dent's Method

Before you set pen to paper here are four things to think about:

1. A murder method

From what I've seen, the overwhelming majority of Dent's stories contained a murder. The murder method should be different than anything you've read or seen. I know, that's a tall order. But try to put a spin on it that's unique.

Dent writes:

"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."[1]

Here's a list of possible murder methods. These are primarily from the appropriately named article, How To Commit The Perfect Murder.

i. A sword. Perhaps a kantana.
ii. Sharpened icicle. Extra points for fashioning it from some of your victim's bodily fluids.
iii. A knife. Butchers knife, throwing knives, kitchen knife, rusty butter knife. Let your imagination guide you.
iv. A gun. Guns "can be found in bins, strapped under cars, inside folded newspapers and in every schoolchild's backpack. Remember to replace after use."
v. A car. Best if you don't use your own car. The author suggests stealing one, preferably from a Walmart. Or perhaps a long-term parking lot.
vi. A heavy object. A brick, meat tenderizer (/club), candlestick, paperweight, and so on.
vii. Heavier objects. An aeroplane, elephant, train, bulldozer, Mack truck.
viii. Pills. Available from drugstores, doctors, drug dealers.
ix. Hammer and stake. Be creative.
x. A notebook. See Death Note for inspiration.
xi. A wand.
xii. Push off a (tall) building.
xiii. Severe allergies, the more exotic the better.
xiv. Poison. Arsenic, curare, and so on.  Be creative.

Here are a few more: bomb, lynch, crucify, burn/incinerate, drown, asphyxiate, strangle, martial arts, curse, evil puppets, acid.

2. The antagonist's goal

Again, although there are relatively few things folks murder for (love, money, power, and so on) the particular motivation is--or at least should be--unique to your villain.

Dent describes what the villain is after as "treasure". I don't know whether he's being literal or employing metaphor. Perhaps a bit of both. Whatever his ultimate goal--for instance, let's say it's revenge--there's going to be a physical manifestation of that goal in the story.

For instance, in Star Wars IV, Darth Vader wanted to defeat the resistance  and the physical manifestation of that desire was the destruction of the rebel's base on Yavin IV.

When I first saw Star Wars--one of the local theatres was showing all the films back to back--I thought the Death Star was truly badass. It destroyed planets! It was like a roving, moon-destroying, bully. That was a new spin on an old theme.

I won't list them, but here are a few links having to do with ideas for what the treasure might be.

3. A setting

Ideally, the setting will be suggested by (a) the murder method and (b) the villain's goal. You'll want something that stands out, that captures the imagination.

Dent writes:

"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."[1]

If Lester Dent were alive today I think he'd say: Google Maps Street View is your friend.

On an unrelated note, love that name, "pulpateer".

4. The hero's motivation

Dent doesn't write much about this point except to say that it is "a menace which is to hang like a cloud over [the] hero".

I explain this to myself by thinking about stakes. What are the stakes? What will the hero gain if he achieves his goal (and, presumably, that goal is to stop the villain)? What will the hero lose if he doesn't? 

I mentioned Star Wars IV, above. Here are the stakes:

Success: If Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star then the rebel base is saved.
Failure:  If Luke doesn't blow up the Death Star then he, and everyone else he knows, is dead. 

It kept me on the edge of my seat.

Whew! We're through the preliminaries. We now know what the murder method is, what the villain's goal is, we know the setting and we understand the stakes. (By the way, Dent says that you really only have to know two or three of the above points before you start writing. Even if you know one of them you're ahead of the game.)

Next time I'll talk about the actual writing. Dent broke a 6,000 word story into four equal parts. Next time we'll look at the first quarter and discuss the opening line and how we, in Dent's words, need to "swat him [the hero] with a fistful of trouble".

Stay tuned!

Here are links to other articles in this series:
Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words
Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words

Thanks to RedFoxOne for sending me a link to Gareth-Michael Skarka's implementation of Dent's formula as a scenario generator for gaming. Brilliant! Here's the article: Pulp Adventure Generator.


1. As far as I can tell, Dent's formula comes from the book, The Creator of Doc Savage, by Marilyn Cannaday. It is also online over at The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot
Correction (Dec 8, 2020): Dent's formula was first given in the Writer's Digest Yearbook, 1936. Thanks to Korodzik for leaving a comment and letting me know.

Photo credit: "Diwali Abstract Series 2013 - The Galaxy Effect" by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.