Showing posts with label Lester Dent's Master Fiction Plot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lester Dent's Master Fiction Plot. Show all posts

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 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.