Lester Dent wrote hundreds of books and short stories. He is best known for the 159 Doc Savage books he wrote under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. While we have to guess the methods of many prolific writers, Lester Dent told us his secret.
Lester Dent’s Formula
Dent used a Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot which he claimed was good for any story of 6000 words. The link I had to the full text now gets flagged as a risky site by Firefox, so I’ll summarize it.
Start with a different murder method, a different goal for the villain, a different location, and always have a threat hanging over the hero. You need at least one of those differences to start your story. Get the hero in trouble immediately and have him take action. Within the action, introduce all the other characters as soon as possible. Keep the story moving with more action, complications, and plot advancement. Have a surprise plot twist at each 25% mark in the story. In each quarter, pile on the trouble, the complications, and keep moving the plot ahead by having the hero figure out more and more of what’s going on. The plot needs to be written in a way that causes the action to be continuous. In the third quarter, the hero needs to have a serious defeat and appear to have failed. The final surprise plot twist leads into the final quarter of action, complications, and everything is coming to a head. Bury the hero in trouble and have him escape using his skills. Wind up the story with one more twist as all questions are answered and the hero defeats the villain in a final great conflict. Be sure the story leaves the reader with a good feeling.
While researching Dent, I’ve found his plan adapted for screenwriting and video game design. I’m sure it’s been used for full length novels as well. There’s enough going on in his plot to fill a novel.
Barbara Cartland, author of over 700 romance novels, used the same basic outline for all of her novels. Not Dent’s. Her own. I wonder how many of the other authors who produced 100s of books used formulas.
I also wonder if we can dump the pulp element.
Pulping the Pulp Fiction Element
Most writers today don’t want to write 6,000 word pulp fiction stories. We want to write 100,000 word quality novels.
Let’s remove the pulp fiction element. All of that action compressed into 6,000 words is why it’s a pulp fiction outline. Am I wrong? You need a full length novel to show the character side of the story. All good novels have action and character. Pulp is heavy on action and weak on character, especially when it’s short. Quality writing has both action and character, can emphasize either, and is only weak on one of them when it’s short. Novels are still around for a reason. Longer stories are more enjoyable to read.
I keep a copy of Dent’s formula around to remind me to keep the tension going when I write fiction. It’s not going to become my formula because it’s 50 years later and I don’t want to write pulp.
What are the elements we are expected to have in novels today?
The action starts in the first sentence.
The tension builds for the protagonist throughout the novel.
There are major changes in the story at the one third and two third marks.
In the second third of the novel, the protagonist changes from pursued to pursuer.
Those elements are almost a formula on their own. I could also see the two page synopsis of a novel being re-written as the synopsis of another novel. New plot twists, locations, characters, settings, weapons, vehicles, new everything. If you took the synopsis for a successful novel you wrote and changed all the key words to generic words, you would have a formula. For example, “The protagonist is attacked by a group and cornered but her sidekick scares them off with an object or trick.”
I haven’t written one of these formulas for myself yet. I’m just starting the final draft of my current novel and I already have a plan for the next one. Maybe the novel after that I can try adding a formula to my plan. Let’s look at the basic multiple draft plan with a formula added.
The Multiple Draft Process with a Plot Formula
Plot Formula – Generic synopsis for a novel
Synopsis – The entire novel told in 2,000 words or less.
Bullet Outline – Point form synopsis
Outline – 10,000 words describing every important event in the novel.
First draft – 100,000 words written quickly. No editing.
Second draft – First draft, edited, proofread, and with all story problems worked out.
Final draft – All revision complete. Ready for publication.
I find Dent’s plot formula inspirational. If I didn’t already have plenty of writing going on, I might give it a try right away. Maybe someday I’ll use it for a couple of short stories.
What do you think of Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot?
Article by Ivan Izo.