Lester Dent Master Plot Formula

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Apparently there’s a formula to writing pulp fiction and fantasy. Michael Moorcock uses and recommends it. I’d never even heard of it before today. Having now heard of it, I’m not entirely sure I approve. Stories should be crafted with love, thought, and emotion, not produced on a factory line. Plus, I’d like to think readers are not that blind. Perhaps that’s naive of me. Well, I’ve been called worse things.

Anyway, this ‘Master Formula’ comes in two parts. See what you think.

PART ONE – Pick a basic quest plot and use at least one of the following:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

PART TWO – Divide the story into quarters. Lester Dent went with a total length of 6000 words, which is a short story at best, but I guess the formula works for any length. Then write each quarter as follows:

1st Quarter

  1. First line, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.
  2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble.
  3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
  4. Hero’s endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end.
  5. Near the end, there is a complete surprise twist in
    the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?

2nd Quarter

  1. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
  3. Another physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist to end.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE?
Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud?
Is the hero getting it in the neck?
Is the second part logical?

3rd Quarter

  1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
  3. A physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
Is the MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

4th Quarter

  1. Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
  2. Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
  3. The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
  4. The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest–are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
  5. Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)
  6. The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line?
The MENACE held out to the last?
Everything been explained?
It all happen logically?
Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
Did God kill the villain? Make SURE it was the hero.

Despite my propensity for occasional angst, and my love of crap action films, I am not a fan of this formula. It may just be that pulp fiction isn’t my thing, but Moorcock was pushing it for heroic fantasy as well, claiming Elric was written off this method. I confess that I haven’t read Elric, and also that I am now not inclined to. This isn’t storytelling, this is writing by cardboard cut-out. Treadmill writing.

EDIT: I’ve just been linked to a different formula. This isn’t about how to structure the story, but how to structure your writing. It’s pretty interesting – take a look – and I think I’ll try some of her tips. They’re so obvious that they’re easy to miss or not do. The one part I think I’d find really hard to change is the first part. One of the best highs of writing, for me at least, is when the characters do something completely unexpected that works beautifully, or when two bits that I’ve randomly put in just because, suddenly tie up. The serendipitous moment is a huge rush, and I’d really miss that. But the rest is good stuff and, since I’m starting to run up against my self-imposed deadline, maybe it’s time to change my writing approach.

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2 responses »

  1. You make an interesting comment here, “Having now heard of it, I’m not entirely sure I approve. Stories should be crafted with love, thought, and emotion, not produced on a factory line. Plus, I’d like to think readers are not that blind. Perhaps that’s naive of me. Well, I’ve been called worse things.”

    You aren’t naïve, and I think you have some valid concerns. I once felt in similar ways about writing. I would just like to engage you a bit and share an alternate perspective that I feel may be useful and historically accurate. This is a perspective I gained after reflecting on my own writing, and then diving into the history of writing to try to gain more insights.

    All prose and verse writing is formulaic. The question only is if a writer knows the formulae she is using, or is unaware of them while using them all the same. The art lies in masking the formula.
    Just like all bodies have a skeleton and organ structure itself derivative of a formula, an information sequence in DNA, undergirding our individual appearances, minds and brains, and the myriad things that make us unique

    Most writers today, even very good ones, do not realize all writing is formulaic because the formulae are not directly taught to us anymore as formulae, and this realization is deemphasized even while we learn them anyway, in the process of learning creative writing. So the end result is that we actually end up learning several “master formulas”, but badly, tacitly and implicitly as we go through high school and college creative writing courses.

    I believe that fiction writers were well aware of the inherently formulaic nature of fiction until very recently, perhaps last 40-30 years and likely just since the 1980s. Among earlier writers the notion of “Master formulas” like Lester Dent’s was in demand because of a long tradition of “sooper secret master formulas”

    Pulp writers, the equivalent of all today’s genre popular writers, (and before the pulp writers the popular dime library writers) weren’t the only ones who used formulas. Serious literary writers did as well. If you can get hold of some old Writer’s monthly or Writer’s magazines from back when, or peruse the bios of novelists or old criticism, you will note that people were pretty aware of formulae, the object was if they were not artfully used. In other words if it’s obvious you are using a formula that’s gauche, but everyone used formulae even if it was absorbed and used almost unconsciously.

    Something I observed in studying the histories of numerous novelists, and perusing old writer’s magazines, manual books, and correspondence from past decades. It seems as if before the mid 20th century writers, whether literary elites, or popular pulp genre ones, were exposed to formal Rhetorics, basically handbooks on practical rhetorical structure and usage, and similar works distilling down the formulas and structures of successful writing.

    Popular genre writers were just more obvious about the fact that they were writing formulaic literature. Seriously analyze Henry James, or Proust, or Dickens, or Thackeray, or more recently Graham Greene, or a bevy of literary novelists. You will see clear structures and formulae underlie their work. They just like to deemphasize that and emphasize the creative and artistic aspect of it.

    There is art in the formula, the formula lends form (and form is embedded in the word f

    These structure and formula guides, rhetoric guides, and plot guides, comprise a massive hidden literature from the late 19th to mid 20th century. A small fraction has been digitized and is available on Google Books, or archive.org, but there is MUCH that has escaped through the cracks. Diligently hunting on ebay and amazon.com can sometimes get certain guides, and a lot is embedded in popular writer’s and editor’s magazines

    This is the point of the sort of rhetoric and composition courses you can still find in Ivy league universities, and better non-ivy league colleges like Colby up in Maine, etc. While such emphasis on rhetoric and structure in composition lost popularity in the late 80s-90s, you are seeing in many universities a sort of resurgence in rhetorical studies (and in areas like literary criticism an awareness of structures and formulas never was lost, at least not

    When you read the biographies of master pulp writers like William Wallace Cook see if you notice statements on how they did craft their stories, or at least the best of them did, with the sort of love and care you describe.

    Somehow this isn’t being taught well anymore, and a whole generation of young writers are missing some valuable insights. All that pulp formulae like Lester Dent’s, or William Wallace Cook’s (see his Fiction Factory and Plotto) do is distill for sales oriented popular media the same rhetorical formulae used in story construction fairly universally.

    If you examine older works on rhetoric dealing with the topics of invention and composition you would readily see that underlying all successful prose, whether argumentative, exposition, narrative (like fiction for example, or non-fiction story telling) and so on are formulae and structures.

    They used to teach these in handbooks. I have tons of writer’s guides from the early 20th century for example, fiction writers were VERY well aware of plot structures and formulae. All that you see today on writer blogs, and forums is a rediscovery of stuff that people forgot 2 generations ago.

    Lester Dent’s formula is a surviving example of one man’s distillation from literally 50 years of writer guides and plot formulae on writing for the half-dime and Dime Novel, and then later pulp, markets.

    • That’s a fascinating response, thank you.

      I have to admit that, since I wrote this blog post, I have done a lot more study into the craft of fiction writing and I agree with you. Even 3 Act Structure is, at heart, a formula. In some ways I think this is because the audience has been educated to expect certain structural norms, and dislike it when they don’t get them. But they also work. The trick, as you say, is to disguise the scaffolding with artful drapes.

      I think I’d still be inclined to say that writing Draft 1 with instinct and passion, rather than attention to structure, is best so that you get that creative fire. Then go back and make sure it’s structurally sound in editing.

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