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L is for Lester Dent

Lester Dent was a great author of the pulp era. His first published story in September 1929. His last published novel was in February 1959, the month he died. I am not sure how many novels and stories he published in those twenty-nine years and change. I do know he wrote 161 Doc Savage novels for the pulp magazine of the same name between 1933 and 1949. These novels were in the 40,000-word range. That means his Doc Savage output alone in that period was over 425,000 words per year. He is the epitome of the blue-collar pulp writer.

How did he write so much? He could not have been a mere hack to be selling stories beyond his work on Doc Savage in the same period, much less after Doc ceased publication.

I do not know all his secrets, but I know one, at least from the earlier period. His famous Master Fiction Plot is often called the Lester Dent Pulp Formula. I understand why it got this name, but I consider it unfortunate.

While you can read about it at the link above, here is the basic idea. You are going to write 6,000 words. You need at least one of the following, a different method for the villain, a different goal for the villain, a different setting, or a cloud over the hero. The more you have, the better.

Lester Dent
Lester Dent

Start as close as possible to the first line by introducing the hero and putting him in trouble. Introduce the other players in the first 1500 words while the hero tries to solve the trouble. At the 1500 word mark, have him think he has solved the puzzle only to have it change on him. The ring he’s looking for could be fake, for example. Have another 1500 words of your hero chasing action only to hit another twist at the mid-point. Spend the next 1500 getting the hero to the real climate of the problem, but around word 4500 makes sure it looks nearly impossible. Spend the final 1500 having the hero find his way out. If you get stuck, have men with guns burst into the room.

I’m sorry, did I say that was for a 6,000-word short story. Based on Michael Moorcock’s usage of the formula, I must have meant a 60,000-word sword and sorcery tale.

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne uses several stories to show they are usually one quarter, one half, and one-quarter of the word count, respectively. While the terms differ, the transitions between them are called things like “The Point of No Return” for the first transition and “The Crisis” for the third.

There are many books on my shelf detailing three-act structure, required plot points, and needed scenes. Some are very good, such as The Story Grid. Some are not so good.

Yes, Superman has one too, but Doc Savage had one first.

While there isn’t much detail, in his article on his master plot, Lester Dent boiled the basics of all them down into a scaffold any writer can build a story on. I have found I am much more successful, at least right now, in just finishing a story by writing it in the four 1500 word sections. I might be off count, running long or short, but keeping four roughly equal sections that comprise getting stuck in the story, thinking you’re solving it, finding the real problem, and solving things, at last, I can get from the beginning to the end. If I have that, I can write blind and get a story done. If I don’t, other planning often gets me about two-thirds in before running out of steam.

So, I’m thankful for Dent. Yes, one day, I want to have that pacing internalize, but for now, his formula is a good map from beginning to end.


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