Lester Dent’s Pulp Fiction Master Plot Formula

This past summer I went to Taos Toolbox, a two-week writing workshop in Taos, New Mexico.  Among the many great exercises we did, the inimitable Walter Jon Williams introduced us to Lester Dent’s master plot formula for writing pulp fiction short stories.  (Lester Dent is the classic pulp fiction writer who created Doc Savage.)

There are so many things I love about this formula.  First of all, the confidence:  “No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.”  The quirky and at times bossy tone of the formula gives me the same pleasure I get from reading Strunk’s Elements of Style (“Omit needless words!”) or from my grandmother’s arroz con gandules recipe (“DO NOT stir the rice too early, or everything will be RUINED.”).

I also love that the formula is so, well, formulaic.  Right down to breaking the 6,000-word story into 1,500-word sections, each of which ends in a physical conflict AND “a surprising plot twist.”  And of course one mustn’t forget the importance of shoveling the grief onto the hero, or of the menace that is to “hang like a cloud over hero.”

But more than anything I like it because it’s so utterly different from what and how I write.  Physical conflicts are not my forte. More than once I have been called to task for my failure to apply the basic concepts of cannonball physics. And  I could definitely use more menaces hanging like clouds in my stories.  Quirky characters and surrealist images are a bit more my strong suit.

So one of my goals in the near future is to write a story that follows Mr. Dent’s master plot formula.  No cheating allowed.  It has to follow every one of the rules.  For now I’m still at step one, figuring out the different murder method for the villain to use, the different thing for the villain to be after, the different locale, and of course the menace which must hang like a cloud.  Suggestions and challenges welcome….

9 thoughts on “Lester Dent’s Pulp Fiction Master Plot Formula

  1. Well, the prospect of EVERYTHING BEING RUINED from stirring the rice too early sure sounds menacing to me. Not just menacing, in fact — downright apocalyptic. No kidding. What really does happen when you stir the rice too early???

  2. Fun. This is the Madlibs of the fiction world, and, strangely, clearly Ian Fleming’s one source of inspiration. Well, I guess he had two, if women count, or three, if we count birdwatching books…

  3. Yeah, it’s totally madlibs, and Ian Fleming is a perfect example. I’ve never actually made it past the first few pages of any Bond book because it’s so clearly formulaic, even though I love the movies. It’s a bit dated – even pulpy action fiction these days tends to have a bit more of a character-driven arc. The part of my little challenge I like is figuring out how to follow the rules but still make it appealing to me as a reader.

  4. Yah, that’s one of my favorite parts, too. My partner is actually from Egypt, so we got some good laughs from the examples on faking your way through Egyptian culture even if you know nothing about it.

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