You can consider this a tribute to one of the tiny pages that changed my life. At least my writing life. It is also, very much, a tribute to one of the most prolific writers ever. The man responsible for the vast majority of “Doc. Savage” novels published over a period of 16 years. In fact, of the 179 novels attributed under the name of Kenneth Robeson Dent wrote all but 20 of them. Some simple math will deduce that equates to just about 10 novels a year.
That puts an entirely new spin on the term prolific.
And for me at least it proves that sometimes good enough is actually good enough.
Why do I say it like that?
Dent isn’t an author who has earned a lot of awards. You will find no Nobel prize with his name on it. Nor a Pulitzer prize.
However, what should stand out, in spite of the lack of awards, is that Dent is a writer who was instrumental in shaping an entire era of literature. He is very much one of the great masters of the pulp era.
Sadly, Dent passed away in 1959 at the age of just 54. It’s easy to imagine how much more he would have been able to churn out had he lived longer. However, in spite of his short lifespan, he made a lasting impact. One it’s worth sharing with current and future writers. It’s important that his craft lives on.
So, in this text, I share my take on his famed formula. You see Dent did more than just write novels. He was a masterful short story writer as well. That’s how he initially made his name, and it’s something he continued doing between all those novels.
He even developed his own plot formula. And that is the formula I want to talk about here.
I first encountered it about five years ago. It changed my writing life. It’s a really simple formula. That’s the beauty of it. It’s designed for short stories of roughly 6000 words, although you can adapt it and make it longer or shorter if you want to. Well, at least longer, making it shorter might be difficult. Difficult, not impossible.
Furthermore, there are very few genres you can’t use the formula for. Dent himself says this about it:
“It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air.”
And personally, I can definitely vouch for anything in the thriller, sci-fi and fantasy genres. The only thing I probably wouldn’t use it for is Romance. Romance is hard. It takes feelings and sappy stuff like that. The Dent master plot formula is not about feelings. It’s about action. It’s about keeping readers at the edge of their seats. about making them forget to breathe. And when they finally put the book down they need a while to get their heart rates back under control. That’s what the formula is about. Excitement. Thrill.
So, if you’re a romance writer this may not be for you. Although, I can’t definitely say it won’t work I will say I don’t think it’s the easiest genre for it. However, for the rest of us, it’s going to work very well indeed.
And you have to remember this one is about speed. It’s about not having to think too hard about the plot of the story.
It’s about getting the story done. It was written by a writer who depended on being able to deliver stories overnight. When you’ve got a guy capable of pulling off 10 novels a year it’s not a shock that he’d be able to churn out a 6k or even 10k word short story overnight.
He was able to do that because of two things.
- He had a proven formula.
- He was willing to accept that good enough was good enough.
Of course, there will be editing along the way, but the important thing is that you trust your craft. Learn to trust it so you don’t have to rewrite it 10 times.
And that is what Dent’s formula will help you do. It will help you trust your craft and it will help you publish more books. Simply because you’ve got a system you can trust and know will work. This will cut back on the rewrites and allow you to focus on what really matters. Writing a story.
You can find the Lester Dent Pulp Master Fiction Plot right here.
The remainder of this text will be a walkthrough of the individual aspects of the formula with a definite focus on how to make it something you start using right after finishing reading this.
We start at the beginning. That means this part:
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
This is basically the main plot of your story right there.
One thing Dent is very particular about is having elements that are different. And by different, he means what you would not necessarily find in other stories. Here’s what he says about it:
One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.
Since these stories follow a pretty distinct formula this is an easy way to make the stories stand out. Let’s face it, the plot is going to be pretty similar in these stories so this is important. Nobody wants to read the same exact story over and over.
That might make you think it’s a bad idea to follow a formula that, on the face of it, is as rigid as this one. Well, let’s think for a minute about the novels at the newsstand. If you pick up any of those the basic plots will often be pretty similar.
That’s why a lot of writers look down on them. I don’t.
Most of the writers with their names on those novels are masters at their craft. Their craft is to sell simple stories that entertain readers for an hour or two.
In my opinion, that’s as noble a goal as any. If you can lift the cloud and stress of daily life for a couple of stolen hours then you’ve done a good thing. At least, that’s my take on it.
Moving on. The first point is very specific about it being a murder method. That doesn’t mean it HAS to be a murder of course. It could be any type of crime. Although in many detective/mystery type books it will definitely often be the case that it is a murder. Basically, any type of thriller book makes a murder is a very viable option for this. However, the main gist of this is the general method of the crime being committed is something different. Remember the earlier statement that a couple of them have to be different. This page on Wikipedia shows a lot of different types of killing. (kind of crazy what kind of information you can find with a simple Google search these days)
And on this Scribd entry, I found a handy list of 101 different ways to kill. Here are just a few of them:
- Paper cuts.
- Rusty spoon through the liver.
- Flash Freezing.
- Starve them.
- Trap them in a sunbed. (this actually happened in one Bones episode)
There are lots more on the site. Some of them are out there, but should definitely serve as inspiration for you.
Then there’s the different thing for the villain to be seeking. The point here is quite simply to ask what the goal of the villain is. This can be many things, but can often be related to the 7 sins. This blog entry has a bunch that you can use as a starting point.
Still, many of those are pretty generic. For that reason, I’d work on putting a new slant on them. Say someone has a “Greed” motivation. That’s pretty common. Being a billionaire is a pretty coveted occupation after all. And one that not a lot of people can get at. So the goal could be acquiring financial wealth. There are many ways to do that. You could rob a bank, steal diamonds and a ton of other different things. However, those would mean it takes a while to get to the billion dollar mark.
So, a better strategy might be to gain control of some huge company. That might even be worth killing for. After all, murders in the news and the real world can happen for a lot less than that. So maybe the villain wants to control a tobacco company or a fast food conglomerate. Those are good options because the end product is generally considered unhealthy for the customers. So in a sense, they’re being doubly evil. The fast food thing might have a stronger future as there is very little indicating a decline of customers in that arena. Maybe he even kills his competitor by spiking the fast food the competitor is eating. A little bit of cyanide always hurt someone, right?
So, we got ourselves a somewhat different murder method and a different goal all rolled up in one. But what I really want you to take note of is how I got there. The process of brainstorming I went through to get to that point. More specifically how I free-wrote following my train of thought until I got to a point where I found something I really liked.
Now, a different setting.
Maybe the counter of the fast food joint would work here. It’s not often you see that used as a crime scene. Maybe a convention of fast food business types. That would be a great place to spike the competitors’ food as well. You could even take out several competitors at once.
So, there’s a menace that’s hanging over the hero like a cloud. That’s not always easy to come up with, but if you’ve read any of James Scott Bell’s stuff on writing, if not you really should, you’ll know that he’s big on death. That is the stake of the story should be death. Physical, emotional or professional death. That’s a menace that’s always great for a story. The main character should be at risk of having his life ended somehow. Physical death is, of course, more imminent, but the others work well too.
For the fast food murder story, there are different options. The first problem is that I haven’t really defined who the hero of the story is. That’s something I need to get nailed down. The hero could be the beautiful daughter, and heir, of the first fast-food mogul that was killed. Being his heir she would immediately be at risk herself. Maybe she’s not that interested in becoming a CEO of a big company. Maybe she’s a reporter for a women’s health magazine. She’s there, critically, covering the convention much to the chagrin of her (now deceased) dad.
Of course, when the father dies her priorities shift somehow. She might not like what his company is doing, but she still loves her dad. She will use her journalist chops to investigate what’s going on.
That’s a pretty interesting story right there.
The introduction of any story needs to be strong. It’s all well and good having a reader pick up your book, but if he puts it down right away you’re back to square one.
Dent has a simple method for doing this.
All the methods of the plot formula are simple. That doesn’t mean they are not important.
In the original formula, it’s stated the first section is about 1500 words. With four sections that make for a 6,000-word story. That’s a nice short story, but if you want a longer story then just make each section longer. You could always have it be 3 scenes of 1,000 words each to make it a 12,000-word story for example.
If you want to expand on it even further you can do that. If you divide the sections into a three-act structure it would look like this:
- First section – Act 1
- Second and Third sections – Act 2
- Fourth Section – Act 3
From this point on it’s merely a question of developing each of the sections to the length you want it to be.
Anyway, back to the point at hand. The first section. Let’s walk through each step of the first section one at a time.
First line, or as near thereto as possible, 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.
The first thing Dent says you have to do is to put the hero in as much trouble as you possibly can. That means you don’t meander around, or rather, you don’t let your hero meander about forever doing their daily business. You want to hint at conflict and trouble right away. And you want to make sure the reader is aware there is something the hero has to do.
The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
The hero, of course, being heroic, does her best to work out the trouble, or at the very least cope with it. Gaining an understanding of what’s going on might actually be more than enough of a challenge as it is. However, more action can be added than just trying to understand the problem at hand.
Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
We need to know who the participants in the story are. And with the Lester Dent formula, it’s important that we learn that fact as soon as possible. Have them partake in the action if possible.
Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
Dent is big on plot twists. Make sure you’ve got a few handy. You’re going to need them. It might seem too much to throw in a major plot twist at the end of every 1,500-word section, but the point of them is to keep the reader guessing. Let’s face it, the overall plot structure isn’t exactly a revolution so we keep things fresh by sprinkling surprises and plot twists here and there.
SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?
Suspense and menace. Those would be the keywords that you have to keep in mind writing this type of story. Also, make sure things make sense. If your story doesn’t make sense it’s not really a good thing.
The basic gist of the first section is to toss the hero into a heap of trouble.
If the first section is about heaping trouble on the hero, the second section is about doubling it. Or as Lester Dent says:
Shovel more grief onto the hero.
We don’t like it when our heroes have it good. Or rather, we want them to earn it. And to do that we have to put the hurt on them first. That’s what we start doing in the first section and continue to do in the second section.
Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
Earning it in a Dent story is about struggling heroically. The bigger the trouble, the bigger the struggle.
Another physical conflict.
While some stories are better suited for physical conflict than others you definitely want some kind of conflict. In a thriller type story, a physical conflict is as good as anything.
In terms of physical conflict, it will often take place as a chase, a fight or something similar to that.
A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.
The section, once again, ends with a plot twist. By now, you should have a sense of the general gist of the story. This is pretty much the standard section outline of the Lester Dent story. It would be possible to expand the story simply by adding more sections like this to the middle. The key, however, would be to make sure the trouble keeps getting worse. You never end a section with the hero being in less trouble than the one before.
NOW: Does the 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?
The questions you ask after each section would be these. Suspense and menace are the key parts of the story. So make sure there is plenty of it.
True to form we start by shoveling more crap on the hero.
Shovel the grief onto the hero.
This time, however, we bury the hero in it. It has to be so much trouble it seems impossible for the hero to get out of it, but…
Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
The hero is struggling valiantly and makes some progress. The hero is able to corner the villain. Or at least make it seem like she’s got the upper hand. This leads to…
A physical conflict.
Yes, there’s the grief, now there’s the physical conflict. And at the end…
A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.
This undoes all the progress made by the hero so far making sure she’s in more trouble than ever before.
The key to the Dent formula is the constant rising action. We want it to be as hard and fast as possible. These stories are about keeping the readers at the edge of their seats. We want nailbiting action that will make it impossible for anyone to put down the book. Make them miss their bus stop if possible. The kind of action no one can look away from.
This goes for any genre by the way.
DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?
You know these questions by now. It has to be suspenseful and menacing, and it has to fit together. These are the key elements of the story.
I mentioned in the second section part that you could lengthen the story by adding more of that section and that is true, but once in a while throw in one of these sections as well. It’s good to show a bit of progress as well. Just make sure it ends with the hero being in more trouble than before.
This is the final chapter of the Lester Dent plot formula. The final piece of the puzzle to one of the most riveting means of writing fiction ever devised.
Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
You know what? The heroine has had it far too easy up until now. We need to make sure the reader knows just how bad it is. You don’t want them finally putting the book down thinking they could have done this. Well, you might want them dreaming they could, but they should know they probably couldn’t. In fact,…
Get the hero almost buried in his troubles.
That’s how bad it should be. Dent says this should be figuratively, but once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to actually make it literal. I mean that would be an immense amount of trouble. Wouldn’t it?
At this point, the reader should be absolutely certain there is no way the heroine can get out of this. Except,…
The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
This is important. Have you heard the phrase “deux ex machina?”
It means “god from the machine.” In fiction, it means something happens that solves the problem for the characters. You don’t want that to happen…ever!
Imagine this, you’re following the hero through all the struggles looking forward to seeing how the hero manages to solve the problems ahead of her. Then lightning strikes and kills the villain.
That is as big a let down as you can possibly imagine. You want the hero to solve matters on her own. And why shouldn’t she? She is after all the hero of the story. So whatever you do make sure the hero solves the problem at hand on her own. Using her own abilities.
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.
Having extricated herself there is probably still a few issues remaining for the heroine. Now’s the time she solves those. We don’t want too many loose ends remaining in the story.
Final twist, a big surprise.
What? Did you expect there not to be a plot twist so close to the end?
Of course, there’s a plot twist. Something big. Think “The Usual Suspects” big. (Sorry about the spoiler, but if you haven’t you really need to go and watch that movie)
The snapper, the punch line to end it.
Finally, some sort of punchline to finish the story. Make it snappy and memorable. Something that will make the reader want to pick up your next book.
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? Or the hero?
I know you know these questions by now. Or at least most of them. Menace, suspense, and logic are what we’re aiming for here. But also some caution about how the problem is solved. It simply HAS to be the hero who does it. It has to be.
And the punchline is what can define the story at the end. It’s the one line that can make a difference in terms of future sales of your books. That’s why you want to make it good.
In this section, I want to discuss some of the final elements that make a Lester Dent type story a Lester Dent type story.
First of all the plot is eminently simple, yet incredibly effective. It is not meant to further any deeper level of thinking that will make the reader ponder the theme of your story for weeks.
It is a simple “whodunit” type story that will entertain for a short while. If you want more than that, well, maybe this isn’t for you.
This is about the action of the story, not the deeper elements.
The “artistes” reading this will frown. Let them. Entertainment is as good and honorable a means of making a living as any. There’s no reason to be ashamed of doing that. I’d rather lift the shroud over a person for an hour or two than leave people contemplating the deeper meaning of life. To each his own, but that’s how I roll.
I’ve long speculated that Dent and his ilk would have made a killing in today’s publishing market. You and I have opportunities the writers of the golden age of the pulps could only dream of. in fact, they probably wouldn’t be able to think up a world like the one we live in today, even though some of them got close at times. I mean, tell me the world of today doesn’t have similarities with the world of “Fahrenheit 451?”
But that’s another story entirely. You have opportunities that have not been available at any other time in history. You can write and publish a story in one day if you want to.
I mean, some of the pulp writers almost did that. Except for the publishing part. Their publishers would sometimes ask for a specific type of story for the next day. They would go home and type it out. There’s’ no way they could do that without a formula that worked. And that’s what this really is. A formula for successfully publishing short fiction on Kindle (or other platforms).
Now, if you want to learn more about using this system for publishing books I recommend you check out my 28-minute video on how to do just that. I give you the basics of writing and publishing a fiction story in as little as a day.