The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot challenge

Have you ever heard of Lester Dent? Or more specifically, his formula for writing a great story? If not, allow me to paraphrase slightly.

It’s a formula – or master plot – for writing a 6,000 word pulp story. It lists everything you need to include and when, from the murder method (if that’s the kind of story you’re going for) and the all-important location to the overarching menace that stands in the way of the hero.

It even breaks it down into handy 1,500-word chunks to help you stay on course, outlining the action that needs to take place in each section (and crucially, when that action needs to occur), when to introduce your characters, and how to build atmosphere – everything you need to craft a suspense-filled pulp tale.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, and you can find the formula in full here: (There are plenty of other blogs that cover it, but this is the post that I keep referring back to. Thanks!)

It’s an intriguing concept, and one that seemed hugely successful for Mr Dent. The creator of Doc Savage, this is a guy who wrote hundreds of books in his time, all of them (as far as I can gather) of the pulp variety, so the formula must have worked. Of course, it still requires a huge amount of imagination and plenty of ideas to enjoy that kind of success, but it can’t be denied, it sounds like a great starting point.

As far as I can tell, there’s no reason that this kind of formula can’t be expanded to suit the requirements of a novella or even a complete novel, either, and it could probably work with more modern iterations of the mystery/thriller genre as well. But it doesn’t hurt to start with the basics, so I’m setting myself the challenge of writing a 6,000 word pulp story according to the rules of Mr Dent (the more I say Mr Dent, the more I’m getting Batman flashbacks. But I digress…).

Essentially, it’s a template, and as a fledgling fiction writer, a template is something I can most definitely work with. I like the idea of having guidelines I can refer back to that can help me build a narrative, rather than diving in with no real idea of what to put where – and it could probably help with the whole fear of the blank page thing, too.

As an added bonus, I love the pulp style as well, particularly stories with a noir feel. The Postman Always Rings Twice was one of the first books I read in the genre and The Big Sleep quickly followed, while Patricia Highsmith is by far my favourite of the more modern noir-ists. I’m looking to order a title by Christa Faust (The Money Shot) to get my teeth into a modern-day pulp story, too.

Maybe it’s just me, but I get a distinctive Sin City-style image whenever I picture that genre – all inky tones and sombre mood, with the odd flash of red thrown in for good measure – and I’d love to write something in that style. My first love may be writing with a psychological edge, but there’s no reason why I can’t deviate from time to time. Or even combine the two. Now there’s a thought…

So, the stage is set and I’m ready to go. I’ve got the formula and a few ideas buzzing around, and now all I’ve got to do is get them onto paper. Challenge accepted. Wish me luck!