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Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula

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  • Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula

    Here is Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula. Thanks Mister Dent, and apologies to Savoy for us lifting it here!

    This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has
    worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly
    where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in
    each successive thousand words.

    No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

    The business of building stories seems not much different from the
    business of building anything else.

    Here's how it starts:

    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

    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.

    A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting,
    knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others,
    and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something.
    Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with
    deadly germs?

    If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange
    and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of
    course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.
    Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders
    or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

    Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque
    with murder methods.

    The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other
    than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

    Here, again one might get too bizarre.

    Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method
    and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's
    also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So
    many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as
    much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

    Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in
    Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily
    Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in
    Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El
    khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to
    make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the
    text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a
    doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English
    translation.

    The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book,
    finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and
    readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

    Here's the second installment of the master plot.

    Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word
    part, put the following:


    FIRST 1500 WORDS

    1--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.

    2--The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to
    fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

    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
    of the first 1500 words.

    5--Near the end of first 1500 words, 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?

    At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something
    besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned
    the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can
    explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero
    corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.

    Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to
    rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero
    counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind.
    They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?


    SECOND 1500 WORDS

    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 the 1500 words.

    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?

    DON'T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the
    secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show him. (He trembles,
    roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

    When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed
    page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of
    inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound
    efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently
    misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins
    slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination
    blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass
    pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen
    slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what
    the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.

    Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things
    which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.

    BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.


    THIRD 1500 WORDS

    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 the 1500 words.

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

    These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of
    inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little
    suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

    These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one
    fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the
    next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be
    exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it
    more than once.

    The idea is to avoid monotony.

    ACTION:
    Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and
    feel the action.

    ATMOSPHERE:
    Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

    DESCRIPTION:
    Trees, wind, scenery and water.

    THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.


    FOURTH 1500 WORDS

    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? Or the hero?
    Last edited by Reinart der Fuchs; 03-07-2010, 11:19 AM.
    The cat spread its wings and flew high into the air, hovering to keep pace with them as they moved cautiously toward the city. Then, as they climbed over the rubble of what had once been a gateway and began to make their way through piles of weed-grown masonry, the cat flew to the squat building with the yellow dome upon its roof. It flew twice around the dome and then came back to settle on Jhary's shoulder. - The King of the Swords

  • #2
    Ah, thanks Berry, this is classic stuff! Maybe should be a sticky?

    Comment


    • #3
      Interesting Berry. Did you find it here? Just found this Moorcock discussion area, which Mike has contributed to. Has it been mentioned before on the site?
      'You know, I can't keep up with you. If I hadn't met you in person, I quite honestly would NOT believe you really existed. I just COULDN'T. You do so MUCH... if half of what goes into your zines is to be believed, you've read more at the age of 17 than I have at the age of 32 - LOTS more'

      Archie Mercer to Mike (Burroughsania letters page, 1957)

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      • #4
        Yes to all. But, I revised my search and found it many other sites.
        The cat spread its wings and flew high into the air, hovering to keep pace with them as they moved cautiously toward the city. Then, as they climbed over the rubble of what had once been a gateway and began to make their way through piles of weed-grown masonry, the cat flew to the squat building with the yellow dome upon its roof. It flew twice around the dome and then came back to settle on Jhary's shoulder. - The King of the Swords

        Comment


        • #5
          The last time it cropped up, I was inspired to write a story of my own and it will probably be appearing in Prototype-X. I deviated a little from the formula, substituting emotional or intellectual "conflict" for the physical variety he suggests. Mainly this was because I know nothing about violence, and didn't want to have to fake it four times (or more) in a row. But overall, I found it immensely helpful to have that framework to hang my ideas on. Hurrah for Dent!
          "That which does not kill us, makes us stranger." - Trevor Goodchild

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          • #6
            I believe the Lester Dent to be invaluable tool, but also, "On Thud And Blunder" by Poul Anderson also should be posted on this forum somewhere. Its lengthy, so as a link, methinks.

            http://www.sfwa.org/writing/thud.htm

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            • #7
              I just realized how tight the Lester Dent formula actually is. It's essentially two pages per section! Anyone having luck with this formula? This is esentially a short story only formula. Why did I think one might use it for a novella?
              Infinite complexity according to simple rules.

              Comment


              • #8
                I tried using it for the S&S story I was doing for the Enclave but never got past the first section. It was initially planned to have 6000 words broken down into 4 1500 word segments as per Dent's suggestions. I lost impetus. Not sure why. Perhaps because I couldn't get a feel for the characters more than problems with using Dent's structure.

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                • #9
                  Lester Dent Biography
                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbBH4WE2wEg
                  Infinite complexity according to simple rules.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    The great pulpista

                    Lester Dent was a hack-but he was a very good hack!

                    That's why Doc Savage, improbable as he is, is still around after all these years.

                    Dent, Burroughs, Howard, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft and a very few more are truly immortal-they died, but the work they did keeps marching on.

                    And they seem to have had fun doing it.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Reinart der Fuchs View Post
                      I just realized how tight the Lester Dent formula actually is. It's essentially two pages per section! Anyone having luck with this formula? This is esentially a short story only formula. Why did I think one might use it for a novella?
                      Yes. I've used it in the Death of the Red Masque (Aerol Vaughnbeck) novella, and am using it in the rest of the 5-novella series. It makes for a fast, tight read that leaves folks breathless at the end.
                      Ani Maamin B'emunah Sh'leimah B'viyat Hamashiach. V'af al pi sheyitmahmehah im kol zeh achake lo b'chol yom sheyavo.

                      "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." - Phillip K. Dick

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Reinart der Fuchs View Post
                        It's essentially two pages per section!
                        Another sf writer (I think it was A.E. van Vogt, but as usual, my memory may be playing tricks on me) was a advocating a similar formula with 700 words per scene.
                        "If the environment were a bank, we would already have saved it." -Graffitti.

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