Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.
A long time ago, Lester Dent made his living writing pulp fiction. Then he wrote a formula for salable pulp stories.
What is pulp fiction? From Nomadic Press:
[Pulps spanned] from the late-1930s to the early 1960s…for the price of a pack of cigarettes, readers could pick up pocket-sized tales of hard-boiled crime, sweaty romance, or bizarre science fiction from racks and shelves at bus stations, candy shops, bodegas, and a variety of other sales locations beyond the bookstore market.
Here’s the secret origin of the mass-marker paperback from Louis Menand’s Pulp’s Big Moment from The New Yorker
Credit is usually given [the theory nor the practice of mass-market-paperback publishing ] to an Englishman, Allen Lane, who was the founder of Penguin Books. According to company legend…Lane…couldn’t find anything worthwhile to buy to read on the train back to London. And so, in the summer of 1935, he launched Penguin Books, with ten titles, including “The Murder on the Links,” by Agatha Christie. The books sold well right from the start….
The key to [the] innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year [Robert] de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.
The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse….
Pocket books were priced to sell for twenty-five cents. De Graff is supposed to have come up with that figure after paying a quarter at a toll booth. No one, he concluded, misses a quarter. Penguins sold for sixpence: Lane believed that his books should not cost more than a pack of cigarettes. This meant that people could spot a book they had always meant to read, or a book with an enticing cover, and pay for it with spare change.
The discovery of market for mass-market fiction lead to a huge need for fiction. In some cases classic literature would be repackaged as a pocket book and sit on the racks right next to salacious popular fiction.
When the pulps were at their height a writer could make her living at a penny a word writing short fiction for anthologies or monthly publications. That fiction is where we the major tropes of detective, adventure, western, and science fiction genres.
Lester Dent wrote 159 novels over 16 years for the pulps. He also invented Doc Savage. He how to write long and short fiction for the pulp marketplace. When it came to adventure fiction, he was one of the best.
Dent’s “Master Fiction Plot,” often called the Lester Dent Formula, has been used for a very long time by writers new and old, and not just for stodgy old pop yarns. New Wave Science Fiction author Michael Moorcock and others have used the formula to great effect in both classic and modern work, innovating over the formula like a jazz artist deconstructing a melody.
But first they learned the melody.
The formula starts like this:
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.
We’ve already talked about the way rules or arbitrary structures are essential to understand and rebel against. Dent’s master plot can also help us to understand the material we’re working with as writers. Since Dent’s working with pulp fiction, his main material is suspense. It’s no surprise that the bulk of his master plot is about building suspense:
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.
If you’re interested in writing short fiction then unpacking Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot could be very useful, especially if you’re interested in science fiction, mysteries, or thrillers.