Part of any writer’s career path is staying abreast of techniques and knowledge in how to better our writing. It’s a lifetime learning process. As a fiction writer, I hold an interest in different structural plotting techniques. Enter Lester Dent.
Short Fiction Structure
My own fascination with Lester Dent comes about because of my latest exploration in short fiction. Normally a novelist, I must admit that writing much less words and still getting a simpler story across is a task for me. Whereas novelists have a full range of different plot structure devices – from the typical hero’s journey, to 3-4 –6 or eight or more Act or Point structures, shorter fiction has much lesser structural advice available.
I can perhaps point to Holly Lisle, who has recently launched her new website, and has a 3 week free course on writing flash fiction – How to Write Flash Fiction that doesn’t Suck – affiliate link (but it’s free). Holly’s course structures flash fiction into complete pieces of 500 words each, and introduces three major sections which we will all know about–beginning, middle and end. This is translatable out to slightly larger word-counts, but once you move outside of flash (as I have naturally done) you may begin to ask about other plot points.
Lester Dent has a structure for longer short stories, of up to 6000 words, which could also be useful at 10K. Written in the 1930’s the Pulp Fiction Master Fiction Plot Formula still stands good today.
Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot
As Kenneth Robeson, Lester Dent penned over 181 Doc Savage (a superhuman scientist adventurer) pulp fiction novels over 16 years, keeping up a pace of writing over 200,000 words each month.
With the proceeds of his successful writing, he bought a yacht and sailed around the world, but before he died in 1959, Dent gifted his formula for writing a 6000 word story to other writers.
Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot
Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot. This webpage has the full article in Lester Dent’s words.
The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot appears to have been excerpted originally from Marilyn Cannaday’s biography of Dent, “Bigger than Life: the Creator of Doc Savage” (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1990), transcribed by Jason A. Wolcott, 1995.
“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.” -Lester Dent.
The formula has since been taken out and spread via many websites, blog posts and here: Pulp Adventure Generator— Gareth-Michael Skarka’s implementation of Dent’s structure as a scenario generator for gaming.
In fact, prolific English action/adventure sword and sorcery writer, Michael Moorcock used Dent’s formula as a basis for his own 50 year plus career in which he managed to write entire novels very very quickly (in 3-10 days for some). Interested in Moorcock’s own tips for fast writing? Take a look here: “How to Write a Book in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock” which has been excerpted from interviews conducted with the author.
If you require convincing that a plot formula written in the 1930’s can still be useful today, take a look at Dean Wesley Smith’s 9 video lecture series on the subject: Lecture #10 Master Plot Formula. Why Lester Dent’s Plot Structure works today and how to learn from it. DWS maintains that all bestsellers in our modern times follow the same structure.
The 6000 Word Master Fiction Plot
Dent wrote pulp fiction in the thriller/adventure/sci-fi/horror genres, hence his emphasis on murder or bodies to start a piece off. For other less body-counted genres, the formula can be interpreted as needed—all fiction requires an inciting event/stressor to set the story in motion (not necessarily an actual murder).
For full explanations see the first link above. Basically, the 6000 words are split out into four 1500 sections, described by Dent as-
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.
Michael Moorcock explains these on Dent’s Wikipedia entry (Lester Dent, Wikipedia) as:-
“… split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts.
Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble.
Part two, double it.
Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. …
All your main characters have to be in the first third.
All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third.”
Actually, this is similar to Holly Lisle’s flash fiction workshop mentioned above also — a short story can normally contain an initial problem, an event to make it worse, an even worse event (raising the stakes) and the ending where the main character either gets what they initially wanted or…(up to you, the writer).
And Now a Scrivener Template
If you are a user of writing software Scrivener, you may be pleased to know that Lester Dent’s full master plot formula has been put into a Scrivener project for free download.
Lou at Byzantine Roads has created the Scrivener project for your download pleasure.
Once you’ve unpacked the zip file, simply open the Scrivener project. From there, you can see the plot master split out into relevant sections of the short story (it’s also there in full at the top) with further scrivenings to enable you to add title pages, credits and back matter to your story. You can save as another project name, or save as a template for reuse. (I saved mine as a template into the fiction category, naturally).
Thanks, Lou. That template is really helpful.