Thursday, May 14, 2009


I covered this subject before but here's a fuller and more satisfying version of pulp writer Lester Dent's famous advice to writers, the 50s? Even if you've seen this before it's worth re-reading, and if you haven't seen it, then it'll surely strike you as a revelation, the way it struck me. 

Some of the books presented here claim to have been authored by Kenneth Robeson, but Robeson was the pen name of Lester Dent. Dent wrote a zillion Doc Savage novels, but he didn't invent the character, his publisher and editor did. Anyway here's the timeless advice of Lester Dent to short-form adventure writers everywhere.

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:


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:


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?


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.



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.

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

Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

Trees, wind, scenery and water.



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?


Anonymous said...

"surprise, Eloise is a ringtailed monkey!"

I can almost picture Dan Aykroyd pitching this as a mail in course on snl in the 70's

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

These interviews are the funniest thing Ive ever heard

Bitter Animator said...

Ah, he makes it sound so easy. Like explaining squash and stretch to someone over dinner and having them think they're an animator.

It's good info of course. But I suspect the bigger trick that it all hinges on is actually being a good writer.

Whit said...

Pulp writers sure could plot back then.

billdude said...

Yo dat shit was crazy! You da man!

buzz said...

Dent's advice is perfect for writing a formulaic story. That's not a criticism nor is it a snark; there's a place in this world for formulaic entertainment.

But the problem is all formula followed long enough becomes predictable. In certain types of entertainment this is okay (a private eye story, for instance; they always begin with the hero being presented with a problem and he must ask questions until he finds the answer).

It does prevent the story from breathing, from finding out what it is about and instead forces it down a pre-ordained path.

Do you watch THE VENTURE BROTHERS? They send up the action-adventure genre superbly by taking formula and cliche' and turning them on their ear. As a result their stories are much more alive and interesting than more straight forward tales. Instead of trying to shoe-horn everything in place, they let their characters and ideas roam free. As a result it takes them to some pretty interesting places.

Anonymous said...

I love how practical and functional older more cynical writers (and cartoonists) advice is when it comes to plot.

You'll never catch a writer over 50 go on about "you can't put rules on plot man, writing is a spiritual act that happens during the process..........ephemeral..........

Anonymous said...

With pulp/noir style novels it's fine to have a formulaic approach to plot. With someone like Raymond Chandler it's all about the language and characterization.

Same applies to P.G. Wodehouse.

John A said...

I've read that Irving Thalburg at MGM had similar (although not quite as detailed)veiws as to create a successful film.

Anonymous said...

The "cartoonist spirit" is lost on this generation, how about another webcomic where slackjawed idiots with permatude make sarcastic jokes about microsoft..

Anonymous said...

I love Wolvertons art but it seems to have influenced that whole ugly pessimistic "alt comix" style

I.D.R.C. said...

"But the problem is all formula followed long enough becomes predictable."Nope, it was always predictable, so that's not the problem. The problem is using formulaic elements well enough so that nobody cares. Don't confuse formula with cliche. Many novice writers and artists do this.

It only means that you are not trying to reinvent the wheel structurally. Many writers do this and the result isn't better, it's worse. Formula is a tool. If you can, you should learn about tools like that from people who have successfully done something like what you are trying to do.

You are not automatically pandering, as some artists think, if you try to use systems that reliably help people to like and relate to your work. In fact, pandering should be strictly avoided, and I would add that to Dent's advice. Pandering and cliche will degenerate any formula.

pappy d said...

more rules of thumb: