Doc Savage aka The Man of Bronze was a series of 181 pulp magazines published in the US in the 1930s and ’40s. I accept that pulp fiction may be an acquired taste and not for everyone there are things to be learned from the magazine’s success. This post charts a set of wanderings around the web that started at a man named Lester Dent, short story structure and ended up with Michael Moorcok. Not what I was expecting!
I do think it is worth having a peruse — if you write short stories you might find some of the information invaluable.
Who was Lester Dent?
Lester Dent was the driving force behind the Doc Savage novels. He wrote short stories to order; he had a formula for producing 6,000 word stories. I will summarise that story here but if you’d like more extensive analysis the following links will help you:
- LESTER DENT’S 6000 WORD MASTER SHORT FICTION PLOT is the post that I found first. It is on the Hunter’s Writings blog which has lots of other items of interest including a post on the product Aeon Timeline that I have a copy of and will be using the set out a novel later this year (probably for NaNoWriMo 2014)
- The post above mentions a Scrivener template that fits the Lester Dent model. The template is available from Scrivener Template to Download and Use Today: Lester Dent’s Fiction Master Plot on the Byzantine Roads blog from Lou Yuhasz which is another blog worth peeking at
- If you want just the Master Plot with no frills try Dirty 30s! – The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot
- You may find this post — Lester Dent’s Secret Master Plot — interesting. It is the same content as Dirty 30s! but on a site more dedicated all things Doc Savage
So what is the Master Plot
In summary the idea behind Doc Savage stories is:
You start with at least one and preferably all three of the following:
- A different murder method for the villain
- A different goal for the villain
- A different locale.
You should also make sure that a dark menace hangs like a cloud over the hero.
Split the story into 1,500 word chunks and write them according to the following sub-sections.
First 1,500 words
Do the following:
- Start with the hero (first line if possible)
- Have the hero sorting out their own problems
- Introduce every other character as soon as possible
- Hero ends up in a fight near the end
- End with a surprise twist.
Second 1,500 words
Now proceed to:
- Shovel on the grief
- The hero struggles harder leading to …
- More conflict
- End with another surprise twist.
Third 1,500 words
Almost predictably this is a magnified version of the previous:
- Shovel on more grief
- Hero makes some progress and corners the villain or someone else leading to …
- Yet more conflict
- Now another surprise twist and one that makes it much worse for the hero.
Final 1,500 words
You can almost guess the rest:
- Keep shovelling the grief on the hero
- Put the hero in a life or death situation
- The hero uses their own skill / training / strength to escape
- A final conflict has the benefit of solving most of the mysteries in the story
- Final twist / surprise
- The punch line / wrap.
I mentioned Michael Moorcock earlier; in the 1970s I read everything I could find with his name on it (including various aliases). In reading around the Lester Dent Master Plot the point was made that Michael Moorcock used to follow this system and claimed to be able to write a book in three days. You may not like swords and sorcery but his works are very highly rated. The Eternal Champion and in particular Elric of Melniboné are iconic and he has also written some very well received literary novels. If you want to know how he wrote you might like to read these interview transcripts:
I write this and I can feel several equivalent stories not normally classed as pulp including Sherlock Holmes. This may all be my looking for patterns but is something I will keep considering. I will also map this to the monomyth at some point.
Over the summer I will look at producing a short story or two in this form. I may succumb to emulating the fantastical in which case the challenge will be originality. What about you – do you follow any set structure when you write short stories? Does pulp fiction have a place? Let me know