Doc Savage – what can we learn from 181 pulp magazines?

Doc Savage Man of BronzeDoc 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:

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.

Michael Moorcock

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:

How to Write a Book in Three Days

What next?

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



  1. It’s nice to see someone try to summarize the long version of Dent’s pulp fiction writer’s guide but if your first two points are off I don’t know about the rest:1) Start with the hero (first line if possible). Rarely did a Doc Savage pulp start with Doc Savage or his crew. Like in a TV police procedural it usually starts with what happens to a victim. 2) Have the hero sorting out their own problems. Doc much later on became meta-introspective at times but these stories are rarely considered very good and they definitely don’t define the character. Generally Doc wasn’t sorting through much of anything except the death of his father in the first novel. Doc is not Peter Parker – he’s an Ubermensch making stuff happen and getting things done. His lack of emotion and task-specific focus defined him. Angst wasn’t a part of it.


    • Emerson,

      Thanks for the feedback – you have the advantage of knowing the Doc Savage novels whereas I have just summarised other people’s posts.

      I will do some more research


      • Tony, I didn’t mean to come across as a D-Bag about it. At least you tried to make sense of the writer’s guide, which gives me a migraine just glancing at it from an angle


      • No worries – I don’t mind being corrected; that’s how I learn!

        I am interested in short story structure and this post sums up a bunch of browsing over the last week. Knowing someone has read it gives me some impetus to keep on with it


  2. I’m intrigued by how these writers pumped out so much work so it makes sense that they had their own system.  There may be a lot of value doing this once you’ve got a demanding readership.  Thanks for the writeup!  This helps me along for the research I’m doing on pulp fiction for a podcast about science fiction, SciFi Thoughts



    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Dent method is usually named “Lester Dent’s Formula For Writing A 6,000 Word Short Story,” but the Doc Savage stories are closer to 60,000 words long. Is there a zero missing, or is this method just for short stories?


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