Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

Lester Dent¬†was a pulp fiction writer in the first half of the 20th century. He was insanely prolific, typically writing 200,000 paid¬†words per month. He seemed to have this whole writing thing all figured out. Dent’s master plot formula (later used and endorsed by Michael Moorcock) is probably his best-known work in the modern writing world. On the starting point for a story:

Here’s how it starts:

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

The rest is well worth reading, but Moorcock sums it up very nicely:

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. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.

Dent’s “formula” doesn’t work unless you’re a pretty competent writer already; it’s more about organizing your work rather than actually writing the story. But it’s good stuff, and I’ll be referring back to it the next time I start an outline.

 

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