Lester Dent’s Fiction Formula

I got this email from "Bigby" today:

Lester Dent, the pulp writer who created Doc Savage
(and I believe wrote all or most of the Shadow stories) and God knows how many
others once gave his formula for any 6000 word pulp story… which is EXACTLY
the four-act structure for TV. He even breaks those six thousand words into four,
1500 word acts…Absolutely fascinating.

Bigby is right.  Dent’s formula reads almost exactly like the four-act structure of an episodic teleplay. For example, here is how Dent describes the first 1500 words of a story:

  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.

That’s pretty darn close to what the first Act of any episode has to accomplish. The first Act sets up the central conflicts of the story:  what the hero has at stake, what others have at stake, what his goals are and the obstacles that prevent him from achieving his aims. Dent says much the same thing, only in a different words ("He
tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem."). Dent’s advice is worth taking — whether you are writing a thrilling short story or a spec episode of a TV show.

9 thoughts on “Lester Dent’s Fiction Formula”

  1. Lester Dent’s resurfacing. He’s one of the two main characters in a newly published book I loved “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril” by Paul Malmont. (BTW, the other main character is Walter Gibson, who wrote The Shadow. At one point, however, Dent did pen a Shadow story for Gibson, and he may have done more, but The Shadow was Gibson’s baby.)
    And Heliograh recently published Lester Dent’s Zeppelin Tales featuring six of his stories. Not sure if they’re any good, but I love the title!

  2. Lee said 6000 word story, not 6000 word novel. 60,000 words is probably a little long for Doc Savage Magazine. I don’t think that any of the Bantam reprints were much longer than 145 pages.

  3. I loved the Doc Savage paperback reprints when I was a kid — I’d buy one on a Sunday and devour it that day. They had the perfect structure for a continuing pulp hero. The title character was an omni-skilled superman (indeed, one of the prototypes for Superman) who had essentially zero personality, due to his Skinnerian upbringing. He was surrounded by assistants who each manifested one element of the personality he lacked. He was well-funded, civic-minded, principled but ruthless (he didn’t kill his enemies; he lobotomized them), and each month a fantastic new problem came to his door for him and his crew to solve. You can see essential pastiches of Doc Savage in Buckaroo Banzai, and Tommy Lee Jones’s character in the Fugitive movie.

  4. Actually, Dent wrote comparatively few Shadow stories. The vast majority were written by Walter B. Gibson, though neither actually got credit on the books. They used the house name “Maxwell Grant” and on Doc Savage the pen name “Kenneth Robeson” was used. For the record, Gibson never crossed over and wrote any Doc Savage stories.

  5. Well, someone dropped a zero somewhere.
    Doc didn’t have 6000 word stories. His adventures, at most, were closer to 60,000, many shorter of course.

  6. Doc Savage didn’t lobotomize them. That was from the comic book, and doesn’t count. Doc did perform brain surgery on them to remove their criminal impulses, but they were otherwise the same – they did not behave the way someone with a lobotomy would behave. Still not exactly right, even if the results were good.


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