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How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 3

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 22, 2017

We’ve now talked about the real history of the pulps, and what “contemporary pulp” means. I’ll assume here that this sounds awesome to you, and you want to write stories like this. At this point, if you are a veteran storyteller, you’ve got all you really need. But if you want some additional nuts-and-bolts tips from veteran pulp writers (subject to contemporary interpretation), read on!

Now we get to the meat of things. If you are a beginner, a lot of this may be eye opening and can really help your writing. Hopefully you are already used to drinking from the firehose of information. For more experienced writers, I hope you’ll find plenty of bits you can incorporate to help you tell a more pulp-ish story, as well as a lens that can help you tighten up your work.

How to Use This Stuff

I’ve picked these up from several sources, but primarily Lester Dent and Michael Moorcock. I consider this a set of tools for the ol’ writing toolbox, all calibrated for telling pulp-style stories and writing relatively quickly. The big pulp writers of the  era all had enormous throughput, after all. Heavyweight tools would not be appropriate.

None of this is a replacement for craft. You’ve still got to put in your time and your practice. However, if you are new to things like story structure, this will help you put together a “well-formed story” that meets reader expectations and leaves them feeling satisfied.  It will give you a checklist of things to include, and tricks to employ to improve your tale. This is not a “Mad Libs” fill-in-the-blank formula. This is a set of tools, and you still have to learn to use them.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, and nothing here should be considered set in stone.  I can’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but I’ve had fun learning to use it so far, and it’s really helped me. And it’s fun. Remember the “fun” part? Pulp should be fun.

The Cardinal Rule and the Rule of Cool

There is one cardinal rule of pulp (and really, all fiction writing). Gunny Highway in the movie “Heartbreak Ridge” says it best:

The flip side of the “never bore the reader”  rule is the Rule of Cool: if you make it awesome and exciting enough, your readers may be more forgiving when you screw up. If you’ve never really been bugged by the an ancient temple in the 1930s having photo-sensitive technology capable of detecting a break in the beam of light, or wondered how the hell Indiana Jones managed to hide on a German U-Boat through an entire trip up the Mediterranean Sea… or if that did bug you but you loved Raiders of the Lost Ark anyway… then that’s the Rule of Cool in action.

You can’t really force the Rule of Cool on the reader – it’s subjective. Just remember: This is pulp. It’s okay to go over-the-top. Keep it fun, keep it active, keep it exciting, and try and do the best you can. Harry Dresden riding zombie T-Rex Sue into battle can cover a multitude of sins.

The Master Plot Formula

I am going to be referencing the Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot a lot here.  Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson) was an extremely prolific and successful pulp writer, who by request put his “secrets” down on paper. Rather than print the whole article out here, I’m going to just link to it here:

Paper-Dragon.com: The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot

A more complete version (with a longer introduction) can be found here.

There. Now you know all my secrets. Go forth and pulp!

Well, okay. There’s a lot more that can be said about it.  Now, this formula is geared towards stories in the 6000 word range. I’ve talked to people who have said they’ve used it for flash fiction all the way up to novels well over 100k words. I’ve retroactively used it to analyze some of the better pulp stories of the past, and while there are plenty of variations, they follow pretty similar patterns. I expect most of these writers were NOT consciously applying Lester Dent’s formula (they probably didn’t even know it existed), but the patterns he identified were simply the elements of storytelling that worked on a universal level. He perhaps got a bit more specific than he had to, or missed a common element or two, but the core of it is simple, straightforward, and still works just as well today as it did in the 1920s.

Getting the Ball Rolling by Brainstorming

You can skip this part if you already have a good idea of what you are going to write. I haven’t always done this, but I’ve found that taking a few minutes beforehand and brainstorming really helps get the creative pump going, generates some great ideas, reduces my stress, and gets me really excited for the task ahead. This can work if you have no ideas at all, or if you already have some idea of what to write (maybe because the theme was dictated to you).

Brainstorm. Jot ideas on paper (or onto your screen). Dump concepts, props, tropes, conflict ideas or just cool stuff that support your key theme or mood. Action scenes. Snippets of dialog. Cool imagery. Ways to torture your protagonist. Weird word associations (“Luke Skywalker on a skateboard!”  “Your mummy wore combat boots”). Don’t self-edit.

You may not use these ideas for this story, but you can always save and use them for your next one. As you start solidifying your characters and your story (more on that in the next part), and as you do any research on some of these, you can add ideas to the list.

I’d recommend spending about 10-20 minutes just getting your cool ideas down. If you are like me, the first five minutes are probably not the most creative. As you keep going and throwing ideas around and writing them down, hopefully your brain will get the idea and start having fun with it. You may want to take more time to generate ideas for a novel. When you are done, mark some of the coolest ideas or the ones that work the best together. Turn this into a list. Later, if you do a little bit of research on some of these and learn cool details, you may have additional items to add to the list. None of this is written in stone, but it can be a crib sheet for you as you outline or write.

Michael Moorcock created lists of story elements and imagery when he was writing novels in three to five days. He said writers following his example should create, “…lists of things you’re going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: ‘Right, Stormbringer [a novel in the Elric series]: swords; shields; horns”, and so on.” He continued, “You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.”

Regardless, the pump should now be primed. You have some ideas, maybe a list of cool elements to potentially include in your story. Your brain is in a creative mood. Now it’s time to start nailing down the details, Lester Dent style.

Next Time

Next time, we’re going to talk about using Dent’s formula to come up with plot and character, as well as shortcuts for developing characters.

Links to the series:

How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

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