Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 4

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2017

Hopefully you’ve brainstormed some cool ideas for your pulp adventure, and you are ready to commit it to paper! Now, whether you are a heavy plotter / planner, or write by the seat of your pants, you’ll need a good jumping-off point and you’ll probably want some kind of idea of where you are going.

Now, sometimes writers start with a cool character concept or two, and think up a plot to match the character. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s usually some honing and adjusting to make sure the two are a good fit for each other. This applies to your hero, your POV character (they might not be the same), and your villain.

Anyway, I usually start with a plot idea, so I’ll start with that here:

Plots that Punch!

We’ll invoke Uncle Lester for this. We’re going to be following a pretty familiar structure here, and we can’t be just another genre story. We have to fill it with surprises and unusual elements that will intrigue and excite the reader. Here’s what Dent calls for:

1. “A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE”

On the surface, this sounds pretty specific for a crime story, but let’s look at the broader concept. What he’s really calling for is an unusual challenge and mystery right at the outset. A strange murder is a wonderful way to begin, but it’s not the only way. We want a mystery here that makes the reader say, “Woah, that’s weird. What the heck is going on here?”

Of course, if that’s the key point here, the payoff for the reader is for you to explain it in some way, with something more than “yeah, that’s weird.” Maybe you can’t explain how, but you can explain why.  If the entire world experiences an earthquake all at once… well, maybe the “how” is a little far-fetched technobabble, but the reader should at least find our who is responsible and how things can be resolved.

Another variation: While the implication here is that the villain is responsible, that doesn’t need to be the case. The villain could be simply taking advantage of the situation. That’s an advanced twist, but be careful that you don’t skip the reader’s payoff entirely with this variation. If the entire planet is encased in a metal shell one morning, and the villain is taking advantage of the chaos, you still need to explain what the heck is going on before the end of the story.

2. “A DIFFERENT THING FOR THE VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING”

What is the villain’s goal? Make it weird and interesting! Even if the end motivation is something like “money” (ho-hum), the details or the way she’s going about it should be unusual. Remember the movie Die Hard? They are after money, pure and simple, but they misdirect both the authorities and the audience until the halfway point. And then the way they are obtaining that money is unusual and clever, with the bearer bonds and a plan to live on the interest in a place with no extradition agreement.

That’s pretty much how you do it. There are countless other examples. Again, the point is… engage the reader’s interest. What is the bad guy up to? WHY is he doing this? Why is he hunting down all of the Suck-Ems Brand Baby Pacifiers in the greater Chicago area?

3. “A DIFFERENT LOCALE”

Did you think of any exotic locations during your brainstorming? In a short story, you should have at least one exotic setting where you paint a picture in the reader’s head with your prose. That, or some seriously cool and unusual focal elements within the setting that draw the reader’s attention and makes them feel like they are on a voyage. In a novel, you may have more than one, and you’ll get to spend a lot more time there.

A rural setting may seem exotic to a city-dwelling reader, or vice versa, but you should have something truly unique about it to make it stand out. It shouldn’t be just any city… it should be a specific city, with lots of whatever makes it unique in the world. How “exotic” it is may be dependent on genre. A space station might be exotic in a spy thriller or a romance novel, but it’s pretty ho-hum in a science fiction novel. A generic “alien world” might not be that interesting in an SF novel either, but one with the weird properties of the worlds in the movie Interstellar, and suddenly its really interesting.

4. “A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO”

The hero is in trouble from page 1. Ideally paragraph 1. Give them a problem they have to solve which will (eventually) propel them into direct conflict with the villain. In a very short story, this menace might be directly related to the villain’s efforts. In a longer story, the menace may start out unrelated, but it sets a collision course, and it is going to increase as the story progresses.

5. BONUS – A Time Crunch

This isn’t from Lester Dent’s formula, but it’s a solid one from the likes of Michael Moorcock and many others… there should be some kind of time crunch. This provides a built-in ramping up of tension and the stress. Or as Moorcock states:

“Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It’s a classic formula: “We’ve only got six days to save the world!” Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”

You can do this several ways, either directly or implied. A literal deadline until a particular event–like an execution, an enemy attack, a bomb going off, whatever–works great! A direct race is another classic approach, when the hero and villain are in direct competition for the same prize. A hybrid between these two approaches is an indirect race, although it’s harder to handle well. This is kind of a “racing progress bars” kind of thing… the villain’s evil is growing and the hero has to stop it.

Mixing Plot and Character

The “Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett once explained:

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”

You’ve got two (and probably three) major characters to consider in most short stories. In a novel, you may have a few more. The key characters are:

The Hero: This is the protagonist, and I use “hero” to mean “heroine” just as easily. Ultimately, this is the one person who can make a difference. In pulp stories, this character is often larger than life! Ever notice how Indiana Jones never loses his hat? That’s the pulp hero.

The Villain: Also larger than life. Sometimes, the villain represents the the hero taken to a negative extreme, or they represent the reverse of the hero. The important thing is that the villain must be significantly more powerful than the hero. The villain could literally be bigger and stronger, or they can command greater resources, or they have all the money and good looks and popularity, or whatever. In a good story, the hero should be at a significant disadvantage against the villain from the get-go. In a pulp story, feel free to take that disadvantage way over-the-top, Bambi vs. Godzilla style.

The Ally / Sidekick / Love Interest: This is usually a more down-to-earth character that grounds and acts as a mirror for the hero. To quote Michael Moorcock again:

“There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on.”

Characters that Stick

So how do you make a good character for a pulp story? Especially in a short story, you don’t have a lot of time to introduce them to the reader. Some authors go to great lengths creating their characters and making sure that they fully understand them, their background, what their favorite brand of toothpaste is, etc. And that’s AWESOME… but for me, my characters often don’t appear to me fully formed. They reveal themselves to me as I write. But I have to start somewhere, and my job is to help make them “stick” in the mind of the reader (simultaneously making them “stick” and develop in my own mind).

Here are a few tricks from past and present writers to help make that happen.  I’m going to talk about tags, traits, names, and superpowers, and how you mix ’em up.

TAGS – Tags are something physical to make a character stand out and be immediately identifiable. They can be something noteworthy about the character, or maybe a prop they are always carrying around with them… something like that. It should be something unique for this story. It should also be something that is relevant to that character’s personality or role.

Use tags whenever a character appears for the first time in a scene. This acts as a shortcut for the reader to immediately think of that character and distinguish her from everyone else.

Examples: A silver-headed walking cane, a jagged scar across their lips, a “bronze giant” of a man, clammy hands, sensuous movements, inhumanly graceful.

TRAITS – I use this here to mean the characteristics that the character embodies – vices, virtues, and stuff in-between. This is the core of your character’s personality. Let your descriptions of these characters suggest these traits. Make sure there are opportunities for them to demonstrate these traits.

Examples: Honor, loyalty, compassion, ambition, avarice, lust, cheerfulness, cunning, laziness, bravery, cowardice, foolhardiness.

NAMES – Just what it says on the tin. A common rule of thumb is to pick names that begin with different letters and sound as different as possible, to help avoid reader confusion.

SUPERPOWERS – This may or may not be a literal super power, depending on genre. Instead, this is some specialty that this character does better than anyone else in this story. In Lester Dent’s earlier Doc Savage adventures, Savage surrounded himself by a cadre of individuals who were in the top of their field in one area, and usually extremely competent in at least one other skill besides (except Doc Savage himself).

Examples: Strength, fist-fighting, marksmanship, piloting, driving, lockpicking, figuring out puzzles, detective work, wealth, beauty, fame, law, running.

Now, for each of your important characters (usually those with a name), give them at least a tag, one (or more) traits, and if they actually play a plot role, a superpower. For a short story with one-off characters, you may only need a couple of traits for the hero and the villain. For novels, maybe a few more are in order.

Mixing and Matching Character Elements

The obvious approach is to make sure the tag, traits, and superpower all suggest each other and resonate well together. However, sometimes characters burst to life in my mind when these elements don’t naturally work together, as I discover the relationship between these apparently contradictory elements. How is a character who embodies honesty an expert at picking locks?

A hero will often have a  dominant positive trait, and a less powerful negative trait. The story will hinge upon them overcoming their negative trait to win the day.

Alternately, give the hero two positive traits, and bring those into conflict. For example, the hero’s traits may be Loyalty and Compassion. Will he choose to betray those who put their faith in him in order to save an innocent life?

A villain with a dominant negative trait plus a positive trait makes for an interesting character. The positive trait gives them some humanity and a bit of sympathy from the reader. Yes, they are still a villain and must be stopped, but they are now two-dimensional.

Another interesting trick is that most positive traits, if taken to the extreme, can turn into negative traits. Love can turn to obsession, ambition into greed, etc. A villain with a negative trait that represents an extreme version of the hero’s positive trait can make for an extremely compelling story.

Putting it all together

Okay, at this point, you should have the core elements of a plot picked out, a bunch of cool ideas that might make it into the story, and your key characters defined well enough to begin outlining or writing. At this point, your brain is probably coming up with all kinds of interesting connections and relationships between all of these, because that’s how the human brain works. We want to find patterns and relationships. So do your readers.

What’s missing at this point is STRUCTURE. That’s what the next two parts of this series will be discussing.

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


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



  • Tesh said,

    My biggest question at the moment is about serialization. I seem to remember some of the pulp stories were not unlike episodes in a TV series, while others tried to stitch together a longer tale, sometimes with a “next time in X” cliffhanger tag at the end of each entry.

    Perhaps I misremember, of course… I just find my interest in writing leaning to longer narratives that might have smaller adventures within them.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’ll be talking about longer works a little bit next week, but a lot of the discussion here works equally for shorter works as longer. The Doc Savage stories are novel-sized.

    I’m not much of an expert on serialization (my teaching partner on this, David West, had done some of that), but by my understanding it’s handled the same way, both on an episode level and like a fractal across the whole of the series.

    However, while some larger stories were originally published in serialized form in the old pulps (The Maltese Falcon and the Barsoom stories come to mind…) and it might have been more common in certain magazines than others, I haven’t found it to be all that common.

    However, the pulps *DID* regularly publish novels. These were shorter than the big epics started appearing in the 1980s (which the publishers liked because it allowed them to significantly increase their profit margins), but they often ran about 50,000 words. The pulps needed to fill around 90k – 150k words each issue, so a novel-sized work in each issue was pretty handy.

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