Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 5

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 26, 2017

Okay. To sum things up so far: We talked about what pulp fiction really was during its day, what people talk about when they are discussing contemporary pulp, a little bit about Lester Dent’s formula and brainstorming, and developing pulp-style plots and characters. That’s a lot of info. Now we’re going to drill down a little deeper into Lester Dent’s advice and story structure.

Lester Dent Story Structure

If you aren’t familiar with story structure… well, it’s a huge topic, but the gist is that a story that fills a conventional structure is considered “well-formed” and feels “right” to most readers. Most readers aren’t aware of it. Many writers create well-structured stories without even being aware of it, instinctively going with what “feels right.” If a reader is diving into a story and the structure feels off… they often won’t complete it. It will feel confusing and unless they already like and trust the author, they’ll likely put the book down and never pick it up again.

You can kind of look at it like sentence structure. Those of us from an older generation in the U.S. can remember diagramming sentences. It’s kind of the same thing. Take this sentence: “When he got to the concert, he discovered he had left his tickets at home on the coffee table.” I can actually rephrase the sentence in structured ways, perhaps with a couple of word substitutions, and it still works. But if I throw the words together in a jumbled way, it is very hard to parse any meaning out of it: “To discovered on the coffee had home when got table the on he he he tickets at left concert his.”

Story structure works the same way. There are several structures, and they don’t all work equally well for every story, and sometimes they need to be tweaked (or maybe even ignored entirely). Many authors have their own variations, as do cultures. In the end, a good structure can be a valuable tool for building or analyzing a plot, and helping you figure out what’s wrong, yet remains loose enough that it allows infinite variety without feeling too “formulaic.”

Lester Dent’s “Master Plot” is an early version of story structure, which he himself admitted wasn’t appropriate for all kinds of stories. It’s a fairly broad, generalized structure, which means it actually nearly inside some other structures, like the 5-act story structure, 7-point plot, Save the Cat, etc. I have added my own variations and looser interpretations of areas, but I find it works pretty well. As originally stated, it’s intended for short stories of around 6000 words, but I know authors who have used it for everything from larger flash stories to novels well over 100k words in length.

Lester Dent breaks stories into four quarters. Ideally, you should have a good idea of your story length to begin with. Literally quarter that up. If it’s a 6000 word story, then you have four quarters of approximately 1500 words each. If it’s a 1000-word flash piece, your quarters will be 250 words each, and a 60,000-word novel will have 15,000 word quarters.

“But Jay, how do I know how long my story should be?” Practice, really, but then the quarters also provide you with a handy roadmap. If you are shooting for a 5000 word short story and you find your first quarter is going way over 1250 words, then you’ve got a pretty good clue that you need to either 1) pare down your concept a bit, or 2) you are taking way too long to get to the point of the story. It’s nice to know either of those earlier rather than later. After a little bit of experience, it’s easier, and you can also get a feel for things even earlier, and know halfway through the quarter when you need to tighten things up or if you have some breathing room.

At the end of each quarter except the last one, your hero should be in a heap of trouble… worse than the trouble he or she was in at the end of the last quarter, or at the beginning of the story. Here’s a little tip: If you can’t figure out how your hero is going to get out of the problem you’ve put them in, chances are your readers won’t either. However, you have the advantage of retroactively giving them the one key or trick they need to escape in an earlier part of the story. 🙂

Lester Dent’s Checklist for Every Quarter

In Lester Dent’s formula, he repeats very similar versions of the same advice for every quarter. This isn’t too dissimilar from any modern writing advice, although it’s definitely pulp-centric. To quote Dent:

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

Think of this as your are writing, and as you go back for edits / rewrites.

  1. Should have Menace (Peril).
    Ramp up the pressure in every quarter. Is there menace to the hero? Does it grow like a black cloud in quarter 2? Is it getting even blacker in quarter 3? Has it held out to the very last moment in quarter 4? Make sure the reader feels like the hero is in peril, and both the danger and the stakes just keep getting bigger as the story unfolds.
  2. Have Suspense (Mystery).
    Introduce questions in the reader’s mind from the outset, and the mysteries grow bigger even as some are solved as the story progresses. Finally, somewhere around the climax (sometimes the resolution) in the fourth quarter, the last big questions are revealed.
  3. Add minor twists and unexpected surprises
    About once per page (every 500-750 words or so, pulp magazine style), add something that plays with the reader’s expectations. This encourages them to wake up and keep paying attention. He suggests being “gently misleading.” This is kind of like the horror movie trope where the cat jumps out and surprises the frightened hero or heroine (and the viewer). Except… don’t do that. It’s so overused it has become trite. Anyway, the point is, this isn’t a major plot twist (although I think the major twist at the end of the quarter counts towards this quota!), its more of the occasional plot curve-ball to keep things interesting.
  4. Show, don’t tell.
    This is basic advice for all fiction writers. I’ll just repeat Dent’s words here: “DON’T TELL ABOUT IT! Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.
  5. Use multiple senses
    Another piece of basic writing advice that I screw up as much as everyone. Dent mentions it in passing, but comments on using all the senses to build atmosphere… and to remember descriptions of the surroundings. Your job may not be so much of painting a picture with your words, as using those words to engage the readers’ imaginations so they can paint their own pictures… and have it match the action.
  6. Each action scene/conflict should be different.
    Dent calls for physical action in every quarter, which might not be appropriate for every genre, even in pulp. However, SOME physical action is likely desirable for in almost every story… engaging that kinematic sense, and it may be a race to the airport in a romance, or a non-life-threatening physical test or something.  Anyway, when you have multiple action scenes, keep them varied and distinct from each other. Dent says, “These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once. The idea is to avoid monotony.
  7. Economy of words.
    Or as he says, “The secret all all writing is to make every word count!” Each scene should develop character and/or advance the plot. If it isn’t, it should be revised or removed. Keep your writing tight, especially in pulp stories.
  8. Proceed logically!
    Dent reiterates this several times, without much explanation about the alternative. I’ve seen articles by pulp editors demanding the same thing. My take is that you don’t want to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Don’t have ninjas appearing out of nowhere for no other reason than it is time for another action scene. Justify it. Make sure everything has an explanation, even if it isn’t spelled out to the reader.
  9. Keep the action flowing
    BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS,” Dent says. My take is a little different. I feel you absolutely need to pace things and have some breathers between the action scenes to avoid reader fatigue and allow emotions to find a base, especially in a longer story. Just remember that this is a pulp story. It’s action-oriented.


I’m saving the quarter-by-quarter breakdown for the next post, but the very first part of the very first quarter is important enough to warrant its own section. I’m talking about the hook. You can find tons of advice on writing a good hook on the Internet and in books on writing. The hook is that whole “economy of words” on steroids. There’s a school of thought about “In Medias Res” – that you should start with action. This may not be the best advice out there, because starting with a gunfight or an explosion is pretty meaningless to a reader. Is the explosion good or bad? What does it impact? Why should they care?

Your goal with the hook is to intrigue the reader to get them reading the rest of the page… probably 2-3 paragraphs. The goal with the first page is to get them to read the first scene or two… probably the first chapter in a novel, or the first quarter of a 6,000 word story. And from there, your goal will be to get them to read the whole story. So focus on that very first sentence, and that very first paragraph.

Dent distills it down to this:

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.

Dent mentions three things here:  The protagonist (the hero), the protagonist’s immediate problem, and the hint of a mystery or menace that the hero is getting set on a collision course with. I’d suggest here that setting is also critical within the first paragraph, probably by the second sentence, so the reader is rooted in the story. Mood should also be established early on.

That’s a lot of work for the first couple of sentences! With a novel-sized work, there’s a bit more room to work with, but the opening hook still has to be there.

Next Time

Next time, we’re going to drill down into what Dent suggests happening in every single quarter.

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: Read the First Comment