Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 6

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 27, 2017

Now we are set to dive into outlining and writing at least a 6000 word story. If you have been following this article series from the beginning, then you’ve covered the foundations and may be ready to get cracking at drawing up an outline or just jumping into writing the thing. Today, we’re delving into the details of Lester Dent’s “Master Plot” formula / structure. Dent, better known as Kenneth Robeson and author of the Doc Savage novels, was an extremely prolific writer. For many years, he wrote a novel every month for Doc Savage magazine, averaging about 60,000 words each. The guy was a pulp machine. There are worse authors to emulate.

Yesterday, we talked about general advice that he filled in during the discussion of his “Master Plot” formula. This time, we’re talking about the specifics of what goes into each quarter. There’s plenty of room for variation here, particularly as he was addressing crime and adventure stories, but the core of it provides room for infinite stories. Now, some of this is my own interpretation, colored by discussions with writers who use this structure. So be sure and go back to the Dent’s original and see if you get other ideas of where to go with it.

The First Quarter

  1. Start out with a compelling hook. We talked about that yesterday.
  2. Introduce all principal characters
    In a short story, there are probably just three characters… the main character, the villain, and the sidekick / romantic interest. The villain may not be directly introduced at this point yet, but their presence should be felt!
  3. The Hero tries to solve the problem.
    Depending on the size of the story, the main character’s problem isn’t directly related to the main storyline. But the character’s efforts to resolve it should lead them on a collision course with the villain and the main plot. For example, the hero may have a problem with his space ship’s engines, and needs to pull in for repair. But in order to get the parts, he gets involved with some shady characters at the starbase… you get the idea.Another critical part here is that the main character should be a person of action. They shouldn’t be “pondering” … they should be acting (or reacting) to their problem.
  4. Hint at the major conflict
    While the initial problem might not be the main conflict, the bigger issue should be introduced in this first quarter, at least in part.
  5. The Hero’s efforts lead to a direct physical conflict (or action sequence)
    In a good pulp story, the end of this quarter will end in an action sequence… and the hero will have been directly responsible for either causing it or being caught up in it.
  6. PLOT TWIST at the end of this quarter
    This is the big reveal that the hero’s efforts are not going to go smoothly, and there are bigger issues afoot. Or the character’s failure to solve the problem may have made things worse. Whatever the case, the main character was going in one direction before now, and will have to veer off-course from here on out to deal with higher stakes.

The Second Quarter

  1. ESCALATION!
    The second quarter is where everything gets bigger, the risks grow larger, the danger more intense, and the threat becomes bigger than it seems.
  2. The Mystery Grows
    The mystery grows even as the bigger plot (and greater stakes) begin to be revealed. Pieces of the villain’s plan may revealed here, but each answer at this point should create one or two new questions.
  3. The hero should seem in over his or her head.
    The hero is clearly out of his or her league here, but it doesn’t matter. This person is a hero! They take action anyway! Which means, of course…
  4. Quarter Finishes up with another Conflict / Action Scene!
    This should be a big one, possibly even overshadowing the one at the end of quarter 3 (but not the climax).
  5. End with Another SURPRISE TWIST!
    For best results, this should be a significant reversal where the hero discovers they were going about nearly everything all wrong, but this big reveal finally gives them a real direction to go on the offensive.

The Third Quarter

  1. Escalate, Escalate, Escalate!
    Yeah, that escalation from quarter 2? Double it. The hero is facing bigger peril than ever. Crap is getting real!
  2. The Hero makes some (apparent) real headway!
    Yes, the main character finally has a real plan and just has to face some impossible odds to make it happen. And it looks like it’s all going to work! We’re kicking butt here!
  3. End with a big action scene!
    This is almost always a full-on physical conflict here, even in more cerebral pulp stories. In fact, it could almost be the climactic final battle right here… except… something is not quite right.
  4. PLOT TWIST – Apparent Failure / Loss Failure.
    The plot twist here is that the hero seems to lose, or suffers a setback from which there is no apparent recovery. Something like: This wasn’t just a failure, but dismal, royally messed up, woulda-been-better-off-not-even-trying failure. This might be a failure snatched from the jaws of victory. Maybe the hero’s Big Solution was the villain’s plan all along. The emperor knew about the attack on the shield generator down on the moon, is capturing all the allies, and oh, the Death Star is fully operational!
  5. The fourth quarter ends with the main character in a miserable place.
    In fact, you could probably end the story here for a really nasty downer of a story here. Theme: Don’t even try.

The Fourth Quarter

  1. Opens with the hero in in deep doo-doo.
    He’s been framed for the murder he was trying to solve. She put her faith in her best friend who then betrayed her. It’s really looking like it’s curtains for our protagonist. EXCEPT…
  2. The hero makes one last-ditch effort, which succeeds!
    This must be through the protagonist’s OWN EFFORT! They have to rescue themselves and turn the tables on the villain. Now you can have a new climactic action scene, or this can be the continuation of the conflict at the end of quarter 3, with the hero proving to be not quite down-and-out. But even though this story may be a team effort and the other allies are playing key roles to assist, the final battle needs to be in the hands of the main character. This was her story, all along.
  3. Mystery solved, villain is vanquished
    Somewhere along the line in this quarter, the last of the Big Questions propelling the mystery have to be answered. The villain must be resoundingly defeated. Even if the main villain gets away, he must be leave the scene in shame with his plans thwarted (like Darth Vader escaping alone when the Death Star was destroyed). Maybe there’s a loose thread or too left open for sequels, but otherwise… make sure the reader feels satisfied and rewarded.
  4. BUT… THERE IS A SURPRISE TWIST AT THE END!
    We’re not done with plot twists, yet. Maybe the villain not as expected (“It’s Mr. Withers, owner of the amusement park!”). Maybe the treasure is kind of a dud. Things should be satisfying, but it’s not quite a “pat” ending, at least not fully expected. There’s always a catch.
  5. A “snapper” at the end.
    This might be a third-party validation (“He’s dead, Jim”), a punchline, or something else that gives the reader a warm fuzzy feeling that yes, indeed, the story is done and the end was satisfactory, and everyone’s moving on. The original Star Trek series was kind of notorious about this at the end of every episode. Ending with a lame joke may be a bit dated, but this is still a key part of the resolution. You need some voice of authority to confirm that the show is over, and it’s time to go home. Whew!

Summing It All Up, and What Comes Next

Whew! Six articles in, now we’ve covered pretty much all you need to know about writing a pulp short story. After all this, you may be thinking that this is a ton to keep track of… and you wouldn’t wrong. Like everything else, it comes down to practice. Lots of practice. Fortunately, there’s the whole “fun” part of the title. This stuff is fun to write. That makes practice enjoyable.

So what comes next? Next time I will talk specifically about creating long-form stories… novel and novella-length stories and the tricks to doing it. And now that you are writing pulp stories and having so much fun at it, maybe you’d like to sell them, too? I’ll be talking about the tricks to selling pulp stories now that the age of the pulp magazine is long over.

After that, we’ll finish up with some additional words of advice from the pulp writers and editors of the era. While the language and markets may be a bit dated, the advice is timeless.

So… go forth and pulp it up!

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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