Pulp fiction: a blast from the past

As another building block for wannabe authors (including yours truly, because we never stop learning until we die!), I’ve been looking at older advice on how to write – plot, setting, characters, etc.

We tend to think of “how-to” advice for authors as being something relatively recent, and in one sense it is – because many of those giving the advice are not authors, or are not particularly popular authors, judging by their sales numbers.  I don’t know what qualifies them to offer such advice . . . all I know is that I won’t take it.  I’ll look to successful authors, past and present, and try to learn from them.

One resource that caught my eye was “The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot“.  It dates from 1939.


All Detective magazine cover


Having written 159 novels in 16 years (published under a pen name), plus countless short stories, I reckon Lester Dent knew what he was talking about.

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here’s how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

There’s more at the link.  I find it a useful technique for not just short stories, but for chapter construction as well.  If my WIP is feeling a bit flat, or not getting anywhere, I can analyze recent work through the lens of this approach, and often find a way to improve it almost immediately.

What resources have you found useful to inform and influence your writing approach and style?  Let us know in Comments.  Anyone know where to find Will Shakespeare’s Ye Olde Scribbler’s Suggestions?


  1. The classic Hero’s Journey is always useful


    Or what I call “the Big WW” — mapping out the try-fail sequences.

    I tend to write first, then go back and check against the two structures and and add in whatever I’ve missed (if appropriate.) Generally, if the story’s flat, I probably don’t have enough emotions around the try-fails and a black enough moment before the final battle and victory.

    1. Eh, Campbell did a lot of cherry-picking. For all his talk about choosing a variety of sources to demonstrate how widespread it is, there’s a fair bit of dropping stories when they start to falsify his case.

  2. When my characters need excitement, I dump them in the wilderness or throw them down a hole. Literally. 😀

    1. A gunfight usually works great too. Sometimes they get a little cocky, that’s when a nice surprise gunfight is handy. Bad guys can be smart too.

      1. Riders In The Sky (a western singing group, with comedy), once said the way to liven up the action is this: He pulled out his six-gun, then leapt thru the bar’s window, blazing away! (Or words to that effect. It was some years ago when they were on radio.)

    2. Have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand — as soon as you figure out what is the appropriate gun for the story.

      And remember you have to justify it in the rewrite.

    1. Good: Not as polluted, no killer androids.

      Bad: Distinct lack of flying cars and offworld colonies.

      1. There are plenty of colonies of people who aren’t living in the same world as the rest of us.

      2. still don’t see how Tyrell is going to get that HQ built in the valley by November.

  3. Michael Moorcock has praised the Lester Dent formula and indicated it was a guide at least early in his career: http://www.wetasphalt.com/content/how-write-book-three-days-lessons-michael-moorcock

    “First, he says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.”

    As someone writing a mix of “Swords &” and detective, I think Dent and Moorcock are pretty good people to listen to.

    1. Ugh, hit post too soon.

      There is also: The Fiction Factory: Being the Experience of a Writer Who, for Twenty-Two Years, Has Kept a Story-Mill Grinding Successfully from 1912 which is the advice of a successful writer of the low brow magazines of the late 19th and early 20th century (are these considered pulps or something else).

      It is out there on various free book sites.

  4. Making this a separate comment as it’s a tangent idea.

    I think indie publishing invites a second pulp writing golden age. It is a space not for the lovingly crafted, one book per decade novels of a Donna Tartt, but the ten plus novels a year of a Lester Dent (more details on the idea in Which Writing Guild.

    Now, in fairness, Tartt’s The Goldfinch is around 300,000 worlds while a Doc Savage novel was closer to 50,000, so she’s turning out in a decade about what he did in 7-8 months and the style are very different. If your goal is to write highbrow literary fiction you can’t work at Dent speed. It seems, however, to make your living at indie you need to write half-Dent speed at the least.

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