Formulating with Lester Dent

One of the things that Dean Wesley Smith likes to mention in his writing classes is the Lester Dent Formula. Dent was a pulp fiction writer – he’s most famous as the creator and main author of the Doc Savage stories.

A few weeks ago it was getting late and I didn’t feel up to the task of removing a minor thing that wasn’t working as planned from my novel. (Minor, but present all throughout the book…so a lot of work.) I wanted to do something writing-related that was a little less intensive, so I decided to work on the outline for my next book. Then I got the notion to try out Dent’s formula on my outline, and:

Dent’s “formula” is designed for a 6,000-word story, but it can be applied just as well to a novel. He breaks each story up into four 1,500-word chunks something like this:

  • Introduce the hero, lots of problems, all of the characters, and have a physical conflict and a plot twist near the end of the section.
  • More trouble, another physical conflict, and another plot twist.
  • More trouble, the hero starts to make progress, then another plot twist that doesn’t go well for the hero.
  • Even more trouble! The hero gets out of trouble on his own, all the mysteries are resolved, and there’s a final twist/surprise.

At the end of each section ask yourself if there is suspense, menace, and whether or not everything has happened logically.

This looks an awful lot like the 7-point plot outline, which I will sum up briefly (each ‘point’ is numbered):

  • open with a (1) character, in a (2) setting, with a (3) problem
  • the character (4) tries to solve the problem and (5) fails (repeat if appropriate)
  • the character makes a (6) final attempt to solve the problem and (7) either fails or succeeds (depending on the grimness of the story)

Obviously your character will be in a setting whether you focus on it or not. The reason this is one of the points is that without sufficiently grounding the reader in the setting, your story will not be as engaging.

This approach is actually quite similar to Dent’s outline. The things that stand out to me in Dent’s formula are:

  • He’s got major plot twists in each of the four sections. Even the end of the story has a twist. He also is explicit that each twist should go at the end of its section.
  • Dent’s formula calls for multiple try/fail sequences. This isn’t really different from the 7-point plot outline, which calls for one or more – but Dent explicitly requires at least one try/fail sequence per section.
  • Dent emphasizes physical conflict. This makes sense considering the stories he was writing. My interpretation of this is that physical conflict is something dire, so if you’re writing a less physical story, this can still apply with non-physical conflict – the key is that it should grip the reader.
  • The hero must resolve his problems on his own. This implies a high level of tension since the reader will be very focused on the hero, and will feel a greater sense of reward when the hero saves the day.

I should reiterate that I have only started to play with Dent’s formula, but I’ve already made improvements to my outline that will pay off in the novel. And as an extra bonus, I’ve added some swell 1930s stories to my reading list!

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