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!

On the edge of a cliff

I’ve added an extra level of complication – and fun! – to my life by signing up for the Cliffhangers workshop taught by Dean Wesley Smith. This is the third class I’ve taken from Dean, and the first one I’ve taken online; he just started offering online workshops this year.

I’ve read lots of good cliffhangers, but finding the really great ones when you’re trying to look for examples to study is surprisingly difficult. One tried and true way to end a chapter or story section is to have your character become unconscious. They can faint, get hit over the head, be anesthetized…but just go try to find a scene like this in a book right now! It’s funny how hard it is to find examples of something you’ve seen done a zillion times.

Perseverance helps, and I’ve been learning more about how to write good cliffhangers by re-reading the ends of chapters – as well as the beginnings of chapters, because it’s important to start the next chapter in a way that supports, and often even enhances, the power of the cliffhanger.

To complement the class, I’ve been browsing through my writing books to see what other people have to say on the subject. I found this in Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass:

“Cliff-hangers are a tried and true, if clumsy, way to propel a reader from scene to scene or chapter to chapter.”

Maass is indeed correct that many, many books utilize cliffhangers in a simple way, and he points out that even when “clunky” they are still useful. Who doesn’t feel the tension when you have to put a book down not knowing if the hero will be able to escape from what is clearly imminent death? But there is a lot more you can do than leave your readers on pins and needles. You can reach into their hearts and squeeze.

This is done masterfully in Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. In the world the protagonist Lyra lives in, every human being has a ‘daemon’ which is essentially his or her soul in an animal form. One chapter ends with Lyra’s discovery of a young boy whose daemon has been severed from him; once severed a daemon can never be reattached. It’s a horrifying thing for Lyra to find, and it’s horrifying to the reader as well – partly because the reader feels Lyra’s pain, and partly because the concept of having one’s soul removed is so abhorrent. This cliffhanger is incredibly powerful is because it affects the reader on a deep emotional level.

Our standard way of looking at cliffhangers matches this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on cliffhangers:

“A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.”

That’s how I looked at cliffhangers before Dean’s class, but my viewpoint has changed. I now look at them instead as: what will make the reader feel compelled to turn the page? Whatever form your cliffhanger takes – whether there’s danger, or a secret is revealed, or you merely provide a subtle hint about something that might happen later – it should keep your readers up at night because they can’t put your book down. That’s what really matters, and that’s why I’m studying cliffhangers.

And since I’m on the topic of cliffs, here’s a photo I took while hanging off of one years ago:

Under the book cover

Designing a book cover is a lot of work.

Fortunately for me, Andrew is doing all of the hard stuff. I can look at an image and point out things I like or dislike, but coming up with the content in the first place is excruciatingly difficult for me.

Last weekend hammered this point home, as if I needed more clarification. Andrew had put together three possible cover designs, all incorporating a house in some way. I love this concept because Emma, the protagonist, is trapped in the house she was murdered in, and therefore the house is a major presence in the story. Out of the three designs, one jumped out immediately. The next step was for me to review potential images and fonts and provide Andrew with feedback so that he could make the cover fit the story even more.


One long and grueling weekend later I had come up with twelve potential house images, more than twenty font options, no new alternatives for the background image, and a significant amount of my hair had turned white. Fortunately I dye my hair so no one can tell, but I know it’s there.

For example, suppose the title was in this font:

That seems good enough, doesn’t it? But it makes sense to look at another for comparison, say:

I like the ‘P’ better in the second version, but then the C has those little bars on the edges. So maybe there’s a better alternative; possibly this one:

That one is nice too. It’s also wider than the other two – but is it too wide? Maybe the words should be larger and spread out a bit, like so:

And now you can see that the size of the font changes how you feel about it – at least it does for me. I liked the ‘a’ better in the third example – now it feels a little misshapen even though it’s the same font type. Maybe another font with different word placement…

Better? Worse? Throw in font colors, transparency (or not), multiple images…ack!!!!!

I find the power elements of a cover can have to be fascinating. Some fonts feel like they encourage the viewer to read the story, whereas others do just the opposite. Do they really? I have no idea. But it seems logical. It’s also been interesting to see the difference between the large cover, like what you’d see on a hardback or paperback, and the thumbnail image, which is what you’d see if you were browsing on a site like Amazon. A design might work well for the larger image, but not the smaller – for example, the house and background images blended together in the thumbnail for the first version of the current design. That was fine because that version was intended to be a proof of concept, but it was a good lesson for me because it took me a full week before I thought to look at the thumbnail. (I’m sure Andrew knew all of this from the start…remember I said this is not my strong suit…)

At least I knew up front that this was not my forte, so Andrew gets to do what he’s good at, I can provide feedback – which feels doable, now that we’re past the initial image and font selection – and I can focus on something fun, like wrapping up the last few manuscript revisions!

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