A useful tool

Lester Dent was a 1930s writer best known for writing around 95 percent of the long-running Doc Savage series, under the house name Kenneth Robeson (the house name ensured that when the publisher brought in another writer, nobody buying an issue would know). Somewhere along the way he offered his outline for writing a pulp story, which he claimed had stood him in good stead for everything from 6,000 words to 60,000.
To wit:

Different murder method (or normal method but bizarre circumstances). Different McGuffin. Different setting. Menace to hang over hero.

First Quarter:
1. First line or right afterwards, introduce hero, swat him with trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace, a problem for the hero to cope with.
2. Hero pitches in to cope with the trouble.
3. Introduce all other characters as soon as possible.
4. Hero winds up in physical conflict near end of first quarter.
5. Near end of first quarter, theres a complete plot twist.
This quarter must have suspense, a menace, and internal logic. Action must do more than advance the hero over the scenery.
Second quarter.
1. Shovel more grief on the hero.
2. Hero struggles, leading to another physical conflict and another plot twist.
Menace should grow, suspense should build, hero should get it in the neck.
Try to get one surprise to the printed page.
Third Quarter
1. Keep shoveling grief.
2. Hero makes headway. Corners villain or someone in-
3. Physical conflict.
4. Plot twist.
Hero should be in hell of a fix.
Fourth quarter.
Difficulties increase.
Hero is almost buried in his trouble.
Hero extricates himself.
Mysteries are cleared up–holding one big one to this point will help maintain interest.
Final twist or revelation, unmasking of villain, etc.

I’ve tried this sometimes when I have trouble plotting a story, and I’ve found it quite useful. Not for everything—Mage’s Masquerade isn’t a story of constant action or constant suspense—but writing The Savage Years, it really helped me set the pace and build the tension. It’s also been handy on Brain From Outer Space, making sure that the long middle of the novel throws fresh challenges at my protagonists instead of so much standing around in offices. I may try it on Dum-Dum-Diddle (which I’m now retitling Hey Diddle Diddle—yes, I know, HUGE difference!) where I think it would also work.
I’m not holding this up as a rule (“This is the structure all successful stories must have.”) as much as a tool. In years of reading writing advice, I’ve seen an awful lot of rules that, while they presumably worked for the person spouting them, didn’t seem terribly binding to me. Ultimately, the only rule is whether something helps you write better stories; while I’ve written a lot about matching beginnings to endings, it’s far from the only way to create a satisfying payoff.
But if anyone else can use Dent’s outline, I’m sure that wherever he may be now, he’ll be pleased.


Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Writing

10 responses to “A useful tool

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