Thursday, May 6, 2010

Short story by numbers?

I spent part of last night catching up on reading some blogs and came across an interesting post on Pulp Serenade about how to churn out a succession of short stories using the method of Lester Dent (pen name Kenneth Robeson and creator of 'Doc Savage') who was a pulp master in the 1930s grinding out up to 200,000 words a month. Dent claimed to have created the perfect formula for compelling stories c.6,000 words in length, which were accepted for publication without fail. These effectively boil down to the following (a fuller explanation from Dent in an article first published in 1936 available here).

1—FIRST LINE, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.

2—The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

3—Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in Action.

4—Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of first 1500 words.

5—Near end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.


1—Shovel more grief onto the hero.

2—Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

3—Another physical conflict.

4—A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.


1—Shovel the grief onto the hero, who continues to fight back, most heroically.

2—Hero makes some headway, and corners the villains or somebody in:

3—A physical conflict.

4—A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.


1—Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

2—Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist).

3—The hero extricates himself, using HIS OWN skill, training or brawn.

4—The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

5—Final twist, a big surprise. (This one can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “treasure” a dud, etc.)

6—The snapper, the punch line, to end it."
Next story - vary one or more of the following:
1—A different murder method for villain to use.
2—A different thing for villain to be seeking.
3—A different locale.
4—A menace which is to hang like a cloud over hero.

I think I might have a go at using this formula in the next couple of months and see what I come up with, perhaps reducing it down a little in length. All I've got to now is come up with a story that involves four 'surprising plot twists'. However it turns out it should at least be exciting, right? Thanks to Cullen Gallagher at Pulp Serenade for sharing.

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