Lester Dent Pulp Story Formula

Tags: Story Structure Writing

Prolific pulp writer Lester Dent (Doc Savage) outlines a simple master plot for crafting short (6000-word) stories.

A story needs at least one of 1) a different murder method for the villain to use; 2) a different thing for the villain to be seeking; 3) a different locale; and/or 4) a menace that hangs over the hero.

A 6000-word story will comprise four 1500-word sections:

First 1500 words

  • Introduce the hero as soon as possible (in the first line if possible) and immediately put him in danger or trouble
  • The hero tries the solve the problem
  • Introduce all the other characters
  • The hero's efforts put him in actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words

The story needs suspense, a meaningful threat or menace, and it must fit together logically. The first 1500 words should propel the reader into the next 1500.

Second 1500 words

  • Introduce more problems and challenges for the hero
  • The hero must struggle, leading to…
  • Another physical conflict and
  • A surprising plot twist near the end of the second section

The menace must grow in the second section, and the hero must take his lumps.

Third 1500 words

  • More grief for the hero
  • The hero should make progress, and corner the villain (or one of his agents) in…
  • Physical conflict
  • Followed by another plot twist, which constitutes a major setback for the hero

Avoid monotony. Change up the physical threats. Build atmosphere with sensual imagery. Make every word count.

Fourth 1500 words

  • More difficulties for our hero
  • The hero must get buried: this is the moment when everything is lost
  • The hero must extricate himself from his troubles through his own skills, training, or strength
  • Introduce a final twist, e.g. the villain is an unexpected person; the treasure is worthless
  • Have a great punch line at the end that leaves the reader with a warm feeling


Dent 1990