Happy Birthday, Lester Dent

Today marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of Lester Dent, a/k/a Kenneth Robeson.

Not exactly a household name these days, eh? But in his time, which occupied a substantial chunk of the first half of the last century (he died young, in 1959), Dent was one of the most prolific and most successful writers on the planet. And it all came from a single character, the protagonist of — according to Wikipedia — 190 novels to date, and scads of stories. (Nearly all the books are credited exclusively to Dent, with the majority of the others, even those published long after his death, giving him at least partial credit. The “Kenneth Robeson” whose name actually appeared on the covers, though, was just a pseudonym.)

That protagonist: Doc Savage.

Doc was a man of insanely enormous talents: a superhero, yes, but also a super-scientist, a super-adventurer, and a super-all-round-great-guy. Here’s Wikipedia‘s summary:

Doc Savage, whose real name is Clark Savage, Jr., is a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and musician — a renaissance man. A team of scientists assembled by his father trained his mind and body to near-superhuman abilities almost from birth, giving him great strength and endurance, a photographic memory, mastery of the martial arts, and vast knowledge of the sciences. Doc is also a master of disguise and an excellent imitator of voices, though he admits to having trouble with women’s voices. “He rights wrongs and punishes evildoers.” Dent described the hero as a mix of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive abilities, Tarzan’s outstanding physical abilities, Craig Kennedy’s scientific education, and Abraham Lincoln’s goodness. Dent described Doc Savage as manifesting “Christliness.” Doc’s character and world-view is displayed in his oath, which goes as follows:

Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

(In later editions of the books’ covers, Doc looked less like Gary Cooper — upon whom his appearance was reported to be originally modeled — and more like the PC game character Duke Nukem, as you can see at the left.)

There’s copious information on the Web about Doc Savage, and many of the books remain in print. But in this post, I want to focus your attention on Lester Dent. In particular, I want to highlight what he called his “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” of which he said:

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air [!]. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

Much of modern genre fiction springs from the pulps, of course, and equally obvious is that modern mainstream commercial fiction has learned quite a bit from genre fiction. (E.g., see Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) So I thought it might be instructive to share Dent’s “formula,” actually several short lists of traits the optimal tale displays. Of these lists, the most interesting (to me) were those in which he described how each 1500-word chunk of the 6000-word story should unfold.

Here they are, in full and in his words:

First 1500 words:

  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 the first 1,500 words.
  5. Near the end of first 1,500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

Second 1500 words:

  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.

Third 1500 words:

  1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain 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.

And the final 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 can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)
  6. The snapper, the punch line to end it.

(You can currently find the whole of Dent’s essay online here.)

Key nouns in all these lists include hero, villain, grief (always the hero’s, and Dent obviously meant grief metaphorically), conflict (often physical), and surprise or twist (especially big ones).

I’m going to pull a Marta here and throw this back on you as a writer of fiction, whether you work in short or long forms, and whether you write genre or non-genre stuff: Do you see any lessons for you in these lists? What’s relevant? What doesn’t count, at least anymore? Consciously or not, do you think your own work, repeatedly, is structured in something like four acts, internally following “rules” of some sort? What would your own formula for a successful story look like, whatever your definition of “success”? What are your own “key nouns”?

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  1. Oh my gosh, I’m an idiom! Ha.

    I don’t have a list of rules or a formula exactly, but when I rewrite my rough draft, I try to make connections, increase the tension, find the cliffhangers, and get the ending. Try being the operative word here.

    But even for stories not pulp fiction, the rules make sense–not to follow blindly, but to keep in mind for a story that will keep a reader with you page after page. That’s what we want, isn’t it?

  2. @marta – Figured you might get a laugh out of that. :)

    I have to admit I’m torn on the “isn’t that what we want?” question.

    Sure, I’d hate to lose a single reader, let alone LOTS of readers, because I’ve insufficiently maintained their interest.

    On the other hand, gimmicks like cliffhanger chapter endings and such feel cheap, y’know?

    So the question then becomes, if you DON’T use time-honored techniques of maintaining suspense (or at least interest), then how do you keep the pages turning?

  3. Well, I think there are plenty areas of life where the if-it-feels-cheap-don’t-do-it rule applies. If I have a story that could benefit from this kind of structure, then great. But there are always other structures that work.

    Though I also want to add that I don’t go by any word marker–x number of words means plot twist here. But I do try to go for the chapter ending that begs for the next chapter.

  4. @marta – I thought of your last point, too. Tried to imagine Lester Dent (or anybody) counting the words, getting to (say) 1300 words, and freaking out to find a plot twist there. Kind of like, “Oh crap… now I’ve got to pad it out!” :)

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