Some years ago, I watched an episode of one of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s various cooking shows. In this particular episode he was making bread, and explained the difference between a recipe and a formula. To make a loaf of bread, you need to follow a very specific formula. Anyone who’s tried it understands what I mean. The exact proportion of ingredients really matters, or the bread won’t rise, or other various failure modes will strike.
A recipe, however, contains an enormous amount of latitude in ingredients and their proportions. One Italian grandmother’s meat gravy is going to be a lot different than the Italian grandmother next door’s. How much garlic you put in to your steak marinade is entirely up to you, but the proportion of water to baking soda in bread is fixed.
People use the words “formula” and “formulaic” to describe writing that they find lackluster or uncreative. Following an exact formula for bread is one thing, following an exact formula for creative writing is another.
The great pulp author Lester Dent, best known as the creator of Doc Savage, famously wrote down the “formula” for the perfect pulp short story. You can find it here, and I hope you’ll take a look.
Go ahead and rail at the idea of this sort of master outline. I’ve tried to use it once, and ended up wandering off the path pretty quickly, myself. Please believe me that I am in no way encouraging you to be “formulaic” in any way.
That having been said, though, I’m not sure it’s fair to call what Lester Dent created here a formula. To me it reads like a recipe. If you start cooking with a recipe for chili then decide to add a little more spice, use habañero peppers instead of jalapeños, or toss in a little beer (I always toss in a little beer), it’s still chili, it’s just stopped being the cookbook author’s formula for chili and morphed into your recipe.
Dent’s formula for a short story is actually less specific than the average food recipe, but in the same way that variations aside you and the cookbook author are both making chili, if you follow this outline you and Lester Dent are still writing a “pulp-style” thriller. And this recipe of Dent’s works as well for any genre, which makes it only less a formula.
I won’t reprint the entire document here, but there are a few pieces of advice in it that I think any author can and should pay attention to, regardless of your feelings about “pulp fiction” or fiction as entertainment, etc.
Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?
This comes at the end of Dent’s first chapter. These three questions are immensely valuable. It’s important to keep in mind, too, that there are an infinite number of definitions for the words “suspense” and “menace,” that don’t necessarily mean the same thing in, say, a romance as they do a crime thriller. “I think my boyfriend is cheating on me,” can be just as suspenseful as “There’s a strange noise coming from the attic.” In the same vein, “menace” can be taken as literally—someone with a knife is chasing your protagonist through the midnight streets of Chinatown—or as figuratively—your romantic rival has stolen your cell phone and is about to send your boyfriend a mean text message—as you wish.
As for whether or not it’s logical, I’ll refer you back to the many times I’ve opined on the subject of plausibility vs. reality and the absolute necessity to set your rules then follow them.
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.)
This may sound like simple advice when broken down to: Make sure something interesting is happening, but you might be surprised how many authors actually miss this. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in worldbuilding and minutiae. And don’t admire your hero so much that you make him or her infallible. A story in which everything goes precisely to plan and the hero knocks down each “attack” by the villain in turn then easily and predictably wins the day is a crappy story. Your readers want to read about people overcoming obstacles, or at least trying. If there’s nothing at stake, it’s just not interesting.
The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
I’ll give you lots of leeway on this one. I think there’s all sorts of good reasons why other characters can rescue your hero from the fix he’s in. But I think what Dent is trying to stress here is that your hero has to be an active participant in his own story. Do not forget that.
I invite you to try to write a story using Dent’s formula as a starter outline. You may just find it useful, but as with chili, which comes in a massive variety—different for each person who makes it—so should it be with short stories and novels. Even with a recipe in the background, no two will ever be the same.
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