FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 18

Diving once more into the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we come to:

Um… That’s supposed to be C. Franklin Miller… And there’s an interesting typo in the first paragraph, too:

…a certain emotion, a certain

tensity, that his friends…

I bet the linotype operator felt he’d already typed the first two letters in intensity but it was only the last two letters in certain. I make that sort of mistake myself from time to time. I unconsciously want to invent the word bothe, which means both the, but without so much typing. I guess this issue of Weird Tales was put together with the same tensity as the rest of the fast-to-market pulps of the era.

Moving on from that, I wonder if we can look at this story through the lens of Lester Dent’s (in)famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, which I use as the cornerstone of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, the current session of which is wrapping up this week. If you aren’t familiar with Lester Dent, he’s the co-creator of Doc Savage and wrote most of the Doc Savage stories (under the pseudonym Kenneth Roberson) as well as dozens and dozens of other works of fiction across an array of genres. His “formula” first appeared in Writer’s Digest in the early 1940s and has been passed around from author to author ever since, of course ending up on the Internet. You can click here to find the full text.

Dent breaks his 6000-word short stories down into four sections of 1500 words each. Rather than estimate word counts here, I’ll just go ahead and divide the seven pages this story took up in the magazine by four, so we’ll see how each 1.75-page section fits into Dent’s formula. Of course, this story predates the formula itself, so I don’t mean to imply that C. Franklin Miller was actually using it, or anything like it, but the experiment is worth running for its own sake.

Before we even begin writing, Dent has us consider these four important elements:

  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 THAT IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

Rather than identify those up front, let’s see what, in “Fog,” we might match up to those categories as we discover them. In the meantime, here’s what Lester Dent says should happen in the first quarter of the story:

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.

Assuming Moisell is our hero, we get his name as the first word in the second sentence, so, so far so good. In the first line, though, we learn a little about Moisell, and that’s that he’s a hell of a guy. A real man’s man. An international man of mystery, you might even say. There are hints at a mystery—Moisell doesn’t seem to like to talk about dinosaurs?—but by the end of the first column all I know is that Moisell is super cool. There’s no particular problem to be solved. And is C. Franklin Miller a bit too fond of his hero?

As an aside, am I wrong to just love this sentence, which I don’t think could ever be written, at least without irony, now? Young Donaldson, “Long Jim” Haney and myself were boring each other over a couple of highballs down in the grill of the Bachelors’ Club…Go ahead, tell me the Bachelors’ Club isn’t actually a gay bar, and I’ll explain how Jim Haney got that nickname.

Anyway, still no problem to be solved at the end of the first page—get it together, C. Fraklin… Franklin… whatever your name is!

Okay, finally…

“Just the same,” put in the irrepressible Donaldson, tapping his glass, “I’ll bet you get more kick out of a dead dinosaur than you could out of a dozen of these.”

“Humph!” snorted Bonner disdainfully. “Dead ones, indeed!”

He glanced hurriedly around the room with an elaborate air of mystery and then leaned across the table as if about to divulge some momentous secret.

“How about the kick of a live one!” he whispered.

Ooh… okay, Bonner has seen a live dinosaur.

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

At the end of the second page (which we’ll call 1.75 pages, or a quarter of the way through, since maybe a quarter of the first page is taken up with the title illustration), we do at least have Moisell “pitching in” with the expedition to Patagonia in search of dinosaurs, even if the “action” is still limited to a lively discussion at the Bachelors’ Club.

Introduce all the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.

We meet the boys, and get through some serious male bonding, so Miller is in line with Dent on this score, but he doesn’t really “bring them on in action.”

Still, the real utility of something like Dent’s “formula” is in the quotes around “formula,” which is to say, the degree of freedom you afford yourself in interpreting words like “action,” “grief, “menace,” and so on. We do at least meet the club members in conversation, glad-handing and boozing it up at the Bachelors’ Club. I’ll give this one to C. Franklin.

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

But here C. Franklin Miller totally blows it, at least according to what Lester Dent will map out some sixteen years later. This first quarter of the story has no physical conflict at all—or even any reasonable stretch of the definition of “conflict.”

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

Likewise, Miller fails at providing what I would call a “complete surprise twist,” in that there’s a plan to go find the descendants of the dinosaurs, which Moisell postulates might be roaming the wilds of Patagonia, but that follows from the rest of the “action” of the story thus far. If I were C. Franklin Miller’s post-Dent pulp adventure story editor, I’d have him cut this whole first section, open with a dinosaur, then backfill the whole story of how they got there—if necessary.

This is a good example of knowing when to start your story.

Especially with a short story, you have very few words to waste, and need to grab your readers as quickly as possible—immediately, really—with something happening in the first sentence, not even just the first paragraph. And again, this thing that’s happening doesn’t have to be a fistfight or a shootout, just some action (defined as a character doing something) that at least hints at a conflict (there’s at least one other character that doesn’t like what the first character is doing).

That sounds awfully broad—and it is. On purpose. I don’t like the idea of writing to a strict formula any more than anyone else, but if you look at this, as I urge people who take my Pulp Fiction Workshop to do, as a set of reminders rather than strict instructions, you’ll get your story started not when the idea first came up over drinks, but right at the moment it all started going terribly wrong.

Speaking of live dinosaurs, think about the first scene in the movie Jurassic Park. It doesn’t open with Dr. Grant in Montana, it opens with guys loading some unknown thing into a pen, and that unknown thing eats one of them.

Steven Spielberg knows this better than anyone: action first, explanation later, or what I’ve called “punch, push, explain.”

And finally, has Miller touched on any of the four elements Dent asked us to consider before even starting? This first quarter does establish that they’re at least planning on going to A DIFFERENT LOCALE, so we’ll give him that one.

We’ll see how the rest of “Fog” matches up with Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot in the weeks ahead.

Stay tuned!

 

—Philip Athans

 

Starting this Thursday, July 11!

Get in touch with what scares your readers… and yourself in my two-week online Writers Digest University course

Horror Writing Intensive:Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 18

  1. Pingback: FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 19 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Pingback: FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 20 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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