The next run of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop starts up day after tomorrow (March 5) and it’s got me thinking about pulp “master” Lester Dent again. The course centers around the famous “how to” article “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot” in which the co-creator and principal author of Doc Savage (writing under the house name Kenneth Robeson) lays out how to write a six thousand word short story in the pulp style. There’s a lot of solid advice there for anyone looking to write entertaining genre fiction of any length. I’ve also posted and discussed a separate article of his on choosing names for your characters…
Lester Dent had some useful things to say. I’ve used the “formula” (and you can read here about how it’s actually more like a recipe than a formula) myself with some success, as have people who’ve gone through that workshop.
But what about Lester Dent himself?
You probably don’t even know his name. You might have some passing familiarity with the character Doc Savage, but maybe not—he’s slipped into obscurity in the last, oh, maybe thirty years. Because Lester Dent wrote using a number of pseudonyms, in magazines that haven’t seen the light of day since World War II, you might even have a hard time tracking down his work.
So then why learn how to write from an author who wrote a lot of throwaway pulp fiction seventy or eighty years ago but who few people remember? Why not seek out advice from Ray Bradbury or Stephen King or Orson Scott Card?
Well, you should read those other books. Lester Dent has, as you’ll see here, little if anything to teach us about writing. But Lester Dent actually does have a lot to teach us about storytelling.
And yes, there is a difference. I would submit that a lot of authors who’ve sold a lot of books were terrible writers. The craft either eludes them or fails to interest them. You might be hard pressed to find a clever turn of phrase, a quotation to last the ages, in any of Stephenie Meyer’s huge best-sellers. You might not feel your heart soar at the subtle artistry of Lee Childs. But clearly they know how to tell a story that readers respond to, even if they don’t set out to stretch the art of literature at the same time.
This hit me particularly hard when I actually sat down to read some of Lester Dent’s fiction.
His “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot” isn’t about the craft of writing at all. It’s all about the craft of storytelling. In it he asks questions like, “Does it have suspense? Is there a menace to the hero? Does everything happen logically?” Here’s what Lester Dent says the first quarter of your story should contain:
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.
The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
Introduce all the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
He really only talks about writing once:
Don’t tell about it, show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader—show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) Make the reader see him.
Maybe the most “basic” writing advice of all.
I set out to read some of Lester Dent’s actual work and was, at first, horrified by how terrible it was. Follow the links in these purple passages for detailed complaints on certain elements…
Something swished by one ear. A heavy form lunged toward him. Ham spun, fast as a dancer, jerked the long blade of his sword free from the cane.
Big arms wrapped around him. The sword was knocked from his hand to fall on the thick carpet of the hallway. Ham’s elbow shot back, landed with satisfying solidness just below the ribs.
—Doc Savage: The Living Fire Menace (1938)
For years it was Lester Dent’s full time job to fill the pages of Doc Savage Magazine with novel-length tales of daring do. He was writing to a demanding word count minimum that must have felt at times like an impossible task. I don’t think anyone writes fiction like this anymore. Throughout the Doc Savage stories it’s plain to see where he’s simply padding sentences, saying things in as many words as he felt he could get away with, like “The sword was knocked from his hand to fall on the thick carpet of the hallway.” That’s sixteen words. This is eleven: “The sword was knocked from his hand to the hallway carpet.” And it could just as easily be seven: “The sword was knocked from his hand.”
Dent was even back then sort of notorious for just… not… getting… women…
She became downcast. Probably, she thought, she should be ashamed of herself for causing Doc Savage so much trouble. She had not helped Doc’s effort by getting, or trying to get, into the excitement. The only result had been that Doc had been forced to take time off to trick her into going back to New York.
I’m a miserable nuisance, she reflected. I don’t help. I make Doc mad. I take up his time. I don’t do a bit of good. I should stick to the beauty shop business.
—Doc Savage: The Hate Genius (1945)
Lots of extra words follow:
Doc flipped a gas capsule and it fell at the feet of the foremost man. But the rush carried the men over the gas before it could become effective. The bronze man was holding his own breath. Then an automatic pistol slashed its blaze into the gloomy basement. And a sizzling stream of ammonia searched for Doc’s eyes and nostrils.
—Doc Savage: Cold Death (1936)
Okay, I’m an editor. I’m accustomed to reading rough draft or first draft text. Once I slipped into that mode my reading of Lester Dent got easier and the story was able to shine through. He, in fact, was a terrific storyteller. All the stuff I’ve read of his clips right along with plenty of menace and action and suspense and grief… It’s perfectly fair to call it “plot driven.” But it’s fun as hell.
So we really can learn from a master storyteller while recognizing that he either never was, or was never allowed to be, a particularly skilled writer.
You try writing a complete novel every month, to strict deadline and word count demands, then tell me if you’re feeling more like Lester “Kenneth Robeson” Dent or Victor “Twelve Years to Write Les Misérables” Hugo. What I hope we’re all striving for now is a balance between, or the highest levels possible of both compelling storytelling and beautiful writing. But even stressing quality over quantity I tend to think you should take less than twelve years to write any novel, though certainly more than a month. I wrote a novel in about two months once and have regretted it ever since!
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