In my look, last April, at the book Science Fiction Handbook, Revised, by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp (Owlswick Press, 1975), I wrote:

Speaking of the pulp tradition, the de Camps quote Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton’s “formula” for a science fiction story that I think makes for a perfectly usable short story prompt:

Three men go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

I ran across that again in one of my notebooks in the past week or so, and it got me thinking, Why haven’t I tried this mini-formula myself? Does it, as much as any fiction formula could, have any validity? And in any case, where did this come from?

Strangely enough, the internet has failed me on at least the latter question. Searching for the text itself, even in small snippets with the names of the authors credited for it, came up with only my original post. Far be it from me to accuse the de Camp’s of getting this wrong, but maybe they heard it from the author’s themselves?

In any case, it seems only to have been repeated in that now long out of print book, and here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. If for no other reason, that makes me want to try to bring it back—at least put it up for discussion—all the more.

So then, as formula’s go, this one is about as short and sweet as I’ve ever seen, closer to my own attempt at the shortest articulation of story structure:

The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.

But I’ve written short stories from no less sketchy writing prompts, so I feel entirely justified in calling Williamson and Hamilton’s formula that at least—a prompt. But let’s break it down some more, one sentence or phrase at a time, but first, of course, there’s the obvious updating of the language we can quickly pull off:

Three people go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

Starting, then, with:

Three people go out to save the world.

This implies that we’ve thought about what it is they’ve actually set out to save the world from. This sort of scrapes against my “the villain starts the story” idea in that Williamson and Hamilton seem to be putting the goals of the heroes first. But then, are they? If they have some idea to save the world then someone or something (the villain) must be threatening the world in the first place. And yes, the “villain” of a story could be something like climate change, the Cold War, etc. So… okay, we’re sort of on the same page there.

Still, not every story begins with someone trying to save the world. These three characters, who we are not told we have to think of as either heroes or villains, per se, might enter the story looking for all sorts of things, and end up either saving the world, or failing to save the world, after being confronted by the Things that drive one crazy and eat another. Even assuming we don’t necessarily have to take the next two items in order, let’s look at:

One goes mad,

Now it sounds like we’re writing an H.P. Lovecraft story, which is fun, but what if we play around with the meaning of “goes mad”? Could whatever it is that happens, whatever they encounter, turn one of these three people into, or reveal that one of these people always has been, the villain? Think about what I brought up in Writing Monsters, which is that some monsters are really forces of nature, not villains at all, but their threat brings out the good or evil in the characters that confront them. Could this first person “go mad” and become the Thing that eats the next person? Could “going mad” take the form of chickening out and fleeing the story all together? Could that character “go mad” and decide to join the Things?

Obviously, the answer to all these rhetorical questions is: you can write any story in whatever way you want, so yes, all that can happen as you wish. But in terms of the “legitimacy” of the mini-formula in question, this freedom to define “goes mad” tells me to keep that in there, though maybe not in so many words. Same is true for:

one is eaten by the Things,

This one’s easy, in its literal sense. We’ve come to know this character as the “red shirt,” and I’ll link you back to a bigger discussion of that subject, but in short, this is the character, like an anonymous actor wearing a red uniform in Star Trek, who shows us how the monster (or other dangerous “Thing”) works. Monsters are always scarier when they actually hurt of kill someone, and William Shatner is under contract.

Of course, the undefined “Things” could be a non-living thing: a bit of technology gone out of control, a blizzard, a pandemic, an ideology… there are limitless definitions of “Things.” This is really whatever they have a problem with—whatever gets in their way. And, of course, no one actually has to be literally killed. That character can be seen to have been defeated in some way, taken out of the story, harmed, dismissed… and so on.

Even if there is no happy ending to your story, per se, you could still end up with: 

and one returns to tell the tale.

Even then, I might say this is optional. I’m kind of a sucker for the everybody-dies-in-the-end ending, and if we’re starting out with the Lovecraftian descent into madness, why feel we have to end with some version of the Final Girl (or Boy, or whatever)? Usually, Lovecraft has the character who goes mad tell the tale.

Still, I think this can be left in since most stories do end with someone making it out alive. And again, maybe no one dies, no one is literally eaten, but this third person is the hero of the story in one sense of the word or another. Some resolution is arrived at by this third character. Of course, there really is no requirement that anyone get back to where they started. In fact, that might be the opposite of the story you want to tell. What if, instead of going out to save the world, your three people go out into space to find an earthlike planet that will serve as our new home as the climate collapses on Earth? We don’t want them to return, we want them to go forward.

Then, of course, are we now limiting ourselves, even in a short story where that sounds like a good number, to only three characters? We should give ourselves some leeway on that, too, so all that considered, can I rewrite the esteemed Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton like this?

At least three people go out to do something. At least one is revealed to be or have a problem; at least one is hurt, killed, or otherwise eliminated by their shared problem; and one carries the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Hell, I think we might have something here.

—Philip Athans

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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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  1. mjtedin says:

    This is a great idea to get the creative juices flowing. I love the idea of redefining the tropes. Villains as forces of nature. Going mad as some psychological weakness. Eaten by monsters as being killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed by the villain/force of nature.

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