It’s a Bit Formulaic, Wouldn’t You Say?

Here’s an important fact about me: I stink at storytelling.

I don’t struggle to write. When I have an ongoing project, I write every day. Maybe not the NaNoWriMo-approved 1,667 words, and sometimes not even the Chuck Wendig-approved 350, but I get some words on the screen. I’ve worked hard to cultivate that “thinking comes later” attitude that Luke mentions in his comment on Madeline’s Play 002 post.

But by the time I get to the end of the piece, whatever plot I thought I had when I started I find I’ve left behind somewhere, lost along the road to that one perfect bit of world-building or character detail. I was so caught up in the act of writing that I lost sight of the storytelling. This isn’t just me being hard on myself—friends who have read my work invariably say the same things: “what’s actually happening here?” or, worse, “why should I care?”

Here’s another important fact: I love pulp. Conan, Doc Savage, Lovecraft, all the old Weird Tales and Amazing Stories.1

This doesn’t seem to connect, right? An aspiring genre writer who loves the pulp classics and can’t tell a story? It’s just a little bit pathetic.

A few years back I came across Lester Dent’s Pulp Fiction Master Plot. Lester Dent, sometimes writing as Kenneth Robeson, was the head writer of Doc Savage and an occasional writer of The Shadow, characters generally regarded as the origin of our modern superheroes. Dent wrote over 170 stories and short novels during his career. Many of them, he said, he wrote using this formula, which was first publishing in Writers’ Digest in 1936. I went back and re-read a few Dent stories and, yep, there it was—every beat and every clever tip was immediately apparent once I knew what I was looking for.

Another fact: I’ve only got one university degree and it’s in English literature. I basically took every lit class they would let me. I’m no genius, but I’m not an unsophisticated reader.

And I missed it. On my first time through these old yarns, I did not even notice the formula. I might have called them formulaic, but I failed to see the literal formula. I was, you might note, so caught up in the storytelling that I lost sight of the writing.

I’ve been mulling over an Adventures in Storytelling piece for a long time. I knew, as soon as I saw James’s piece on reclaiming the title of “storyteller”, that I wanted to participate. That being a storyteller, and not just someone who gets words on the screen, was important to me.

So, I’m going to use the Adventures in Storytelling platform and I’m going to tell a goddamned story. I’m not going to let the fundamental act of telling a story get lost in the act of writing one.

And as fan of the pulps, what better way to do it than by using Lester Dent’s formula?

The next post you see from me will be a Central Pillar post with a further explanation of my project and a Left Pillar post with the first steps of Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot filled out with my story’s pieces. A week after that, I hope to have the first 1500 words written for the Left Pillar and a piece on what I learned in the Central Pillar. That’s the challenge—a post a week until the project is done; 1500 words of pure story a week.

  1. Yes, a great number of these stories are problematic in the extreme—racist, sexist, the works. I make no excuses for the creators, nor can I recommend them unreservedly. But if you can read them as artefacts of their time, which I understand is extra-challenging in these new days of President-elect Cheeto, they can be a great deal of mindless fun.

2 thoughts on “It’s a Bit Formulaic, Wouldn’t You Say?”

  1. Amanda, despite my late reply, I’ve very glad that you chose this article as a way to introduce yourself to Adventures in Storytelling. I think you and I have many interests in common. The draw to genre fiction and the old pulp masters is real (even if, as you rightly point out, the stories have aspects that can be difficult to swallow in our contemporary culture). I’m very interested to see where Adventures in Storytelling takes you, because I’ve always felt that the real draw to pulp was in how the stories are told. Howard’s colourful language, prose that rides the purple line pretty damn hard, somehow manages to bring the magic of Conan’s world to life. Scratch that, the words *are* the magic. It sounds to me like you’ve got that half of things down – bringing the plot forward is an interesting and exciting challenge.

    Reading this post made me realise that there is something currently missing from Adventures in Storytelling. As a network we’re growing, and we have the ability to share our experiences, but we have yet to use the central pillar to its full potential. Should you (or anybody) be facing a challenge and looking for input from the community, don’t be afraid to post an article that asks a question. We’ve been focused on providing solutions or explanations for our processes. I know I try to write with authority, but the humble truth is that I’m faking it, and I have questions and doubts that I hope Adventures in Storytelling can help me with. If you (or anybody!) feel the same, put those questions to the community. We might just discover something useful!

    1. Thanks James. I’m looking forward to being here! And I’m looking forward seeing (and asking) questions here.

      I do think those old pulp masters had a real handle on how to make the prose service the plot. Howard’s prose rode that purple line straight into the ground, I’m pretty sure, but it worked, whereas writers like Hammett were a great deal more spare — and that worked too.

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