Lester Dent’s master plot

[Updated to repair the broken link to Dent’s plot.]

Lester Dent was an incredibly fast, prolific, and successful writer during the 1930s through 1950s best known for creating the character Doc Savage, about whom he wrote over 150 novels.

And that was just some of his output, which also included everything from short stories to radio plays to nonfiction. Amazingly he had time left over to intensely pursue a series of hobbies, becoming a licensed pilot, amateur radio operator, plumber, and electrician as well as a member of the Explorer’s Club and an avid mountain climber. For a few years in the late 1930s he and his wife sailed around on a 40-foot schooner. When Dent died in 1959 he was only 54 years old.

Many years ago I ran across an article he wrote describing his “master plot” for a 6000-word adventure short story. It was, he said right up front, a formula, and he made it clear that as far as he was concerned there was not a damn thing wrong with that. Written in a breezy, tongue-in-cheek style seasoned with 1930s slang, it crams a lot of practical advice into barely more than 2500 words. In recent years I’ve seen copies of it various places on line, but they seemed to be abbreviated; things I thought I remembered reading in the original were missing. Then just a few days ago I ran across a complete copy on the official Dent website.

Update: Alas, that link is now gone to its reward in the great beyond, so here are some alternatives in the hope that one stays alive:

  • Wikipedia’s article on Dent (link) has a link to the plot that one might hope will be maintained. (Scroll down to “External Links.”)
  • Karen Woodward’s description [link] of Dent’s formula with some excerpts from it and her own commentary on it.
  • Another page (link) simply quoting Dent’s article.
  • And another (link).

(I’m not sure any of the foregoing actually has the full text of the piece I recall reading originally, since I remembers Dent’s having written a preamble in which he said something about taping a summary to the wall over his typewriter, but I might be mis-remembering, and in any case the substance of his formula is in the version of the text most commonly found on line. Try doing a search for “Lester Dent pulp paper master plot” or something on that order should you want to embark on your own quest for a longer version.)

It’s not exactly a guide to creating fine literature, but it’s instructive and entertaining, and if you’ve got a few minutes, give it a look.

While you’re at it, you might want to check out Planetary Stories and Pulp Spirit, a pair of on-line magazine in the tradition of popular fiction of Dent’s era edited by Shelby Vick and Gerald W. Page. The quality of the stories is surprisingly high.

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