I subscribe to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which comes into my inbox first thing every morning.  I enjoy starting the day with a poem and some interesting facts about writers and writing.

The October 12 entry introduced me to Lester Dent, a writer I had never heard of before.  Here’s the text that caught my eye:

It’s the birthday of Lester Dent, (books by this author) the American adventure and mystery novelist, born in La Plata, Missouri, in 1904. The Dents moved to a remote part of Wyoming when Lester was two years old. While he was a telegraph operator for the Associated Press, one of his co-workers published a story in a pulp magazine. Dent read it and thought that he could probably write a story that was at least as good, maybe even better. And since he had the graveyard shift, he started writing at work. His first story was accepted by a pulp magazine, so he and his family moved to New York, where he became a full-time writer of pulp fiction.

He’s most famous for his many stories and novels about Doc Savage, a superhuman scientist and adventurer. With the money he made from writing, Lester Dent was able to do all the things that interested him. He earned an amateur radio license, a pilot license, and he passed both the electricians’ and plumbers’ trade exams. He loved mountain climbing and exploring deserts and the tropics. He spent three years sailing around the Caribbean on his yacht, diving for treasure during the day and writing Doc Savage stories at night.

Dent wrote more than a thousand pulp fiction stories, all with the same formula, which he detailed in an article that explained an exact formula for writing a 6,000-word pulp story.

Here is the formula for the first 1,500 words:

  1. 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.
  2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
  3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
  4. Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1,500 words.
  5. Near the end of first 1,500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
For fun, and as a writing exercise, I might try out this formula with one of the stories from my own life.  I’m not sure what I would do with the “actual physical conflict” part of the story.   I can think of only two fights in my life.  Since I am both a pacifist and a woman, I might shake up the formula!
Formula, of course, has a terrible literary reputation.  On the other hand, it is possible to distill universal narrative patterns, even in the world’s best literature.  Joseph Campbell made the term “monomyth” popular and “the hero’s journey” a household name.
Scholars prefer particular research to universal generalizations such as Campbell makes, but no one has refuted the validity of the patterns he observed.
The hero’s journey follows the pattern of departure, initiation, and return. I am not a hero, but my story follows this pattern.  Does yours?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Susan Allstetter Neufeldt on October 19, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    I loved reading about Lester. It sounds as if he never made a big deal of writing, just did it. I am intrigued with his “formula,” as a model for anyone's story, even that of my wise characters. Certainly some of them encountered a physical conflict as in man against machine. I am imagining a story shorter than 1500 words that clarifies. I will be interested to see how you develop a memoir story with this model!

  2. shirleyhs on October 20, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Great to hear from you, Susan. Yes, it will be fun to see what happens. I have never attempted anything like this, but since structure is one of my challenges, it might be fun to see what happens when structure is set and all one has to do is create great character, setting, and variation on plot.I'm not sure what you meant about imagining a story shorter than 1500 words. Are you thinking of writing one yourself?

  3. […] Memoir, Formula, and the Hero’s Journey […]

Leave a Comment