Roots of Pulp

Posted: July 5, 2008 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

You always return to your roots.

Whether that’s good or bad depends on what kind of funky muck your roots are attached to, but in terms of writing, I’m feeling a strong pull from my earliest literary influences. Post-Seuss, at least.

As boy, I had a shelf loaded with Tom Swift, Jr. books. I had every one of the books on this page, and still have a shabby copy of “Tom Swift and his Flying Lab.” I gave this to my ten-year-old son, a sophisticated reader raised on a diet of Harry Potter, The Orphans Baudelaire and Artemis Fowl. He didn’t get the motivation of the characters, but found the action entertaining, and it made an interesting jumping off point to discuss thermonuclear war.

The books may be best remembered (or forgotten) as the birthplace of the Tom Swifty, a type of adverbial pun: “I need a pencil sharpener,” said Tom bluntly. Yep, muy obnoxico, but I didn’t notice them, being more into the atomic flying sky labs and other neat-o cool-o Cold War gadgetry.

Then, I discovered The Man of Bronze: Doc Savage. These stories first appeared in pulp magazines of the 40’s, but were repackaged in the 60’s as paperbacks. Lester Dent wrote these under the pen-name Kenneth Robeson. Dent was a prolific writer, and while his stories were formulaic, it must was a good formula. Hell, they’re just good writing. Like my great-grandfather said, “with that good cream and butter, you can make a cake out of a rock.”

I’m pleased to report that I found the recipe. I’ve seen this described as a “four-arc plot” in other books on writing, and the idea probably predates Doc Savage, but Dent’s description of it is crystal clear.

From the Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot**, William Denton’s Miskatonic University Press:

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has
worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here’s how it starts:

  1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
  2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
  3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
  4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

Once you’ve got your “differents” down, divide and conquer:

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:

First 1500 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 endeavours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
  5. Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?

I’m working on a story, Pecked, that I half-finished a few months ago (yes, there are woodpeckers.) I got sick of it and slapped a half-assed ending on it as part of my policy of completion. I put it on the shelf for a while so that I could come back to it without making myself sick.

I think the Lester Method may be just what the doctor ordered, so I’m revising it to follow — more or less — the recipe.

Next time, I’m going to talk about the story and see how I can fit it into the master plan. Normally, I tend to let things just flow and connect the dots later. Although this has worked well for short stories up to about 5000 words, beyond that there’s just too much information to keep in my brain.

This word count to brain cell problem seems like an exponential function, so that a 10000 word story is not twice has hard to manipulate than a 5000 word story, it’s 20 times.

That’s my brain, my attention span, anyway. Or what’s left of it.

** By Lester Dent. (Posted in October 1995 to alt.pulp by Jason A. Wolcott; taken from “Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage,” by Marilyn Cannaday (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990), a biography of Lester Dent.)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s