Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Six-Figure Master Fiction Plot

writing a novel, plotting, outlining
By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton  

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

Ever wish you could write a novel in just a matter of weeks . . . and then sell it for good money?

Lester Dent knew how. He wrote his first novel in just 13 days. Over the course of his career, he wrote nearly 200 novel-length stories, mostly for the Doc Savage series. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he wrote a book nearly every month.

He also crammed the pages of pulp fiction magazines with short stories cranked out under various pen names. During the Great Depression, while legions of writers were starving, he boasted that he made $18,000 a year with his writing. In today's terms, that's more than $250,000 a year.

How did he do it? He used a very specific formula. He called it his “Master Plot.”

Introducing Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot

On the wall over his typewriter, Dent had tacked up four typewritten pages, which are now kept in a museum.

Dent claimed that he sold every single story he wrote using this formula. After he revealed this formula in 1936, he received 780 letters from aspiring writers who used it to write and sell their first stories.

Here's what was on those four typewritten pages.

How the Master Fiction Plot Works

Before plotting out a story, Dent advises the writer to begin by brainstorming four different types of new ideas: the murder method (for mysteries), the villain's goal, the locale, and the menace.
  • Murder method. Detective stories made up the bulk of pulp fiction, and most murder victims were done in by shooting or stabbing. Dent emphasizes the importance of brainstorming new possibilities, going so far as to suggest poisonous scorpions or deadly germs. A different method or unusual circumstances are more likely to grab the reader’s interest. 
  • Villain's goal. Typical pulp fiction villains are always after the same things: jewels, sunken treasure, loot from a bank robbery, etc. If you can have your villain pursuing something unusual, it will help set your story apart. 
  • Locale. Dent advocates setting your story in a place familiar to you, where you have lived or worked. But if you want to set your story somewhere more exotic, he recommends doing just enough research to convince the editor that you know the place. One trick he often used was sprinkling the dialogue with a few words in the local language, without explaining their meaning. 
  • Menace. Because pulp fiction plots depended on continuous action, some constant threat needs to hang around your hero “like a black cloud.” 
You don't have to come up with brand-new ideas for all four elements. But you do need at least one or two interesting new things.

plotting, outlining, writing a novel
What's at the heart of your story idea?

Next, Divide Your Story into Four Parts

This is the most important part of the formula. Think of your story as being divided into four quarters. For a typical 6,000 word story, that means four equal parts of 1,500 words each.

Here's what to put in each part of the story:

Part One
  • Introduce the hero in the very first line, and immediately hit him with what Dent called “a fistful of trouble.” Entice the reader with a mystery, impose a dangerous menace, or present a problem that only the hero can solve. 
  • Show the hero trying to crack the mystery, vanquish the menace, or solve the problem. 
  • In the opening pages, introduce all of the other characters. Important: bring these characters onto the page already engaged in action.
  • Because of the hero's efforts, he winds up in a physical conflict near the end of this section. 
  • Finish this section with a complete twist in the plot. Make sure that it moves the story forward, and gives the hero a next step to pursue. 
  • Stop to review your story so far. Does it contain suspense? Is the hero in danger? Has everything so far happened logically? 
Part Two
  • Pile more difficulties onto the hero. 
  • Show the hero struggling to overcome these difficulties. 
  • Introduce another physical conflict near the end of this section, different from the last one. If the previous conflict was a fist fight, make this one a sword fight, or a chase, or something else. 
  • End of this section with another plot twist. 
  • Again, pause to evaluate your story so far. Is it suspenseful? Is it logical? Is the menace growing heavier? 
Part Three
  • Heap even more grief onto the hero. Show the hero continuing to fight back. 
  • The hero makes progress, and manages to corner the villain or another opponent in a vivid physical conflict. Again, make this a different kind of physical confrontation. 
  • End this section with a surprising plot twist, which traps the hero in the worst kind of jam. 
  • Does the story so far still have suspense? Is the menace getting even worse? Is everything still happening logically? 
Part Four
  • Shovel even more difficulties onto the hero. Bury him in troubles. 
  • Go for an “all is lost” moment: he is held prisoner, framed for murder, his love interest is presumably dead, the villain is about to kill him, etc. 
  • The hero uses his own skills, abilities, or brawn to get himself out of trouble and defeat the villain. 
  • Any remaining mysteries are resolved during the final physical conflict. 
  • End with one last twist, perhaps a punch line, that leaves the reader with a warm feeling. 
  • One more time, review your story. Has the suspense held out all the way to the end? Has everything been explained? Did it all happen logically? Is the very last line satisfying? 

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Works for Novels, Too

Although this formula was originally intended for writing pulp fiction, it works like gangbusters for any action-packed story, from thrillers to romantic suspense to certain science fiction and fantasy stories.

It's also not a bad way to outline a novella or full-length novel. Just expand the formula. Each part of the story structure corresponds to about a quarter of the book.

In my Dru Jasper series (starting with It Happened One Doomsday), the first line of every book hints at the coming apocalypse. By the end of the first chapter, the heroes have been hit with “a fistful of trouble,” just as Dent recommends.

Throughout the first quarter of each book, the heroes struggle to deal with a worldwide threat. We quickly meet all of the other characters and wind up in an intense physical conflict, usually a fight or a car chase (or both). Before too long, we come to a plot twist that sends the story shooting off in an unexpected direction.

In the second quarter of the book, there are even greater difficulties, more action, another plot twist, and so on. Yet no reviewer has ever called my books formulaic. Dent’s master plot becomes invisible, because it simply makes it easier to figure out what should happen when.

The master plot is simple, universal, and it works. That's why it has survived the better part of a century.

By the way, one of my favorite reviews came from Starburst Magazine, which called my debut novel “a fast and fun ride that keeps you entertained all the way through its unyielding mayhem.”

Unyielding mayhem. That's a good way to put it.

(Here's more on using story structure to your advantage) 

Add Some Unyielding Mayhem to Your Next Story

Obviously, Lester Dent’s master plot isn’t suited to quiet, introspective, literary stories. It's meant to create almost continuous suspense and action.

It's fueled by adrenaline: chases, fights, mysteries, and breathless edge-of-your-seat tension. It works because it keeps the reader hooked. You pound your hero with ever-greater trouble, and force him or her to battle all the way to a satisfying ending.

The next time you sit down to outline a story or book, try Lester Dent's master plot. There are no guarantees that you'll finish your novel in 13 days, but it's worth a shot.

Are You Up for the Master Plot Challenge?

Can you write a short story (or plan out a novel) using Lester Dent's master plot formula? Leave me a comment below or contact me at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About No Sleep till Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 3)

An inexperienced sorceress must retrieve a priceless artifact from the enchantress who stole it, break the curse on her half-demon boyfriend, and stop her friends from turning on each other before the enchantress calls down doomsday.

When a wicked enchantress steals a cursed doomsday amulet, crystal sorceress Dru Jasper has only twenty-four hours to get it back before the world will come to a fiery end. With this supernatural amulet in hand, the enchantress intends to break the sixth seal of the apocalypse scroll--making the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and the earth itself split apart. Overall,  bad news.

Dru must hit the road to get the amulet back. But she suspects her half-demon boyfriend, Greyson, and his demon-possessed muscle car, Hellbringer, are hiding a dark secret. Can she trust them to help her stop doomsday? Worse, tracking down the enchantress runs Dru smack up against a pack of killer  shape-shifters, the grim mystery of a radioactive ghost town, and a dangerous speed demon even more powerful than Hellbringer.

As the clock runs out, Dru is locked in a high-speed chase with the enchantress, fighting a fierce, magical duel she can never win alone. Can Dru and her sorcerer friends unravel Hellbringer's secrets, outwit the shape-shifters, and retrieve the stolen amulet before the dawn of doomsday?

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  1. I'm going to put this into practice for my next novel. I love the whole hit-them-hard-and-hit-them-fast way of putting unyielding pressure on the protagonist.
    Thanks for the tips!

  2. Way to go, Tyrean! My bet is that all of that extra tension will make the writing go faster, too. That's been my experience. Have fun writing!

  3. Oh this is fantastic! I'm trying to improve my short stories and this gives me a great starting point actually.

  4. I have a vampire hunter serial that I've been using this method for. It really does make for fast, fun stories both for the reader and for me!