From Art Holcomb: Lester Dent and the Master Fiction Plot

A guest post by Art Holcomb

I am a screenwriter and writing teacher.  I am also a voracious consumer of fiction.  I enjoy and teach pretty much all types and forms of stories,  but for the purposes of this post, I should clarify that I am also a lover of the shorter forms of fiction.

Because as you’ve read here many times, the principles that make them work — Larry refers to them as story physics — apply to all fiction, regardless of form, media or length.

In my career, I moved from poetry to stage plays to comics and screenplays, in part because of the limits that they impose. But one of my earliest lessons was certainly that story is story, and mastering the short form will teach you how to master the longer forms.

Several years ago, I came across this piece by the prolific pulp writer of the 1930’s, Lester Dent (1904-1959) who was the creator and primary author of the novels about superhuman adventurer, scientist and all around hero, Doc Savage. In his life, he wrote 159 novels over just 16 years, as well as countless short stories under various pseudonyms and was heralded as one of the best pulp writers of his time.

Someplace along the line, Dent set down what he called the Master Fiction Plot which he used to help craft all of his stories. It is simple and clear and one of the best applications of what Larry and the Story Engineering / Story Physics books represent.

It is attached here.

While it was written as a guideline for creating 6,000 word short stories, I think you’ll see how clearly it can be applied to novels, just as Dent did. By understanding its principles, you can learn how to keep your story moving, your characters involved and – most importantly – learn how to make every word count, which is perhaps the greatest thing writing short fiction can teach any novelist.

*****

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.  His new writing book is tentatively entitled “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!” (Release TBA.)

25 Comments

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25 Responses to From Art Holcomb: Lester Dent and the Master Fiction Plot

  1. MikeR

    Gaaaah, so sue me, BUT … I =love= pulp fiction. Always have, still do. And maybe because there’s so much of it, you can these days get it (legally) for free. Great thing to read on the plane. It’s SO formulaic that you know more or less how every one’s going to be, and perhaps that familiarity is a big part of the overall appeal. Yet, every one’s a little bit different. Love ’em, still.

  2. Art Holcomb

    @MikeR: Me too, Mike!

    They can seem less sophisicated sometimes, but there’s a bare-bones kind of attraction to the sheer visceral nature of storytelling used here. And you can learn so much about the times just from the language alone. Writer can certainly do worse than spending some time in these adventures of yesteryear.

    Thanks for post. Have a great holiday!

  3. Yup, this describes everything Agatha Christie wrote (which is a good thing) and everything Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote (which is a better thing.)

    And I’ve read and loved every single one.

    Some of this depends on Larry’s comments that “high concept” only means “high” for this context, not compared to all of fiction.

  4. Kerry boytzun

    I loved Doc Savage as a kid.

    I can hear the “formula” whiners already. Funny how life has a formula for most anything that needs to be “solved”. And yet a “solution” to a problem is also a “creation”.

    Most, if not all creations are solutions to a problem. Such a problem may only appear as an idea.

    Creative people like to pretend that they’re not formulaic, and are instead–original. To get general, everybody is born, lives and dies. What’s really original? Only the way you look at something, your take on it, and what you make of it (your life).

    The ‘Story’ of your life, is really just a moment condensed whereby you were faced with either a problem, or you came up with an idea–both of which are solutions to a previous problem, either known or unknown.

    Everything has a formula. The creative people want to create something that doesn’t appear formulaic.

    The real challenge is that humans have a “mind” that takes the objects (that surround them) and makes subjective perceptions about them–and call those perceptions “real”. Any subjective perception–or reality–is based upon inputs (these inputs are part of an equation…math). The perception is always comparing something in relation to something else. This relationship is required to distinguish one object from another, one aspect from another.

    For example, you can’t show (have) the stripes on a zebra without having parts of the zebra without a stripe. This is subtle and missed by many, if not most. To say it differently, if the entire Zebra is now BLACK–it’s no longer a Zebra. Same if it’s all white. Where does the stripe begin and end? Is the Zebra striped black, or is it a black creature with white stripes, legs and the rest? It’s all subjective, the way you look at it–your comparative equation or math.

    BUT it has to add up to the “formula” you are using to subjectively define your horse to be, in this case, a Zebra. This formula is nothing more than the math you are using to describe your perspective.

    Try another example. You are in your house. I want you to find a wall that’s beside the front door. Did the wall have a gap cut out of it to give space to the door that was put in the gap? Or Was a very large door shortened in size to make room for a wall? It’s all in how you look at it, regardless of which point of view is common–or “off the wall”.

    Stories can be developed with formulas that are like my example with the wall. They can be created in a common fashion that makes it easy to spot the door–because the wall had a gap cut in it (many said the wall would “end” and there was a door in its place). Or the story can be created in fashion that has the door taking up the entire house, but the door was shortened, cut into pieces, and walls & floors took up those places. The latter method is more difficult but…it has to ADD UP as in the formula’s “math” must add up and be precise.

    If your formula is not precise (either due to your poor design or lack of awareness) nobody will follow what you are writing, and your story will tank. Because the perspective (point of view) didn’t make sense or add up–all due to a poor “formula”, your story fell flat, and your house got blown over by the wolf–with ease.

    Holcomb, Brooks, and Lester Dent–use formulas. Because it’s a requirement of the human MIND to subjectively make sense of the physical objects perceived, and the “meanings” derived–all by using formulas that exist in the life that we live in. Lack of awareness of these formulas (physics, math, music, harmony, structure) does not give anyone a pass. Meet the life school of hard knocks.

    Fail to honor these life physics–will get your story run over by the bus you didn’t see coming. Because you didn’t know where the road “began” and you stepped onto it without knowing you did. Then the bus hit you.

    PS. Many can’t follow “off the wall” description because we, through our “education system”, have been slowed down (dumbed down) due to being given “the facts” (and “tested” by having us memorize and repeat). Consider that the math, formula and physics of our education are only linear, and that being able to grasp non-linear, abstract equations–is very difficult. Thus, just because someone in life suggests something that one can’t follow–doesn’t make it non-existant. Many get offended by such commentary, and its sad, because that’s the response to anything new or contrary to the status quo.

    Consider that “truth” is subjective formula realized–it’s not really reality. Only a layer of the onion discovered. If you find yourself getting “offended” realize that it’s your beliefs that are being challenged, and that much in life isn’t like we think it is…from story physics to gravity (nobody knows why gravity exits BTW).

    All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

    Arthur Schopenhauer

    Kerry

  5. (Second try at response…apologize it this appears twice)

    Kerry – wonderful reply. I teach the fundamentals of prose construction and I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say the basic principles are “formulaic.” And yet I can take any novel off the shelf and break it down into one of three prose styles that use a selection of the thirteen basic prose beat types. It’s like saying no two people are physically original because we’re all built from the same blocks of human DNA. Ludicrous…

  6. Martha

    I’m one of those who needs this kind of pattern, paradigm, formula, whatever you want to call it. Otherwise I get lost in the maze of my imagination. Thanks for sharing this with us, Art and Larry. I’ve already printed it and plan to use it as I lay out the ‘design’ for my own story.

  7. Art Holcomb

    @Kerry: Great Insight!

    You’re right – there’s nothing new under the sun. Human beings have survived for millions of years because we are essentially “pattern recognizing” machines. It’s one of the reason that stories reverberate in us so strongly – and the older the story patterns, the better. As you know, the individual stories may change – but the underlying plots (those cause-and-effect patterns that we feel so deeply) remain . . .

    . . . because they are so important to who we are.

    Thanks for posting!

  8. @AJ — totally agree. One head, two ears, two eyes, two eyebrows, a nose and a mouth (hair is optional, in all places). That’s 10 “elements,” all with variable shades, shapes and nuances. But is the human head considered formulaic? To depart from these variables — a third eye, for example — results in a sad state that is largely handicapped or non-functional in the mainstream.

    It’s what’s inside the head, and the story, that counts. The housing isn’t formulaic, unless the head is empty. L.

  9. Ann K

    Kerry,

    Furthermore, the debate changes once you understand that you’re addressing structure, not formula. Story is hard wired into our minds with a particular structure. But, as Larry so brilliantly makes clear in his books, the end result of applying structure can be Westminster Abbey or a single-wide mobile home. That’s the fun part!

  10. Ann K

    And thanks, Art, for posting the master fiction plot!

  11. Robert Jones

    Art–Thanks for the post. Enjoyed reading your insights as well as those of Kerry.

    Applying structure didn’t change my story as much as it reworked areas where greater emphasis should be placed. And in that regard, it strengthened several points that were lacking dramatic stability. Everything I previously thought was important is still there, it just doesn’t overwhelm the other areas of the story with its dominance.

    For me, the entire process was a lesson in how to better balance a complex story through sorting the deck (scenes), placing each suit in its proper place. Less of a formula and more of a set of guiding lines that allowed the pattern to be recognized. Which then allowed me to see where the other suits were lacking in terms of juice.

    Within the human brain, cells are set up in layers, much like a forrest of trees with a root system on both top and bottom. It’s the job of the first layer to absorb certain chemicals “juice” through it’s roots on the bottom, then feed that juice to the next layer, which feeds it to the next, and so on. If one level doesn’t have the proper juice to feed itself and push an ample supply to the next level, the brain as a whole begins showing signs of lack. Depression and frustration sets in and the body, or system as a whole, doesn’t function adequately. And quite often, these symptoms are ignored until a larger problem is born.

    Physics dictate that this would also be true within the root system of the earth, and all it’s various layers. Pull one out, or deplete it beyond its minimal degree of functionality and life as we know it falls apart on a quantum level.

    There’s real danger if you can’t (or refuse to) divide your story into its separate parts, examine the roots, make sure each level is adequately feeding the next. How else can you be certain that it’s functioning adequately? How do you gage the minimal requirements for life in your story? By guesswork? Why reinvent those wheels and make life more difficult than it has to be? Because creating depression and frustration in the reader because the juice hasn’t reached all the different suits in your deck is the antithesis of good fiction.

  12. Art Holcomb

    @Robert Jones:

    Excellent point!

    There is a razor thin line between the mechanics and the artistry of storytelling. What the experts sometimes won’t tell you is that so much of the “structure” of the story can only be applied in the REWRITE phase – because, if you concentrate on structure on the first draft, you can easily trip over yourself in the process. I think sometimes this is the confusion we have when we talk about the “pantsers” versus the “plotters”! The first draft of anything has to be about the emotions of the moment, feeling your way into and through the rough pass at the story, because nothing — NOTHING — can happen until you get something down on the page to work from. Once you understand that nearly all of us should be free in the first draft and increasingly structure in the subsequent drafts, you can then truly feel the freedom and bliss that comes from writing.

    Good fiction – palpable, evisceral and emotional fiction – must be made up of both parts.

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  14. Art Holcomb

    @All

    November marks my 2nd anniversary on StoryFix. I just wanted to take a moment to thank all of you . . .

    I appreciate how welcome you have all made me feel, and the kind comments I’ve received over the little thoughts and passages I’ve posted here. My great thanks to Larry for giving me such a welcome home, and to all of you for your support and interest.

    Some large projects are on the horizon for me in 2014, but I will be back as time (and Larry) permits with more posts.

    Until then, believe in yourself and your message – and keep writing!

    Art

  15. Robert Jones

    Art, your views and messages are always appreciated.

    Been a year at SF for me–either end of October, early November. Definitely gave me a boost in the right direction.

  16. MikeR

    The pulp-fiction cure for writer’s block: If you don’t know what to do, try a swift right jab to his lantern jaw . . . 🙂

  17. MikeR

    @Art, @Robert – If I were really good at this, maybe I could feel that I could “pants” an entire story. But I can’t, because I never could. I’d write a few scenes and then the juices would fizzle-out. Never anything close to a complete story. But, some really great scenes … and sometimes, in the dialogue that “just came out” in those scenes, suggestions of other ideas. Still: fizzle. So, I can’t freestyle a complete story, but I do seem to have some success with scenes.

    So, I am trying to combine the two techniques: to lay out a high-level plan, and to “pants” the scenes .. or, as I prefer to think of it, “improvisational theater.” Stick two or three actors in a room, describe the scene to them, yell “Action!” and write down whatever happens next. File it away exactly as written, no matter how good or bad it seems to be at the time. Read over the material later to see what it suggests for the plan. Bounce back-and-forth between a high-level perspective of the overall story and deep-diving to particular (possible!!) scenes of it. It seems to be working.

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  19. @MIke – about “being good enough at this to pants a novel…” I think a lot of writers get good enough to “use” pantsing as a vehicle to search for their story. It works for them because they “know” the structural principles and story physics intuitively (even after accessing them academically; i.e., they were shown them, then they learned them), then apply them naturally (because they are natural laws, like gravity) to their first drafts. Then, in subsequent drafts, whether they want to call it this or not, they move things around to more closely align with and then “optimize” the story physics that structure facilitates. It’s a back and forth thing. Trying to nail structure in a first draft is possible, but many writers can’t get there, or don’t enjoy it. And yet, as drafting continues, and IF the final draft works, it almost always aligns. It’s truly a process that allows us to discover it and use it according to our own comfort levels. But in the end, the story depends on it.

    I like to begin with what I know will be required of the story, but that’s just me.

    All of this is 101 entry level craft, actually. What makes a book stand out, from that baseline, is STORY SENSE, which isn’t something (in my belief) that can’t be defined beyond the principles (story physics), and is the result of practice and observation and practice again. At that point it’s like sports… we can’t all play in the NBA, but with enough practice we can really get into a pickup game and hold our own.

    Like the Lottery slogan in Oregon says… adjust your dreams accordingly. L.

    • I wrote my last comment on a mobile device, in a car (heading to Universal Studios on Florida), and when I read it again it played like one of those auto-correct horror stories. I’ve edited it since, reads better now, if you’re interested. L.

  20. Art Holcomb

    @MikeR:

    I know that the idea of “freestyling” a story can be very attractive . . .

    We all believe that this must be the way that genius works. But I know that your approach can be very successful because it was the way that I was trained to write by my teacher, the wonderful SF writer David Gerrold (see the story of our time together in the post “David Gerrold and the Cabin by the Lake” in Larry’s archive.

    But remember that it is not enough to stand as a keen observer outside the story and accurately report what you see. You must get INSIDE THE SCENE ITSELF, stand next to your characters and feel the emotion that makes for good conflict and great story. Your words may be eloquent and your structure perfect but, unless the story puts the reader in the midst of the action, deep in the passion and dead center in the conflict, you will still have a way to go to sharing your vision with your reader.

    But if you do – if you can make that all-important meeting-of-the-minds between character and reader, you’ll have given them what they came for, an experience they won’t forget and a reason to make them a MikeR fan forever.

    Thanks for your comment here – and keep writing!

  21. Robert Jones

    I don’t want to give the impression that I pantsed my entire story first, then applied structure. I did have a previous story that was peripherally planned, then taken through several drafts before my own search for story lead me to see that only about a third of my story was the part I really cared about. The rest of it could make a fine separate tale, but was being forced–which is why it wasn’t working as a whole.

    I planned another entire outline and was just about finished with the basic skeletal framework of this huge tale that I hope will make for an interesting trilogy, then I discovered SF. From that point on, I devoted my time to learning structure, as well as brushing up on whatever other techniques I could find, spending the last year in a sort of make-shift classroom, applying any and all lessons from Larry (and a few others) to my WIP to better understand craft before diving into the drafting process once more. I had both the time and intention working for me at last, so I figured why not immerse myself and attempt to drag my skills and knowledge up to a new level? Creators seldom have the opportunity to look at their work and themselves introspectively.

    Having done all that, the drafting process is currently working a bit differently. It’s no less exciting. In fact, it’s working out in much the same way Larry has stated in his books and numerous posts. There’s still a spontaneity to the process. However, having exhausted many of the usual top of the head ideas and useless tangents in the planning and learning phases, the ideas that are now falling from what some have termed to be the magical place where story ideas live, they are fresher, less cliched thoughts. In short, the story has evolved to a better place where better decisions can be made.

    I’m not saying it’ll all a cake walk from here. If it were, I probably wouldn’t trust it, or feel like I was becoming too complacent. But I do believe taking the process through various lessons and phases, has given me a more elevated POV. And hopefully a more concrete story.

  22. MikeR

    @Art – David Gerrold?! I’ve read his “Trouble With Tribbles” dozens of times … his story of his first successful screenplay and of all the travails inherent in writing it. Wow. What goes around, comes around. I shall forthwith search for that story-post.

    Okay, okay… I stopped everything, opened a new browser window, READ IT.
    http://storyfix.com/david-gerrold-and-the-cabin-by-the-lake-a-guest-post-by-art-holcomb
    … and it does remind me very much of the admonitions given by TWO other writing experts with whom I have recently (virtually …) become acquainted.

    (Both of you know who you are, and if you wish, you may now take a bow. Yes, I meant that.)

    @Art, @Larry, @Robert – I agree quite heartily with ALL of you. 🙂 In my bailiwick, I’m the expert. In yours, I’m the neophyte. But, I know it.

    At this point, I am striving to figure out … yes, to figure out … what “the vision of my story” needs(!) to be. What is the scene, exactly? What are the characters, exactly? What should the conflict be, exactly, to make the story “sing?” Once I know that, I’m sure that I can plunge into creative-mode and make those scenes compelling. But meanwhile, I also know that I don’t yet know these things. “I’m new at this.”

    As I’ve said here before, “the first computer program that I ever wrote: took me six months to write, was eight lines long, and had a bug in it.” (Mind you, the first “PC” would not be invented for another seven years. So there.) I’ve written more than a million (no joke) lines of programming since then. My “instincts” with regard to my daily-meals work, therefore, are the product of several decades of hard-knocks …

    … But I’ve never forgotten where it began. And, in this present endeavor, I know that I’m right back there again. (Which, I would say, is a damn sight better than living in the illusion that “I can ‘pants’ this.” That “writing” a story has anything to do with “reading” one.)

    I’m going every day to that little theater that David Gerrold spoke of, and the actors are showing up as they always do, in jeans and a t-shirt, smiling pleasantly at me and wondering what I’ll ask them to do next. Maybe they’ll have ideas about what “their characters” ought to do in thus-and-such situation – I rather hope so. But all of them know, as I most certainly do, that “I’m bare-assed new at this,” and don’t know what I’m doing (yet!) and don’t claim to. So far, they seem to be putting up with me as I/we work the story out, together.

    Someday soon, I hope that it will all be “au fait accompli.” A monthly e-mail from Amazon with dollar-signs attached, and a nice manuscript that I can really be proud of, and a coy “aww, it was nothing” to those who are reacting (adoringly??) to a collection of words that “magically” seem that they “were meant to be.” That would be nice. And I would be sure not to spoil their adoring dreams. Ahem. But meanwhile, “back to work.” 🙂

  23. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Don’t sweat the time too much. I’ve come along late in a number of things in my life. But the late start usually gave me a bit of a leg up because I didn’t fly in by the seat of my pants.

    Other times in life, I was so busy with work that I crept along at my attempts to write. At times, it was frustrating, other times it was the brightest spot in my day to work that hour or so on my manuscript.

    Time is something we are all aware of, more acutely than we need to be for the most part. Cultural myths abound, as do preconceived notions about everything and everyone. We rush through life as a labor–even the things we call a labor of love. But like skipping a flat stone across a stream, we only touch the surface periodically in our rush to get as far as we can before sinking into that abyss known as the “Great Hereafter.”

    I believe that timing is everything, but I also believe in doing a thing right. Sometimes timing is like that plastic doohicky that pops out of a turkey when it’s done to perfection. One remains persistent until skill and opportunity meet at a level of mutual respect.

    Some may call that a foolish notion. Yet almost every professional I’ve spoken to in the arts has told me a story that made it sound as if that first job was an act of being in the right place at the right moment, or that it was dumb luck. I believe one’s intentions lead them to a point on the horizon, a point of perspective that is reached by maintaining one’s course upon a chosen path. At some point, every novice gets to a point where skill, and a degree of confidence, becomes palpable. Do you think those editors and agents took a chance on the new kid because he simply walked in at the moment they needed someone? Every editor had a list of people they might call in a pinch if need be. So the right time and place seeming like a fortunate bit of good luck falls apart rather quickly if both skill and some type of confidence isn’t picked up by the person handing them that first job.

    And in 99.9% of those cases, there was usually an artist, writer, musician, whatever–who planned and schemed and practiced for years at their craft.

    Everything else someone tells you is case of either arrogance, or a very unobservant individual. Maybe they felt like they didn’t deserve that first job at the time, hence dumb luck and coincidence may seem reasonable. But there was something there the giver of those jobs picked up on. And in every case, the artist persistently followed his path until they converged with that point on the horizon. It may seem like they just stumbled across it–it’s a long walk for most and the horizon can blur frequently. But they kept marching, kept following that tug of emotion within that pulled them along.

    So advice from people are a combination of techniques, accepted rules and suggestions–based on personal experience. Once you grasp the techniques and rules, the suggestions may, or may not, fit into they way you work. Quite often you immediately know when something isn’t right for you, or your just not ready to go there just yet. And you move along. So long as you know for certain the feeling in your gut is guidance, and not fear, you’ll probably be right in terms of how to proceed, and when. Keep moving forward toward that point on the horizon. Don’t get discouraged…and don’t let the world push you into something you know doesn’t feel right.

    I give myself little tests about every 4-6 months when learning something new. Always have, even as a kid when I was working on my art. If I could look back over a 6 month period and see some degree of growth, I knew there was hope. If I saw no progress, no improved performance, I would kick myself in the ass an drag myself to the next level. No one is going to do that for you. Set a standard, then make sure you’re moving toward it in some way that you can measure realistically. Then keep plugging away at it with the assurance that it WILL happen–if you really want it bad enough.

  24. MikeR

    @Robert – No question about that one. “‘Luck’ favors the well-prepared who work their asses off.” 🙂

    Writing is an interesting craft because its final-product is so approachable: “‘There’ it is … all of it, right there … that doesn’t look so hard to do, now does it?” When you pick up a book, there seem to be no secrets. You just pick it up and read it. So, it follows that the writer just sat down and wrote it. Which, in a certain sense, they did.

    And this is also what leads to “pantsing.” (Unless you are one of those pathetic dweebs who flips a book open to its next-to-last chapter and reads that one first …) when you read-through any novel, you are in a sense “pantsing it.” You don’t know what will happen next until you turn the page. But, all you ever have to do, to find ALL of “what happens next and next and next,” IS to “turn the page.”

    When the shoe’s on the other foot, and you write a scene not knowing what the next scene will be, AND you do not have years of practical experience to “instinctively” guide you, then you haven’t got even a slender hope of success … but you might buy a whole bunch of Writer’s Digest Books and go to several Writer’$ Retreat$ before you (maybe) figure that out.

    This is what’s so helpful when someone takes you aside and says, “c’mon, here, let me show you a little bit of how it’s done.” Whether it’s Lester Dent’s master-plot or Larry’s two (so far…mmm?) excellent books, this gives ==structure== to your effort and enables you to meaningfully ==choose==. It also suggests ways that you can choose without having written 10,000 throw-away words in the process of doing so. This is the real way in which we human beings solve problems efficiently. We draw up plans; we measure twice before we cut once … OR, as in my case, we have a Rolodex (yes, a Rolodex!) of the business cards of contractors, plumbers, electricians and we stay the hell OUT of Home Depot, thereby saving our thumbs from serious damage.