December 1, 2014

Lester Dent's Short Story Formula - The 2013 Edition

I’ve had the good fortune to correspond with and watch video lectures from successful author Dean Wesley Smith.  Smith makes the suggestion that aspiring novelists and short story writers should look at the “Lester Dent Master Plot Formula” as a good starting point.  To be clear, he wasn’t suggesting that you should write formulaic or fill-in-the-blanks stories.  If he was, I’d have ignored the advice.

I’ve looked over some of my oldest stories, and while I know we writers are our own worst critics, I am usually good about stepping outside myself to evaluate my work – especially the older stuff.  While I am happy with bits and pieces of stories I’ve written, I’m objective enough (I think) to recognize that some of them aren’t truly “stories” in the sense that the main character doesn’t face much of a challenge in reaching his goal and doesn’t necessarily grow or change as a result of the events in the story.  I see this as a weakness that I need to address if I’m ever to write a publishable short story or novel.

Smith suggests that, to help you internalize a good basic story structure, you begin by rewriting Dent’s 1950’s era advice in more modern language.  Dent’s piece is primarily aimed at western and crime novel short story writers of his era.  I’m adapting it to something more modern, and to hopefully be less genre-dependent.  With that in mind, I present Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula – The 2013 Version…

Master Plot Formula – 2013 Edition

What follows is a basic formula or “master plot” for short stories of approximately 6,000 words.  It can be adapted to science-fiction, adventure, detective, western, and most other genres.  It gives some rough guidelines on the story points that should be covered in the story, at approximately each thousand words.  Every story, and every author, is different.  If your story works for you as it is, and it doesn’t necessarily hit every point here, or hit it at exactly the right word count, that’s fine.  This is intended to provide a general guide to follow, not to force or hinder the story you’re trying to tell.  “Do what works for you and your story” is the only real rule.

Your Story Concept

Developing your story is easier if you are familiar with other stories in its genre.  You will want to read as much as you can in that genre, as this will help you identify common story elements and over-used plot points.  When you develop your own story, you want to ask yourself questions like:
  • Are there certain settings that other authors haven’t used?  Can I make those work in my story?
  • What are the common antagonists like in other stories?  How can I set mine apart from the others?
  • For stories involving crimes, puzzles, or murders, how can I come up with an unfamiliar movie, method, or unexpected murderer?
  • What internal challenge is my character coping with throughout the story?  How can I use that to make solving the external challenges more difficult (e.g., the character having a fear of heights while investigating the murder of a tightrope walker)?
Ideally, your story will include something unique for two or more of the above story elements.  If typical stories in your genre are set in Paris in the 1850’s, if you make yours work in Germany in the 1940’s, you may have something more marketable.  If typical stories in the genre are set in upper-class country clubs, can you set yours in a Texas honky-tonk bar and make it work?

The Master Plot Formula, in 1500-word Chunks

The following is a breakdown of a 6,000-word short story into 1500-word chunks.  As you write or review your story, you should compare the story’s progress to these guidelines.  If there are story points that don’t apply to your tale, or you’re hitting most but not all of them, etc., that doesn’t mean you need to change your story.  Remember:  These are guidelines and suggestions, not set-in-stone rules.  If your story works, don’t change it.  If your story isn’t working, look here for advice on what may be wrong with it.

The First 1500 Words

The first quarter of your story should introduce the main characters and hint at (if not start) the primary conflict or challenge of the story.  If possible and appropriate to the tale you’re telling, this part of the story should hit the following points:
  • As soon as possible, introduce the main character and introduce (or hint at) the challenges that the character will face for the rest of the story.
  • Show the main character becoming aware of the challenge and making an effort to deal with it.
  • Introduce all the other important characters as soon as possible, linking them to the challenge in some way.
  • Show the main character dealing with some kind of significant challenge by the end of this quarter of the story.
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Is there an element of suspense, mystery, tension, danger, or excitement here?
  • Is there a physical, emotional, or other threat to the main character in play?
  • Is the sequence of events here logical and reasonable?  (For example, if the character could walk away, why doesn’t he/she?)

The Second 1500 Words

The second quarter of the story should resemble the following:
  • The character attempts to struggle with the main story challenge.
  • Each struggle should get more difficult or dangerous.
  • End with a surprising revelation or story point (e.g., the bad guy escapes from a room with no apparent exit)
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Is there suspense, mystery, tension, danger, and/or excitement here?
  • Is the suspense growing as the story develops?
  • Is the hero being backed into a corner, facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, etc?
  • Is the sequence of events here logical and reasonable?  (For example, if the character could walk away, why doesn’t he/she?)
There should be at least one minor surprise during this section of the story.  This invites the reader to continue reading to see how the thing turns out.  If the surprise is misleading or intriguing, so much the better.

The Third 1500 Words

In the third quarter of the story, things look grim for the main character.  The difficulties continue to mount.  Just when the main character appears to have solved the story problem, something happens.  Perhaps the story problem isn’t the real challenge, or perhaps a well-conceived strategy fails for an unexpected but logical reason.  In this section, we expect:
  • Much more trouble falls on the main character than at any previous point in the story
  • The main character appears to have found a final solution to the problem
  • The main character attempts to execute the plan, but fails miserably
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Is there still suspense, mystery, tension, danger, and/or excitement in play?
  • Does the main story challenge now appear much more insurmountable?
  • Is there hero being backed into a corner in some way, such that overcoming the story challenge is the only way out?
  • Does all this happen in a logical and reasonable way?  (There is no way the character could back out or act differently.)
  • Is the action swift, vivid, and “tight” (using the minimum number of words necessary)?
  • Can the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what’s going on?
  • Does every word in this section count?

The Last 1500 Words

In this last section, the main character should see the challenge as something that cannot be overcome.  It should seem as difficult, imposing, frightening, or impossible as it can be.  This section should:
  • Add more challenges to the main character’s predicament
  • Put the main character in a seemingly inescapable predicament
  • Show the hero using skill, learning, or strength (physical or emotional) developed during the story to extricate himself or herself from the inescapable predicament
  • End with a big surprise, if possible, such as the villain turning out to be an unexpected person, a much sought after reward being something other than was expected, etc.
  • A satisfying conclusion, where the main character acknowledges growth, overcomes a personal demon, or otherwise leaves the reader with a warm feeling
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Has the excitement continued up to the end?
  • Did the challenge continue up to the end?
  • Have all the mysteries been solved (unless you’re leading up to a sequel)?
  • Has everything in the story happened logically, and as a natural progression of the events that happened before?
  • Is the reader left with a warm feeling?
  • Was it the main character who overcame the challenge, or someone/something else?  (The main character should nearly always be the one to overcome the challenge, even at the cost of his/her life.)


The Lester Dent Master Plot Formula is very much in line with every other story structure I’ve ever seen.  Introduce the hero and the big challenge, show the hero recognizing and facing the challenge, show the hero learning that the challenge is much bigger than originally anticipated, and back the hero into a corner with no choice but to overcome the challenge.  When things look their most grim, the hero overcomes an inner demon, learns something new, or develops some solution that shows growth – then overcomes the challenge.

As long as the writer isn’t slavishly following this story design, Lester Dent’s advice is sound.  It offers a basic structure that should support a variety of stories that, while sharing very high-level similarities, are as unique as their authors.

Next, I need to begin writing some short stories that embody this formula, to help make good story structure second nature for me.

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