I write short shorts!
Sorry, I just had to get that out there.
If you haven’t guessed, I am a huge fan of pulp style short fiction, in fact, Tales of Weird Florida was built on the back of a single short story, and while that lovely yarn didn’t place in the contest it was entered in, it quickly took on a life of its own.
Why short fiction?
A few years ago I took a course from Writer’s Digest on Pulp Fiction, it was a great introduction to the genre, and it inspired me to really dig into the concepts of Lester Dent and his pulp model.
Now, you’ll have to forgive me, while I wax a little about the magic of this simple model. Basically, the Lester Dent Pulp Fiction model is a simple, generic formula, that results in very readable, fast-paced, and exciting fiction. I won’t go into the details here, as there are plenty of other places to get the full model (Living Sensical has a great copy here,) but I will go into what I think makes it work, and why.
Lester astutely figured out that many readers (myself included) like to see a story that moves forward, doesn’t get bogged down in the details, and really swings for the fences at the end. In doing so he built his story scaffolding around that concept.
Let’s take a look at the high-level process.
Cut your short story into four sections, each with 1,500 words, and each ending with a twist. Let me give you my take on that.
Kick it off fast, you should be in media res here. In other words, that lead character should be pretty darn close to, if not right on top of, the action. Introduce any other characters pretty soon, but do it organically. If the hero is calling for a certain item, perhaps his or her sidekick has it. There should be a sense of impending danger, and you’ll want to make sure this 1,500 ends with a twist. In fact, that’s something you’ll want to focus on for each section, ending with a “gasp” moment.
Lester talks about this section as “shoveling more grief on the hero,” and I couldn’t agree more. This is the time to make a bad situation worse. The train is out of control, but the throttle is stuck! Pile to grief on and keep your hero struggling just enough to keep their head above water. Again, you’ll want to end with a twist. For example, they reach fight the throttle back only to discover gravity is pulling them toward the valley, etc.
Part 3 (Empire Strikes Back Part)
This is my favorite part in the Lester Dent model. This is the moment when you let the hero have some success, only to dash their hopes against the rocks like Luke Skywalker losing his hand and his whole world view to his father, Darth Vader. Basically, the hero makes some headway, and it looks like they might pull it out, but it’s this part that sends them spiraling into failure. I’ve always found the key here is to make the trouble and setback bad enough that as a writer you are forced to stop and think. In other words, if it isn’t making you pause, then it might not be bad enough. As Lester says “the hero gets it in the neck, bad.” So, get them in the neck!
In the final 1,500 we find our hero is such bad shape there’s no way they can get out, but, as the writer, we find a way. The hero has to solve the dilemma on their own, or largely on their own. This isn’t the time for the cavalry to ride in, or the marines to show up, this is the time for the hero to think up (or muscle up) a solution. This is also where you have your last twist, and you get to flex your writing muscles with a nice “snapper ending.” Your goal is to create resonance. You want to ring your reader’s bell such that the story is stuck in their head for a little while (and you hope just long enough for them to tell others.)
That’s the Lester Dent model, and I am so appreciative he took the time all those years ago to write it down, and others before me took the time to place it on the internet. You’ll find that basically every Tales of Weird Florida short story follows the model.
Thanks, Lester! I owe you one.