Story Structure: Exploring the Lester Dent Story Formula

Lester Dent Formula

In the 1930s, the Dent story formula roared into use.

Did the Dent Story Formula Work?

Today, some famous authors disparage story structure, especially formulas, and you may have seen articles that raise these questions:

  • Is it better to write without concern for the story’s framework?
  • Should you just free-write and forget preplanning and outlining?
  • Why bother with a formula when you can just write?

Ultimately, each writer must choose whether to preplan, wing it, or develop a hybrid approach to writing.

Before you decide to forego using story structure, let’s walk down memory lane and explore Lester Dent’s success.

The Writer Behind the Dent Story Formula

Lester Dent, writing under the name of Kenneth Robeson, published 165 Doc Savage novel-length adventures between 1933 and 1949.

As a prolific writer in the 1930s, he developed and refined the Dent story formula to give readers of pulp magazines what they wanted:

  • Atmosphere
  • Thrills
  • Exotic adventure
  • Action

In the 1936 edition of the Writer’s Digest Yearbook, Lester Dent published a point-by-point analysis of his story structure — the writing pattern that fueled his ability to produce Doc Savage adventures quickly.

Nearly a century later, it’s no surprise the Dent story formula still compares favorably to the story structures used by many of today’s bestselling authors.

Lester Dent’s Story Formula

After publishing the Dent story formula in the 1936 Writer’s Digest Yearbook, he claimed that over 750 new writers contacted him, sharing how his story formula helped them get published.

In that article, he included instructions on how to make the content fresh within the Dent story formula. For a mystery, he suggested using different murder methods, villain motivations, settings, and stakes. Dent even gave hints on how to research so the writer could make the characters and settings more believable.

The prolific author detailed his method for writing a 6,000 word story, and today’s writer could expand the four-part Dent story formula into a full-length manuscript.

First Quarter [Act 1]

He gave five specific beats for writers to follow.

  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 endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1,500 words.
  5. Near the end of the first 1,500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

He then asked the writer to consider a series of questions:

  • So far, does it have SUSPENSE?
  • Is there a MENACE to the hero?
  • Does everything happen logically?

Along the way, Dent gave more suggestions:

  • At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.
  • Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise’s tail, if nothing better comes to mind.

Based on the “surprise,” he emphasized writers should plant a dramatic question in the minds of readers:

  • They’re not real. The [monkey’s] rings are painted there. Why?

Second Quarter [Act 2A]

Dent outlined another four beats, each designed for a specific purpose:

  • Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  • Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
  • Another physical conflict.
  • A surprising plot twist to end the 1,500 words

Dent’s questions helped writers qualify whether their content worked:

  • Now, does the second part have SUSPENSE?
  • Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud?
  • Is the hero getting it in the neck?
  • Is the second part logical?

He gave specific techniques designed to enhance the story and used more caps to add his emphasis:

  • DON’T TELL ABOUT IT. Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader—show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.
  • When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until—surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.
  • Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader’s mind. TAG HIM.

Dent emphasized with more caps what will encourage readers to turn the page—what we now call “narrative drive.”

  • BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.

Third Quarter [Act 2B]

Dent outlined four beats for this segment of the story:

  1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
  3. A physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1,500 words.

He asked the writer to consider more qualifying questions:

  • Does it still have SUSPENSE?
  • Is the MENACE getting blacker?
  • Does the hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
  • Is it all happening logically?

Then he added this essential advice:

  • These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.
  • These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

Dent Explained:

  • The idea is to avoid monotony.
  • ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.
  • ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel, and taste.
  • DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery, and water.

Keeping with his no-nonsense style, he gave this bottom-line advice:

  • THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.

Fourth Quarter [Act 3]

To close the story, Dent detailed six beats:

  1. Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
  2. Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
  3. The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
  4. The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
  5. Final twist, a big surprise. (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)
  6. The snapper, the punch line, to end it.

Dent’s final qualifying questions reminded writers of the role the chief protagonist should play in fulfilling readers’ expectations:

  • Has the SUSPENSE held out to the last line?
  • The MENACE held out to the last?
  • Everything been explained?
  • It all happens logically?
  • Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
  • Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?

Why Did Dent Structure Stories?

Dent structured stories because he wanted to entertain and inspire readers, especially youth.

Dent’s success motivated countless writers to learn the craft and adopt similar writing systems, and he gave them the exact story structure he used so they could inspire readers, too.

The Dent story formula — a writing system — gave his stories an enviable consistency that readers loved.

Likewise, The Trellis Method helps you entertain, inform, and inspire readers.

Dent’s Character Development

Lester Dent’s top goal was to inspire readers, and from the chief protagonist’s first-person viewpoint, he wrote this code for Doc Savage:

  • Let me strive, every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.
  • Let me think of the right, and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
  • Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
  • Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.
  • Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

Whether for young or old readers, the Doc Savage code served as the Dent’s writing guide, striving to give the audience what they wanted:

  • An inspiring hero who triumphed over evil.
  • Stories full of atmosphere, thrills, exotic adventure, and action.

Using Story Structure Rewarded Lester Dent

The Great Depression made earning a living as a writer difficult, but during that lean period in the 1930s, Lester Dent made as much as $18,000 per year.

As a prolific writer, the money Dent earned in one year during the depression would be the equivalent of over $320,000 in 2023. For example, he and his wife, Norma, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, touring around the world. They bought a 40 foot two-masted schooner called the “Albatross.” They lived on the boat for several years, and cruised along the Eastern Seaboard and through the Caribbean.

Dent’s story formula helped him produce significant income year after year. Many of today’s top writers rely on similar methods. After all, the essential elements of great storytelling have not changed.

Readers still want to be entertained, informed, and inspired.

Dent’s Focus on the Audiences

In Lester Dent’s foreword to The Ideal Library edition of Quest of the Spider (1933), he wrote:

“Nothing has given me more real pleasure, more the feeling of work well done, than the preparation of these volumes on the life and exploits of Doc Savage and his companions…. I have no doubt but that you will thrill to this story, as hundreds of thousands of readers have thrilled to this and the previous accounts. That is the one purpose of these tales. But there is something else which I know you will get out of them; something greater than the enjoyment of this volume. It will leave with you the feeling of doing better in this world; of making your own life approach that of Doc Savage as nearly as you can in your own existence.

“Though you may not find it possible to leave your daily existence in search of adventure; though you cannot go to the far ends of the world to aid others; you can do as much good in your own neighborhood by doing right at all times, helping your fellow men as much as possible even in the smallest of things. In this way you will find life more livable, and you will be accomplishing as worthwhile things as any one can expect.

“May the work of Doc Savage go on forever, repeated in countless episodes through the individual efforts of each one who reads this volume.”

Lester Dent focused on his audience, and many of today’s bestselling authors followed his lead by adopting and adapting a writing system.

To learn more about using story structure, check out The Trellis Method.

Leave a Reply

What structure are you using to tell a great story?


6 responses to “Story Structure: Exploring the Lester Dent Story Formula”

  1. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    I have never heard of this but it makes a lot of sense. Readers (like me) do love consistency in a series–pacing, action, settings, that sort. I think a lot of publishers/writers use some sort of template for series writers (Harlequin maybe?)

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      It works, Jacqui. Top writers figure out what the “template” means for their use. It’s personal. Some formalize (e.g., Lester Dent and Erle Stanley Gardner). Others have it seared into their brains (e.g., Stephen King). That’s why I keep emphasizing “principles” over rules. This post offers Chris Lang as an example: https://tameyourbook.com/story-development-strategy/.

  2. Vera Day Avatar

    Dent’s structure sounds a lot like Save the Cat except applied to a hero who doesn’t have a character arc (maybe a plot-driven knowledge arc, but not a fatal-flaw arc where he has to change himself). Pretty doggone cool. I think Dent’s structure could work in a mystery series, a Star Trek series, a Fantasy Island series…

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks for commenting, Vera! Before the late Blake Snyder’s time, Erle Stanley Gardner used a story structure similar to Save The Cat! to write the many Perry Mason novels, as well as the scripts for the hit TV show.

      Bottom line, Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat!, James Scott Bell’s “Super Structure” formula, K. M. Weiland’s novel structure, and many more of today’s writers use frameworks that build on the storytelling techniques used for centuries.

      Comforting to know we can stand on the shoulders of past giants and see further down the writing road, creating tales that entertain, inform, and inspire readers.

  3. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    Our poor heroes. We sure do shovel on the misery. I was laughing at how that opened each act’s list. And the code for Doc Savage was an interesting trick/tip when it comes to character development. Thanks for the entertaining and informative post, Grant.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks for dropping by, Diana. I always appreciate your insights and encouragement.

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