Story Structure: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Fiction Factory

Best known for his Perry Mason novels, television series, and movies, Erle Stanley Gardner built and ran his fiction factory from the 1920s until his death in 1968.(1)

Fiction Factory Assembly Line

During the 1920s, Gardner tried out several story structures.

In 1932, he wrote 224,000 words while working two days a week at his law practice. A year later, he penned his first bestseller featuring the lawyer Perry Mason: The Case of the Velvet Claws. During his writing career, Gardner wrote 82 full-length Perry Mason novels and sold over 300 million copies. (2)

Story structure served as the assembly line for his fiction factory.

Fiction Factory Focus

To make money, Gardner focused on giving readers what they wanted. (3)

“I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun. People derive moral satisfaction from reading a story in which the innocent victim of fate triumphs over evil. They enjoy the stimulation of an exciting detective story. Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can’t solve. When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution. They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.”

He also understood the need to inspire people.

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape…. The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

Fiction Factory Characters

Through his chief protagonist Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner made sure readers were entertained, informed, and inspired.

Gardner wrote to his publisher, William Morrow and Company, about the Perry Mason character. (4)

“I want to make my hero a fighter, not by having him be ruthless with women and underlings, but by having him wade into the opposition and battle his way through to victory…. the character I am trying to create for him is that of a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience. He tries to jockey his enemies into a position where he can deliver one good knockout punch.”

An article in The Washington Examiner (5) likened Gardner’s novels to knightly tales.

This observation (6) nailed it:

“Central to these novels is the idea of loyalty—Mason’s loyalty to clients and to the truth; Drake and Street’s loyalty to Mason. Such loyalty is integral to the code of King Arthur’s round table, and the Three Musketeers, whose motto is ‘All for one and one for all.’ Perry Mason—incorruptible, clever, dedicated, dogged—slots nicely into the Arthurian mold. His ‘grail quest’ is the pursuit of justice on behalf of innocents unable to defend themselves; his jousting field is a courtroom. He is never unseated.”

Fiction Factory Consistency

In the first chapter of The Case of the Velvet Claws (7), and several instances elsewhere in the book, the dialogue between Perry Mason and his secretary, Della Street, reminded readers of the chief protagonist’s character code.

Also, the stories informed readers of how the law and court system worked. In the series, the narratives delivered and reinforced consistently the author’s promise to inspire readers. Perry Mason expressed what readers could expect from him in this excerpt.

“I’m a paid gladiator. I fight for my clients. Most clients aren’t square shooters. That’s why they’re clients. They’ve got themselves into trouble. It’s up to me to get them out. I have to shoot square with them. I can’t always expect them to shoot square with me.”

Adopt and Adapt Story Structure

You may have noticed the similarities between Lester Dent’s Story Formula and Erle Stanley Gardner’s fiction factory.

That’s no fluke. A comparison of the two authors highlights how both used story structure. They focused relentlessly on the audience. And each shared the same goal: to entertain, inform, and inspire readers.

You can do the same today.

Build Your Fiction Factory

You have at your fingertips what it takes to build your fiction factory.

To fire up your fiction factory, push the start button after you enter your password created from ten of the most powerful two-letter words:

If it is to be, it is up to me.

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Whether you’ve already built your fiction factory, or you’re preparing to break ground, share how you entertain, inform, and inspire readers.


  7. Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) (p. 15-16). Della Street Press. Kindle Edition.

4 responses to “Story Structure: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Fiction Factory”

  1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    Another excellent post, Grant. I like that relentless focus on the audience. It’s a switch up for many writers who write for themselves. Thanks for sharing another success story and the thoughts behind it.

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

      Thanks, Diana. In researching the practices of bestselling authors, I often find where they focus out what the audience wants, and then do everything they can to exceed readers’ expectations.

  2. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    Those were exceptional stories, as were the TV shows. I was sad when they disappeared.

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

      Not too long ago, I watched all the Perry Mason reruns. Scripted for the audience, they kept you entertained. Same with the books, many available on Amazon Prime.

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