A formula constructed to make exciting stories, created by Lester Dent, he of Doc Savage fame. This formula was also touted by Michael Moorcock for new writers looking to get into the short story markets in the 1970's. Lester was able to write whole novels in a single week, and Michael Moorcock wrote one in a single weekend. This methodology can be expanded to any length and to any genre.

The formula was originally used by Lester to build 6,000 word stories, of which he wrote hundreds in genres like mystery, western, and action/adventures. Almost all of his Doc Savage shorts can be broken down to this system.

First off, one must come up with one or more of the following:

  1. An unusual murder method for the villain.
  2. An unusual goal or treasure the villain wants.
  3. An unusual setting.
  4. An overarching menace that hangs over the protagonist.

If you have one, that's good. Two is better. Three or more is kickass. Don't make them silly or illogical.

Now, assuming a target of a 6,000 word short story, divide the story into 1,500 word portions. These are targets, not hard numbers. Write what the story dictates unless the publisher has strict upper and/or lower story limits. Note that the following is directly from Lester Dent's letter discussing his formula.


  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 endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
  5. Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.


SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? 
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?

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 dastardly 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.
They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?


  1. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to...
  3. Another physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.


NOW: Does 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?

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 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. 



  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 1500 words.


DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

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 next 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.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

Trees, wind, scenery and water.



  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.


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

That's the Lester Dent method in a nutshell. Well, make that a nodeshell. While tastes have changed over the years, one can still use this method as a baseline for exciting and interesting short stories. I've written several stories using this method and all of them were published in paying markets.

Best of luck with your writing endeavors! Make sure you /msg me when you get your Lester Dent Formula story in an anthology somewhere.