The Formulaic Writer – Part Three

Hello and welcome back! I’ve been remiss in getting this blog back onto anything resembling a regular schedule — I hope you’ll bear with me.

As promised, the Formulaic Writer series picks up again today, continuing our look at various formulae and methods for idea-brainstorming for writers. We’re going to take a look at a couple tools today — one nearly a century old, and a couple of others which are more recent.

First up: Plotto – A New Method Of Plot Suggestion For Writers Of Creative Fiction. Yeah, it’s a mouthful, and honestly, it’s marvelously bonkers. Written by William Wallace Cook and published in 1928, Plotto is, weirdly, almost like a bizarre system of algebra for creating plot ideas, put together by somebody who in today’s world would probably be diagnosed as being on the spectrum. It’s got this marvelous late-20s mad-scientist kinda feel to it (and, unfortunately, the expected occasional bit of early-20th century racism & misogyny), and really does come up with interesting combinations which definitely spark ideas.

You can download the public-domain book in various formats at the Internet Archive, but a kind soul has created a a hyperlinked online version, which includes a gender-flipper switch (the AB at the top of the page, which reverses the codes used in the text for male and female), and a randomizer (linked from this intro page, under “Getting Started.”).

I could give you a detailed run-down of how to use Plotto, but the gentleman who produced the online version has been kind enough to summarize here. Briefly, though:

  • You select one of the “A” clauses, which define the initial state of the protagonist.  There are 15 of these.
  • You then select one of the “B” clauses, which is the overall action of the story. There are 62 of these.
  • Finally, you select one of the “C” clauses, which is the resolution of the story.  There are 15 of those.

That gives you the basic framework. You then expand the “B” conflict — an index of possible conflicts is given for each “B” clause, and you choose one for your starting point.  Each conflict has a set of before and after suggestions that can be used to expand the conflict in either direction — and of course, these are presented numerically, which sends you to that entry, which ALSO has before and after suggestions to expand it, allowing you to work backward (to the “A” clause), or forward (to the “C” clause).  It’s all bizarrely convoluted and odd, because like I said: mad-scientist 1920s story-writing algebra system.

It’s all really fascinating, though, and really worth digging into — because it absolutely does spark plot ideas.

But perhaps you’d like something a bit more modern?

The Snowflake Method.

This method of creating a story is the invention of Randy Ingermanson. His idea is based on the fractal concept. Specifically, he was inspired by the mathematical exercise of the Koch Snowflake. (Briefly, creating a snowflake structure by manipulation of an equilateral triangle.) He applies it to writing by starting small, then building up until it starts to look like a story. The tool he suggests for doing so is rigid time management, where you concentrate on one particular task, which builds on the tasks before it, until a story starts to take shape.

The steps of the Snowflake Method are:

  1. 1-sentence summary: the “high concept” idea. A one-line blurb, 15 words or fewer. Take an hour on this task.
  2. Expand sentence to full paragraph, using the three-act structure or whatever other method you prefer. Again, take an hour.
  3. One page summary for each character, exploring their personal storyline, motivation, goal, conflict, etc. An hour for each character.
  4. Expand each individual sentence in summary (#2) to a full paragraph, expanding on each idea. Take a few hours on this.
  5. 1 page description of each major character, and half-pages on the minor characters — a “character synopsis”, more descriptive than step 3. Take a day or two on this.
  6. Back to expanding the plot — Take each paragraph from #4 and blow it up into a full page synopsis. (1 week.)
  7. Expand character descriptions from #5 into full “character charts” — tons of detail, even if you think it won’t make it into the story (birthday, history, etc.). The idea by this point is to make them as real in your head as you can make them.  (1 week)
  8. Turn the multi-page summary from #6 into a scene breakdown, by whatever method you prefer (spreadsheets, index cards, Scrivener, etc.).  This takes as long as it takes.
  9. (optional) Expand each scene from spreadsheet into multi-paragraph description of that scene (you may not want to do that, keeping that for the draft, or that might be how your scene breakdowns already work). Again, this will take as long as it takes.
  10. Start writing first draft.

It’s a bit gimmicky, sure — and more than a bit hand-wavy in sections, but I like the idea of timed work, and going from small to large as more ideas come.  A bit like sculpture, building up a figure with bits of clay until the form appears.

We’ll take a look at another

The One Page Novel

This is a formula designed by Eva Deverell, who teaches a course on it, and it’s an 8-stage method, using a fill-in-the-blanks method, designed to fit on one page. Interestingly, it has you coming up with your plot stages out of order — you plot in one order, but the stages appear in the story in a different order:
Plotting order:

  1. Resolution
  2. Stasis
  3. Shift
  4. Trigger
  5. Quest
  6. Power
  7. Bolt
  8. Defeat

Story order:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. Quest
  4. Bolt
  5. Shift
  6. Defeat
  7. Power
  8. Resolution

Each stage is described as follows:

Stasis: the character isn’t living to their full potential – opposite state to Resolution.
Trigger: an internal or external impulse (or both) forces the character to take the first step towards their Resolution state.
Quest: the character enters the new world of adventure, meets mentors or allies and makes a (bad) plan to solve the problem the Trigger created.
Bolt: the (bad) Quest plan inevitably goes wrong.
Shift: the character makes the paradigm shift necessary for them to inhabit their Resolution state.
Defeat: the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Power: the character finds a hidden power within themselves that allows them to seize the prize.
Resolution: the character is living up to their full potential in their Resolution state.



That’s it for today’s installment.  I’ll be coming back to this topic again next week, and we’ll look at some more brainstorming tools and methods.

Tomorrow: Friday Music! See you then.


The Formulaic Writer – Part Two

Welcome back to The Formulaic Writer, a semi-regular series where I’m taking a look at various formulas, tips and suggestions that I use as fodder for idea generation when writing.

As I mentioned in the last installment, today I’m going to take a look at The Master Fiction Plot of prolific pulp writer Lester Dent. Why do I so often look to pulp writers for tips? Simply because these guys cranked out words — they couldn’t afford to let a writer’s block get in the way of making a living.

Lester Dent (1904-1959) is best known for being the creator and the main author of the Doc Savage series of novels. He wrote 159 of the 181 novels, under the “house name” Kenneth Robeson (with the exception of one credited as “Kenneth Roberts” and one accidentally credited under his real name). The majority of these novels, roughly 40 to 60 thousand words apiece, were published monthly. The man was prolific.

Late in life, he wrote down what he called a “master plot formula” for writing a 6000-word short story (although really, the method can apply to any length — As Michael Moorcock noted in Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, he’d use it for his 60,000 word fantasy adventures. Talking about Dent, he said: “First, he says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.”

So, without further ado, here is Dent’s original text:

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here’s how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.

Scribes who have their villain’s victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

Probably it won’t do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure–thing that villain wants–makes it simpler, and it’s
also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here’s a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled “Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned,” or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, “What’s the matter?” He looks in the book and finds, “El khabar, eyh?” To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it’s perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it’s a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Here’s the second installment of the master plot.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:


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 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.
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?

In Conclusion

That’s it — it’s pretty straightforward. I even used Dent’s Formula to create a randomized pulp adventure generator which appears in my THRILLING TALES Pulp RPG.

For the next installment, I’ll take a look at a nearly 100-year-old plotting tool, as well as some newer methods.

See ya then…

The Formulaic Writer – Part One

Welcome to the first of a series of blog entries that I’m going to be putting up here for a little bit: The Formulaic Writer.

When I say “formulaic,” I don’t mean predictable, or slavishly following tropes or conventions. What I mean in this context is: using various formulas as part of your brainstorming process — ways to spark your own creation by exploring various methods of idea generation.

My love of this sort of brainstorming was born in playing tabletop role-playing games. I quickly discovered that I loved systems that had random tables for generating character backgrounds, or settings, or adventure ideas. In fact, a lot of the time, I’d use those systems even when I wasn’t actively playing a game with my friends—I’d sit with a notebook and some dice, and create characters with life histories, locations and entire plots. It was, to me, like a solo game within a game. I became so enamored of these random generators, that any RPG I design almost always features some sort of random idea generators within the rulebook.

When writing fiction, that sort of randomizer can be a useful method of sparking my own creativity. I also discovered that in a lot of ways, just using some sort of formula, whether random or not, freed up my mind and helped ideas come to me. In a way, it’s almost as if letting a formula handle the “front of brain”—keeping me occupied with following a suggested set of steps (the “rules”, essentially)—frees my “back of brain” to fill in details, make connections, throw up random ideas, etc.

So in this series, I’ll be taking a look at some of my favorite idea-generation formulas and tools.

First up: Michael Moorcock’s method for writing a fantasy novel in three days.


Michael Moorcock (for the few of you who might not know) is a fantasy author; creator, among many other things, of the famous swords-and-sorcery anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.  In the early days, Moorcock scratched out a living in the low-paying fantasy adventure field by producing his novels very, very quickly.  In a collection of interviews with Moorcock, Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, he said those early novels (pulp paperbacks of approximately 60,000 words) were written in “three to ten days each,” and provided the following tips on his method:

• “If you’re going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared.”

• “You use the quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it’s a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D’Arthur it’s also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That’s the formula for Westerns too: everybody’s after the gold of El Dorado or whatever.”

• “The formula depends on that sense of a human being up against superhuman forces, whether it’s Big Business, or politics, or supernatural Evil, or whatever. The hero is fallible in their terms, and doesn’t really want to be mixed up with them. He’s always just about to walk out when something else comes along that involves him on a personal level.”

• “There is an event every four pages, for example — and notes. Lists of things you’re going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: ‘Right, Stormbringer [a novel in the Elric series]: swords; shields; horns”, and so on. […] You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.”

• “A complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. I knew what narrative problems I had to solve at every point. I then wrote them at white heat; and a lot of it was inspiration: the image I needed would come immediately [when] I needed it. Really, it’s just looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects and turning them into what you need. A mirror: a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned.”

• “The imagery comes before the action, because the action’s actually unimportant. An object to be obtained — limited time to obtain it. It’s easily developed, once you work the structure out. […] Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It’s a classic formula: “We’ve only got six days to save the world!” Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”

• “Once you’ve started, you keep it rolling. You can’t afford to have anything stop it. […] The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.”

• “I was also planting mysteries that I hadn’t explained to myself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn’t matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you’re going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I’ll put this in here because I might need it later.”

• “You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. “My God, so that’s why Lady Carruthers’s butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where was Mrs. Jenkins?”

• “What I do is divide my total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece, say; then divide each into six chapters. … In section one the hero will say, “There’s no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by getting the first object of power”. That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time element. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.

“Very often it’s something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits — nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.

“So you don’t have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it’s a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function.”

• “There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on. […] The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.”

• “‘When in doubt, descend into a minor character.’ So when you’ve reached an impasse, and you can’t move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character ‘s viewpoint which will allow you to keep the narrative moving and give you time to think.”


Tune In Next Time…

I know, I know — that’s not so much of a formula, as a set of tips.  I still find it a useful method for brainstorming, and I hope you will as well.

That’ll do for today — tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the fiction formula of Lester Dent, the insanely prolific writer of the Doc Savage pulps!

See ya then.