Plot a Short Story with the Pulp Fiction Formula

Lester Dent created his Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot to write specifically mysteries with 6.000 words length for pulp fiction magazines. But even if you don’t plan on writing pulpy or mysterious, you might find use of this formula. As always: take away what’s useful to you.


I learned about Lester Dent and his formula in the writers digest university course “Pulp Fiction” by Philip Athans.

Afterward, all I needed was an overview like the dirty 30 on paper-dragon, and the knowledge on how to bend these information to my use.

How to use it?

If you actually want to write a mystery, just go along and use this formula as a recipe. Besides; let me explain.


The stories premise should differ from your typical short story, to give it something fresh and interesting. The original heavily depends on the mystery theme, I will try to make them broadly useable.

  1. The villains method (how does he process the murder, world domination, winning the strawberry contest)
  2. The villains goal (what does he want to achieve? For himself, the world or someone unusual)
  3. The locale (travel to exotic places or just rarely visited backyards you yourself know like the back of your hand)
  4. The heroes menace (ridiculous deadline, psychical difficulties, growing natural treat, …)

This is by no means a checklist. Try to use at least one point to make your story idea stand out. The more, the better. Get creative. I think the most untravelled road is the one that seems ordinary to you.

The story’s 6.000 words are splint into four equal parts of 1.500 words, each with their own action sequence.

First 1.500 words

The first line (or paragraph, if you have to) should introduce the character and his problem, as well as a hint to the solution (don’t worry, you can add this in revision).
From the start, the hero has to handle some trouble.
All characters should be introduced as soon as possible, using action instead of formal introduction.
The hero has a physical conflict near the end of this part, that combines with a surprising twist and leads to the next part.

Second 1.500 words

More grief is shoveled onto the hero. He shows his heroism but struggles, which leads to another physical conflict and surprising twist at the end.

Third 1.500 words

Even more grief, make it worse! The hero desperately tries to solve the conflict and corners the villain. He might get caught at this point, reaching his lowest, during a physical conflict with a surprising twist, that hits him hard this time.

Forth 1.500 words

The hero should be burried by difficulties by now. But using his very own skillset he manages to get out of it and resolve the conflict. Questions are answered, mysteries are cleared and the story ends with a final twist, a big surprise, but most importantly: a punch line.

You got all the “physical conflict” and “surprising twists”, don’t you?

When to use it?

For this story, you should define four physical conflicts and surprising twists beforehand. Therefore it works best with an active and strong antagonist. And even if you don’t plan to include four fistfights, don’t use arguments instead of your physical conflict.

This formula is suited for action packed stories. Even plotting with this feels like one punch after the other. That said: plotting is somewhat important here, because you need four fights and twists, that lead to the stories climax.

Another argument is the length. You might not have to hit a hard 6.000 word goal, but you should aim for it. Otherwise the parting might not work and the pacing could fall apart, when too much or not enough happens between the fights.

Why use it?

I first tried my hands on this one, because I wanted to follow an approach with more action. And this formula forces me to use more action. So please give it a try and see if it works for you.

Your word goal should sit around those 6.000 words. The plot will have to contain turning points and fights. A detective mystery with a villain would be perfectly suited, but challenge yourself by including other genres. Stretch the definition of “fight” a bit and still get the fast pace.

Bonus point if you can end with a witty one-liner.


For the sake of the original formula, let’s create a mystery kind of story. I will start this one with a brainstorm on the differences.

  • Our location will be different: welcome to the strawberryfield of fairies, gnomes and snails. It’s the view from below onto something familiar.
  • Strawberries disappear, that’s the villains unusual method.
  • The “villains” goal is to make strawberry jam for everybody, that’s why he or she needed all the berries. Seems like a cute kind of story.

Let’s pick an investigator, a little elf named… “Jo” and she investigates in the case of the missing strawberries. As a scaffold for my plot I will have to invent four physical conflicts and also four surprising twists.

  • Jo is “attacked” by a much larger gnome. She tries to flee, but he only want’s to charge her with the investigation concerning the strawberries.
    This scene also hints at the solution, that the villain is not evil, but rather misunderstood.
    We have to learn about all the subjects in their argument.
  • Together they surprise a group of snails that capture some strawberries and stop them from tearing the plants apart.
  • They are not the villains, but want to save some berries for themselves, before they disappear too. They give a hint to the actual villain.
  • While asking too many uncomfortable questions to the elf court, they are thrown out of elf town.
  • Jo sees this as an opportunity to prepare an ambush for the thief.
  • They surprise the villains minions but are captured.
  • They bring them back to elftown, despite Jo being sure, that elfs do not steal.
  • They win a fight with the elf villain and request the strawberries. They belong to all the fields inhabitants.
  • The villain explains his plan with the strawberry as a final twist.

The final punchline will hopefully come when drafting.
In between the bullet points, there will be the rest of the story, showing characters, the investigation, giving hints to the villain, maybe red herrings and a lot of strawberries.

What do you think of this formula? It’s definitely suited for non-mysteries, so give it a try.


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