Applying the Formula

The Hero's Journey
Illustration by Reg Harris
A long-running controversy in writing circles rages around the validity of formulas. Keep in mind that I don't mean formulaic writing, which is just predictable and derivative. More accomplished authors than I swear by the effectiveness of time-tested plot structures, character archetypes, and pacing guidelines.

Can these decades--sometimes centuries--old conventions help authors produce soundly constructed, and most importantly, entertaining stories? Let's find out.

The Lester Dent Pulp Master Plot
SFF grand master John C. Wright shares the method used by master pulp writer Lester Dent to turn out countless Doc Savage tales.

Dent's formula presupposes a 6000 word short story and dictates placing various plot elements by word count accordingly.

Before writing, Dent advises the author to come up with:

By "different", Dent means "extraordinary". For example, don't have the villain just shoot the victim. Have him hide a rattlesnake in the victim's sock drawer. You get the idea. It also helps to establish a relationship between the McGuffin and the setting.

With these decisions made, we begin the story.


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, Dent advises us to make sure that the action isn't just window dressing. It must accomplish something.


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?

Dent now offers us the sage advice Show; Don't Tell. He also exhorts us to structure our stories for continuous action (note: "action" does not always mean "violence", and you should avoid using the same type of action twice).


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?

Make every word count.


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?

There you have it. Dent made a living from this formula, so we know it worked in the golden age of the pulps. Thanks to the Pulp Revolution, it might just work again.

The only caveat I'd add is that Dent's formula is for short stories only. You'd have to modify it considerably, or string several shorts together, to get a workable novel.

The Hollywood Formula
Screenwriting teacher Dan Decker identified the Hollywood Formula to help his students maximize the emotional impact of their movie scripts. It was widely adopted by film makers following the success of Casablanca; where, Decker speculates, the creative team stumbled upon the formula by accident.

The Hollywood Formula utilizes three archetypal characters whose interrelationships drive the story across three acts.
  • The Protagonist — the character whose pursuit of a goal drives the story. The goal must be concrete, definable, and achievable. Not "I want to be happy" or "I want to be rich", but rather, "I want him to fall in love with me so that I will be happy." "I want to win the game show that I'm going to be on so that I will be rich."
  • The Antagonist — the person who places obstacles between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist is not necessarily a villain. The antagonist's goals may be diametrically opposed to, or even the same as, the protagonist's.
  • The Relationship Character — accompanies the protagonist on his journey. Typically a more experienced character who has wisdom to share with the protagonist, which the protagonist rejects at first. The theme of the story, what the protagonist needs to understand in order to succeed, is expressed either by or to this character. In many cases, this happens as part of an actual conversation. At the end of the story, this conversation or expression of the theme will be revisited, and the protagonist and this character will reconcile with each other.
The story ends when the protagonist achieves or relinquishes his goal, defeats or is defeated by the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer together these things happen, the more emotional impact the story will have.
Unlike Dent's model, which divides a story by word count, The Hollywood Formula indicates which events should occur at various percentages of the way through the story.
  • First Act: beginning at 0% of the way through the story; Introduces the characters and their goals. At 10%-15%, the protagonist faces a fateful decision, a choice, and how he answers determines whether or not there is a story.
  • Second Act: begins after 25% of the story has been told. Starts piling on the problems. At about 50%, the story has been raising questions. It begins to answer them.
  • Third Act: begins after 75% of the story has been told. The beginning of the third act is the low point—the furthest the protagonist can possibly get from the goal. At Climax the protagonist confronts the antagonist, reconciles with the relationship character, and claims success or failure in his goal. Then we have Denouement; loose ends are wrapped up and the story reaches its conclusion.
Also unlike the pulp method, the Hollywood Formula has been successfully used on novels by authors and editors like Lou Anders.

The Hero's Journey
Chances are you know this one. This ancient storytelling pattern was identified by Dr. Joseph Campbell and popularized by his most famous pupil George Lucas. Yep. This is the formula that Star Wars used, so it bears closer examination.

Like the Hollywood Formula, the Hero's Journey evolved organically over years--in this case, millennia--of storytelling. The thematic notes it hits form the core of Western fiction and are probably why our stories resonate so well, even with other cultures.

The Hero's Journey is arranged in a cycle that proceeds until it arrives back at the beginning and starts again. It also follows a three act structure with each step containing multiple steps.

I. Departure
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. Crossing the Threshold
5. Belly of the Whale
In the Departure part of the narrative, the hero or protagonist lives in the ordinary world and receives a call to go on an adventure. The hero is reluctant to follow the call, but is helped by a mentor figure.
II. Initiation
6. The Road of Trials
7. The Meeting with the Goddess
8. Woman as Temptress
9. Atonement with the Father
10. Apotheosis
11. The Ultimate Boon
The Initiation section begins with the hero then traversing the threshold to the unknown or "special world", where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers.
The hero eventually reaches "the innermost cave" or the central crisis of his adventure, where he must undergo "the ordeal" where he overcomes the main obstacle or enemy, undergoing "apotheosis" and gaining his reward (a treasure or "elixir").
 III Return
12. Refusal of the Return
13. The Magic Flight
14. Rescue from Without
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
16. Master of Two Worlds
17. Freedom to Live
The hero must then return to the ordinary world with his reward. He may be pursued by the guardians of the special world, or he may be reluctant to return, and may be rescued or forced to return by intervention from the outside.
In the Return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with the treasure or elixir he gained, which he may now use for the benefit of his fellow man. The hero himself is transformed by the adventure and gains wisdom or spiritual power over both worlds.
This is all well and good, but are writing formulas of any real benefit to contemporary authors? In my experience, the answer is yes.

Art means producing a work to a standard. As John C. Wright has pointed out, building a story isn't so different from building a house. Human nature is what it is, and there are certain themes and plot devices that tug at our heart strings more vigorously than others.

I've heard the objection made that Homer didn't concoct a detailed outline for the Iliad with the Hero's Journey in mind. Though true, that argument is wholly beside the point. Homer may not have known that he was following the formula, but his story did follow it, and that's why it still entertains audiences today.

In other words, none of these formulas are necessarily prescriptive, but they do a fine job of describing the kinds of stories that maximize emotional impact. If you've written yourself into a corner or your beta readers can't seem to get through your manuscripts, you could do worse than giving one of these methods a try.

For an example of a story that draws from the Hero's Journey, see my award-winning novel Souldancer.

Brian Niemeier - Souldancer



  1. "The only caveat I'd add is that Dent's formula is for short stories only. You'd have to modify it considerably, or string several shorts together, to get a workable novel."

    Check out Michael Moorcock's Three Day Novel approach. He's proven that Lester Dent's formula scales. That said, while I have seen it adapted to even 120,000 word novels, 60-80k words appears to be the sweet spot for novels.

    1. Do you think that 60k would work best, i.e. stringing together 10 short stories of 6k words each?

    2. Aww, I was going to share the Moorcock formula, but you beat me to it. Well played.


      But seriously though, anyone looking to join the pulp revolution, I would suggest looking at Dent's formula, or Moorcock's formula. Even if you don't like, and don't want to use a formula. It gives a good look into the head of a pulp writer. Look how tight it is, there is no room for going off track, filler, or ideology. Nearly every element raises the stakes. Just a fast paced thriller built to entertain.

    3. Taking from the Moorcock link that anonme supplied:

      "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."

      Rather than patch ten short stories, expand each 1500 word segment to 15,000 words. But 6k and 60k were artifacts of the market at the time. What I have seen is that the pulp stories that use Dent's model drag at the modern 100,000+ word length. Economy keeps the pace moving.

    4. Thank you for adding another tool to my toolbox, gentlemen.

  2. Good stuff. Have Spacesuit Will Travel seems a fairly pure example of Dent's process applied to a novel, with the addendum I don't think anyone's mentioned so far: you're stringing short stories together, yes, but you can skip the character introductions after chapter 1 (except, of course, for new characters) and you don't wrap things up at the end of each 'story' until the end, instead one leaves cliffhangers. Further, each successive 'story' is higher in scope, mystery, and stakes, until Kip is, finally, saving the planet.

    Anyway, I saw Dent's formula at JCW's blog yesterday, and immediately thought to apply it to what I've working on (more after the Morecock manner Nathan describes above) - very helpful, since I have a strong tendency toward abstraction and tangents.

    (Secret Kings is about 3 down in the queue at the moment. Loved your story in Forbidden Thoughts - refreshingly subtle.)

    1. Excellent example. Good luck with your project!

      And now that you guys have introduced me to Moorcock's formula, it looks like I used it on Secret Kings without knowing it. Probably my pulpiest book yet.

  3. And every one of them is about a hero facing down against villain and growing from the experience. Very good stuff.

    I wonder if anyone ever wrote a subversive guide to stories in place of these ones? Surely that would be easy enough to nail down.

    Congrats on your book with Castalia, BTW.

    1. 1. You said it!

      2. Yes. Ironically, Moorcock, who I'm given to understand successfully expanded Dent's method to novel length, used his expertise to help destroy SFF. His stated intent for writing the Elric books was to depict a dull, evil character who accomplished feats that were no less heroic than Roland's.

      3. Thank you. I very much hope you'll enjoy it.

    2. It's also interesting to note that with Moorcock, the further along he went into that project. the more he abandoned his pulp roots. His Three Day Novel approach was only used early in his career.