Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter, and Formula Writing

I read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books back when I was in junior high and senior high school. After I read them, I kept them for many years (30 years plus). I had all the Tarzan books too. It was only a few years ago that I got rid of them all.

When John Carter (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/) came out, I got the yen to reread them. As I often say, I only get rid of things that I want to use later. I didn’t want to buy new copies to read and while some of them were available from the library, I didn’t really want to sign them out. The early books are in the public domain now and I could download them from Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/ , but I was too lazy, so I downloaded the audio versions of three books from http://librivox.org/.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from what I’ve read it sounds like they mashed together the first three books. The main villain in the movie doesn’t show up until the second book. Some of the changes appear to make in easier for modern audiences to identify with the characters.

Of course, part of my reason why I reread the books was to see if I could gain a better understanding of how to put together a story. The Princess of Mars was the first novel that Burroughs wrote. I suspect that he studied other works before he did this story. In one article about him, they note that he used of a variety of charts when he wrote. The use of charts says to me that he had a formula he followed in his stories.

Some others have noted that the first three Mars books have pretty much the same plot, with John Carter in search of Dejah Thoris. The details of the search vary, but the goal remains the same.

Last year I studied the formula used by Lester Dent, who wrote the Doc Savage books. I could see some similarities with Burroughs’ work. Dent says you need to have the hero get into a fight every 1,500 words. In Princess of Mars, the hero gets into trouble about every 2,600 words, although this varies from one chapter to the next. It isn’t always a fight. In one case, it is a rejection from Dejah Thoris.

I have a few of observations about the book. First is that the hero has a clear goal (Dejah Thoris) throughout most of the book. While in pursuit of that goal, he runs into one crisis after another. Even while he struggles through each crisis, he thinks constantly about Dejah Thoris. Many times he gets frustrated because a crisis diverts him from his main goal.

The second point is that each chapter ends with the onset of the next problem the hero must overcome. After he has just triumphed over one foe, the next one taps in on the shoulder. The poor guy hardly gets a chance to breathe. I’ve read elsewhere that this is a well-known technique to make a book a page-turner. The hero can take a break in the middle of a crisis, but never after a crisis has passed.

The third is how lucky the hero is. For example: Dejah Thoris just happens to be in the air fleet that the Tharks attack. Dejah Thoris just happens to be on the ship that gets shot down. Dejah Thoris just happens to be the only survivor. Just by accident he is always in the right place at the right time. I didn’t notice this when I first read the story long ago, and didn’t notice it this time until I thought over the stories later. It reminded me of an incident I had in a script I wrote. The incident was a direct description of something that happened to me several times. Several readers criticised it as implausible. Maybe implausibility isn’t quite as important a problem as some people think.

The projects I have are nothing like the interplanetary adventure/love story that Burroughs wrote, but I can see how I can use some of his techniques in my stories.

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