The Rules of Pulp

Last time we talked about the inception of pulp fiction writing and what it was. But if you’re new to the medium, then you must be asking yourself, how do I know if I’m watching something that’s considered pulpIs it just anything made before the 1950s or are there newer movies, television, and literature that can be called pulp?

For anyone who is curious, and wants to get into this genre of storytelling, this article is for you. While it is easy to simply look at a certain time period, wag their finger, and yell “That’s pulp!”. Identifying pulp fiction isn’t as cut and dry as that. Yes, these stories were popularly written from the turn of the century until the 1950s and most homages take place in that same time period, but that’s not all it takes to make something pulpThere are a set of rules that pulp writers and historians of the medium have unofficially decided on as identifiers.

1. Larger than Life Main Character

The main character is usually larger than life. Which means there is something eccentric about them. Something that sets them apart from everybody else. Something that causes people to notice them and talk about them. There’s a reason that he’s not just referred to as Tarzan, he’s The Legend of Tarzan. People travel to the jungle and speak of stories they’ve been told about a man that lives with the apes and swings through the trees on a vine. This is a rule that easily lent itself to the superhero genre later down the line. Without the precedence of these Pulp Heroes, there wouldn’t be two mobsters speaking in a dark alley about “The Batman? I’m not scared of him. He’s just a myth.”

2. Fast Pace

In a pulp fiction story, things need to happen. A lot of things. And fast. Pulp stories have always been known for there quick pace. For good reason too. You needed to keep people’s eyes glued to the page. They paid a whole ten cents for this book, you can’t let them put it down. They need to feel the need to turn to the next page, to the next chapter, turn to the next book. This is your paycheck! You need to keep them intrigued and coming back for more!

3. Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire

Part of the reason there is such a quick pace in stories like these is due to the fact that pulp writers adopted an out of the frying pan and into the fire mentality when it came to writing. Not only did things need to happen and happen fast, but the situation had to increasingly get worse for the main character. A story element that is partially to thank for causing readers to continue reading for as long as they did. This is also an element that lent itself to film serials very well. You had 12-15 chapters to fill with content. Which led to many ways that Flash Gordon could get into to trouble.

4. Cliffhangers!

The plot device known as a Cliffhanger may have been conceived in the early 1800s, but it was definitely popularized by pulp writers in the following century. There was no plot device that lent itself more easily to pulp fiction than cliffhangers did. Pulp writers who wrote serialized stories for magazines heavily relied on them. As did film serials years later. You might even go as far as to say that film serials wouldn’t exist without the use of the cliffhanger. It’s easy to see why. You had to get kids to leave their homes every Saturday morning and rush down to the theater to see how Commando Cody would possibly get out of that cave before he would have to face certain doom.


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