In the first part of this exploration of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s “Formula for Outlines,” comparisons are made with the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) goals of 50,000 words in 30 days.

The second part described the evolution of Syndicate outlines provided to its ghostwriters.

Here we can consider the details of the outlines, including ways to build suspense with “cliffhanger” chapter endings of various types and how the Syndicate spread them throughout a story.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate outlines followed a formula with a certain pacing that worked for them and their publisher (mainly Grosset & Dunlap by this point).

Although many series in the later era were mysteries, because they were intended for young readers, topics like murder were not included.  In the mystery aisle of a new bookstore virtually all of the mysteries for adult readers are murder mysteries but this was not considered suitable for Syndicate volumes.  There was an introduction of some of these themes after Simon & Schuster bought the Syndicate in 1984, and especially for the Hardy Boys Casefiles and Nancy Drew Files of 1986, the outlines from the Syndicate when it existed as an independent entity had certain taboos or themes to be avoided. 

List of "taboo" topics in modern Stratemeyer Syndicate books, including murder, liquor, narcotics, slang, and foreign dialect speech.
 The Stratemeyer Syndicate formula for outlines included a number of proscribed or taboo topics. Some of these had been used in earlier Syndicate volumes of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.

Curiously, some of these were used in older stories but were dropped as unsuitable for new stories for modern readers.  For example, the Syndicate proposed a plot with drug smuggling and Grosset & Dunlap’s editors declined it.  Part way through the exchange of letters the Syndicate realized that opium smuggling had been used in one of the original three Hardy Boys volumes.

1948 letters between the Syndicate and a Grosset & Dunlap editor. The publisher objected to narcotics as a mystery theme.
 Three letters between the Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Hu F. Juergens, an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, regarding the inadvisability of using narcotics smuggling as a theme for the Hardy Boys volume, The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (1949).

Likewise, there was severe disagreement with the publisher over the writer they selected, George Waller Jr., to write a Hardy Boys story from their outline in fewer than a dozen days.  One of the objections from Harriet was the inclusion of “gun play” and they connected this with the fact that Waller had written several radio drama scripts for the Lone Ranger and other series where this was the norm.  Once again, early Hardy Boys volumes, outlined and edited by Edward Stratemeyer included references to guns though they were not used extensively.

Last spring things kept happening that I did not like at all — for instance, in the Hardy, they turned the manuscript over to a — writer who had one killer-diller radio script, and had him put gun play in. He did! To the exclusion of Aunt Gertrude’s humor, which from recent fan mail the kids love. All this unbeknown to me. Well, I guess from something I happened to say, they didn’t dare sent the story to the printer, so it was sent to me. There was a big to-do, and finally a good part of the original was restored, and the “Hands Up!” stuff taken out. (That was the Skull Mountain story.)

— Harriet S. Adams to her sister Edna C. Squier, March 6, 1949.

Without murder and some of the other taboo subjects, it was necessary to be creative so the stories could be “Gaining suspense without use of extreme violence.”

The “holding point” or “cliffhanger” at the end of each chapter was a feature of Nineteenth Century story paper fiction.  This was particularly true at the end of an installment so the reader would be compelled to seek out the next part of the story as each issue came out.

The Syndicate books made extensive use of these as a means of getting the reader to do just a few more pages to see what happens.  Anyone who has read one of these stories as a youth, under the blankets with a flashlight at night past bedtime, will recall the urge to keep reading.

There were four types of chapter endings employed:

  • physical action
  • suspense
  • worry
  • humor

Outlines of the mid-1960s use a different selection of labels for each chapter:

  • physical
  • suspense
  • mystery
  • frustration
  • peril

The outline would include, in the upper right, an identification of the type of holding point. 

1965 Kellee Kawaii outline pages indicating a physical chapter ending (cliffhanger).
 Physical ending
1965 outline indicating a suspense chapter ending.
 Suspense ending
1965 outline indicating a frustration chapter ending.
 Frustration ending
1965 outline indicating a peril chapter ending.
 Peril ending

Distribution of chapter endings

While these endings could be blended to a degree, the Syndicate found it best to use a physical cliffhanger on each fourth chapter (1, 4, 8, 12, 16).  As stated in the description of the “Formula for Outlines”, chapter 19 was to be a combination of the others and should embody great predicament.  In their example there must be “seemingly no way of escape; not allowed to finish case; sudden thwarting of plans, etc.

High Point of the Plot

The outline would also include marks of the high point for each chapter near the middle.  The letters HP would appear on the outline on the left margin.  These high points could be physical or the discovery of a clue or another important part of that portion of the story.

Two pages of the outline from chapter 8 where the "high point" of the plot is indicated in the margin.
 A two-page outline with the High Point marked “HP” on the margin.

Distribution of Illustrations

Another aspect of the outline was to plan for topics for illustration based on the number of drawings to be included.  The frontispiece illustration and the cover should be tied closely with the title.  There would also be five additional illustrations in a pattern of chapters 1, 4, 9, 13, 17 or 2, 5, 10, 14, 18. 

The formula includes guidelines of the kinds of illustrations and suggestions to limit the number of people in each picture and to ensure that at least one of the interior pictures has a humorous theme.  Some of the pictures should address the main plot and others the subplot topics.

Syndicate prescriptions for distribution of illustrations among the chapters.
 Illustration Guidelines from the Formula for Outlines

The guidelines for the outline allows for a good deal of variety but also a large degree of understanding of the elements of pacing needed to hold the reader’s interest.  Those who study plot in successful stories sometimes chart the “calculus” of elements like tension, passage of time, or other features throughout the story to get a sense of what works for different writers in a genre like a mystery or suspense novel.  The Syndicate seems to have approached this similarly without benefit of analysis to create a package that has proved successful for many decades and millions of readers around the world.