Three Storytelling Lessons from John Carter

Today I want to talk about John Carter. Not the Disney movie and how it’s apparently taking a bath at the box office (which, as a Burroughs fan, I find depressing), but the original Barsoom pulp stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The first John Carter story, A Princess of Mars, was published as a serial in 1912, then re-published as a novel in 1917. The follow-up novel, The Gods of Mars, was published in 1918, followed by The Warlord of Mars in 1919.

While the first book is decent enough in its own right, the story takes off with Gods of Mars, and it’s that book I want to discuss. Like A Princess of Mars, Gods was serialized in The All-Story in 1915, released in five parts over a period of months.

There’s plenty about the John Carter stories that’s a little dated now — the Martian environment, the series of helpless princesses in need of rescue (I kid you not, Gods of Mars has three different damsels, all of them scantily clad, all in distress at one point or another). Like many products of the early 20th century, it has a couple uncomfortable race issues, and, like most pulp stories of the period, more than a few story-saving coincidences that an author could never get away with now. But a modern writer can still learn a lot from Burroughs.

The protagonist has strong, clear goals.

At the beginning of Gods of Mars, John Carter is fighting for his life. He’s dropped into a deadly situation and must fight his way through a hostile environment — escaping first from deadly creatures and then from captivity. About halfway through the story, Carter finally gets home — only to find his wife, Dejah Thoris, has gotten herself captured again. (Cue sad trombone.) Carter spends the rest of the book chasing after Dejah Thoris and mowing over everyone who stands in his way. Sure, along the way he meets a son he didn’t know he had, topples a religion, starts a war with three different factions, and sends a would-be goddess to her doom, but that’s all incidental.

Every chapter features a setback.

Carter never gets a break. At the end of every chapter, he’s tossed down a pit, clapped in irons, outnumbered by bad guys, facing down a dozen monsters. No sooner does he rescue some princess or another than she’s snatched away again. Granted, the Barsoom stories are straightforward pulp adventure, and thus focused on non-stop action, but there’s something to be said for the way Burroughs structures his stories. Even when Carter has some downtime, it’s simply a breather before he starts pursuing his goals again.

The stakes get raised.

As Gods of Mars progresses, the protagonist goes from being lost in hostile territory, to uncovering the secrets of a fraudulent religion on a planetary scale, to toppling a goddess and becoming a fugitive from his former allies, the Red Martians. Burroughs keeps raising the stakes, and each minor goal Carter achieves just puts him in a worse position. If you want to examine the principle of “move the protagonist further from the goal until he finally reaches it,” Gods of Mars is a good example of how to do it right.

Some elements of the Barsoom stories may seem a bit dated to modern sensibilities, but some storytelling principles are timeless, and there’s a reason Burroughs’ work is still being retold a century later.