Alarm für Cobra 11 and the Lester Dent Pulp Fiction master plot

I quite like Alarm für Cobra 11, a German TV show of about two highway cops (Turkish-German cop Semir Gerkan, played by Erdogan Atalay, and a succession of partners) and their cases, that has some of the best vehicle stunts this side of a Hollywood blockbuster with a nine digit budget. In fact, I have blogged about the show before, though I drifted away when Alarm für Cobra 11 suddenly became all grimdark and depressing from season 19 on due to a new showrunner who thought he was making Breaking Bad rather than escapist fare with lots of explosions and completely ruined the mix of humor, banter and non-stop action that made Alarm für Cobra 11 what it was.

I apparently wasn’t the only one who disliked the new “adult” direction of the show, because the viewing figures fell. The production company reacted and the showrunner was sacked along with the actor who played Semir’s latest partner during the problematic seasons (though IMO the actor is not to blame for issues with the script). Meanwhile, the events of the grimdark seasons (most notably the collapse of Semir’s long and previously completely happy marriage) were retconned, never to be mentioned again.

So far I like the new direction or rather the return to the old Alarm für Cobra 11 I enjoyed. I also like Semir’s new partner Paul Renner, played by Daniel Roesner, who had previously appeared in a different role in the show (and they are different characters, even though both are young cops who idolize Semir). Some of Semir’s previous partners have tended to come across as underdeveloped (ironically Alex Brandt, who had to leave because of the falling viewing figures, was not one of them), therefore I’m pleased that we got to see Paul’s family – his father, a car mechanic with early onset dementia, and his precocious niece – in one episode.

Now Alarm für Cobra 11 has always been a formulaic show to the point that you can pretty much predict the beats. It always starts off with a few minutes of Semir and Paul in their car bantering, then there is a huge spectacular car crash on the highway that is usually tied to some kind of crime. Paul and Semir investigate, which usually leads to two smaller action scenes (often chases, sometimes also shoot-outs), until the fiery finale with yet another spectacular stunt sequence, usually but not always a massive car crash. It’s clearly a formula that works, as evidenced by what happened when the screenwriters deviated from the established formula during the grimdark interlude. What is more, the show managed to offer just enough twists and turns and variations on this formula to remain enjoyable escapist viewing.

However, while watching both the new episodes and the repeats (of a pre-grimdark-interlude episode) broadcast right thereafter, I noticed something that had never occurred to me before. Alarm für Cobra 11 is not just formulaic – no, it even follows a very specific formula for writing popular fiction. A formula that’s older than pretty much everybody involved in the show, namely Lester Dent’s pulp fiction master plot.

Lester Dent was a prolific pulp author, best remembered today as the creator and writer of Doc Savage. If Doc Savage had been all he wrote, Lester Dent’s influence on popular culture would still have been assured, for not just is Doc Savage a.k.a. the Man of Bronze often considered to be one of the main inspirations behind Superman – no, Doc’s aides, five highly accomplished (and constantly bickering) specialists plus two pets plus Doc’s impressive cousin Pat, are the direct forerunners of the supporting teams/casts of pretty much every pop culture hero these days. You can see the influence of Doc Savage and his fabulous five (six, if you include Pat) in anything from The A-Team via Buffy via any number of CSI/NCIS variations via Torchwood via Castle to modern superhero movies/TV shows (it’s particularly notable in DC’s TV shows, where Arrow/Flash/Supergirl all have their own support teams).

However, in addition to creating Doc Savage and his pals, Lester Dent also came up with a plot template for a 6000 word pulp short story that is supposed to work for any genre. The entire thing, which apparently started life as an article in a writers’ magazine in 1939, may be found here, while Michael Moorcock’s application of Lester Dent’s formula may be found here. It’s well worth reading, even if you’re not a writer or a writer who doesn’t much like formulas.

To sum it up, Lester Dent advises writers to divide a story into four parts with increasingly escalating stakes and end every part with a revelation/reversal that sends the story off into a new direction. Dent also advises writers to introduce every character, plot point or theme that will eventually contribute to the resolution early on and reminds them to be original by having a different murder method, a different setting or a different treasure for the villains to be after. In short, Lester Dent’s pulp fiction master plot boils down to advice that makes sense even if you don’t actually want to follow his template.

Now let’s see how Lester Dent’s pulp fiction master plot applies to Alarm für Cobra 11. If you want to take a look at the show, a whole bunch of episodes both past and present are available for free online here. Avoid season 19 and 20, those are the grimdark seasons. Come to think of it, the grimdark episodes start halfway through season 18, when Semir’s old partner André returns from the dead to be revealed as a villain and Semir breaks up with his wife.

As I’ve said above, every episode of Alarm für Cobra 11 can be divided into four parts, which map quite neatly onto the four parts of Lester Dent’s pulp fiction master plot. Every one of those four parts/acts is punctuated by an action sequence, since spectacular stunts are the show’s raison d’etre, and also ends with a revelation that sends the plot off into a new direction. So far, pure Dent.

Establishing all important characters, plot points and themes early on, preferably in the first third, is pretty much standard for popular television of any kind these days and Alarm für Cobra 11 mostly hits that requirement, though I recently saw one episode which switched to a different villain (boss of the initial villain) towards the end.

The writers of Alarm für Cobra 11 also take care to serve up the various different things Lester Dent suggested. Different locales are difficult to do within the framework of show, first of all because of filming limitations and secondly because for a show focussed on two highway cops, it’s clear that a big chunk of it will take place on or near highways. The murder methods vary, though a lot of the episodes involve victims getting shot, stabbed, poisoned or dying in car crashes (well, it is a show about highway cops, remember, so car crashes feature prominently), frequently after having been shot or stabbed. Though the show also has a thing for apocalyptic terrorist plots involving poison gas, dirty bombs or botulinum toxin in the water supply, which is also when the show venture into SF territory.

However, the “different” on which Alarm für Cobra 11 places a big focus is the “different treasure for the villains to be after”. In the episodes (both new and repeats) broadcast during the most recent run, the treasures the villains were after included a rare vintage car which turned out to be used for smuggling, a supply of botox (for poisoning the water supply), nuclear waste (for building a dirty bomb), stolen and smuggled Syrian antiques, a contested piece of real estate, stolen high tech weaponry, babies kidnapped for human trafficking, mysteriously vanishing ransom money as well as the more common drugs, diamonds and money. And even the most recent new episode where the prize was indeed money put something of a twist on it, since the villains were looking to steal money from a government depot where it’s stored for cases of war and other national emergencies.

So Lester Dent’s lessons on writing pulp fiction stories are still put to good use almost eighty years after he first wrote them down to keep a rather formulaic TV show fresh after twenty years on the air. Another thing that helps to keep Alarm für Cobra 11 fresh is that several episodes of the most recent run focus less on the two leads (and for the new episodes, it’s notable that we don’t know a whole lot about Paul yet), but on supporting characters like forensics specialist Hartmut, junior police officer Jenny, veteran highway cop Bonrath (who was given a touching romance with former 1980s sexpot Sonja Kirchberger in a recent episode) and Kim Krüger, Semir’s and Paul’s (and in earlier episodes Ben’s) long suffering boss.

The Lester Dent pulp fiction master plot – still effective after almost eighty years.

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