Erle Stanley Gardner, the master of pulp fiction and one of the most successful mystery writers of all time, employed a 10-point formula for his stories. He called it the mystery ladder.

While you may not recognize the author and lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner, you will certainly recall the character he immortalized with his prose — Perry Mason, the defense attorney who rescued the falsely accused. Gardner, a self-taught attorney who practiced law in Ventura, California, wrote 86 Perry Mason titles, five of which were published after his death. Many were made into TV shows, featuring Emmy-winning actor Raymond Burr.

Gardner’s ladder formula starts with an antagonist’s motivation followed by temptation and then the development of a criminal plan. Enter circumstantial opportunity, followed by the character taking one fateful and irretrievable step toward execution of the plan.

Since Gardner is writing murder mysteries, the next step on the ladder is an actual killing, followed by the perpetrator’s flight from justice. The true murderer will inevitably begin a cover-up, while police investigators focus on a false suspect.

Enter Perry Mason, who ascertains the facts and exonerates the false suspect. Each story ends with a scene that ties up loose ends and overlooked clues.

Most writing formulas and plots behind fiction are never new. It is just the characters, scenes and circumstances that change from book to book. There’s no harm borrowing a few rungs on Gardner’s ladder for structure, as long as it’s your imagination that brings new characters into conflict and ultimate redemption.