How Heinlein plotted

I'm powering through the ending of the smashing, enormous first volume of the first major authorized biography of Robert A Heinlein: Robert A Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 1: Learning Curve (1907-1948) and I've just been poleaxed by this quote, which absolutely sums up the way that I approach stories: "My notion of a story is an interesting situation in which a human being has to cope with a problem, does so, and thereby changed his personality, character, or evaluations in some measure because the coping has forced him to revise his thinking. How he copes with it, I can't plot in advance because that depends on his character, and I don't know what his character is until I get acquainted with him."


  1. I’m not sure this is totally the reason, but it’s at least part of it, that all great authors are able to make you feel like you are right _there_ in some way.

    I know I feel that way in Heinlein, Hemingway, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Spider Robinson, John Steinbeck, and Cory Doctorow (w00t – mega-name-dropping post, do I win a prize?? )for sure. There could, of course, be other factors I’m not thinking about right now, but the ability to “be” the character while they write and to have the character react in appropriate ways is a large part of why their fiction works. For Me. Your Mileage May Vary, of course.

  2. Once you have created a story “universe”, who you choose to populate it with, and what they do is the easy part…
    How they interact and their dialogue with each other – that’s the real challenge and the difference between un- and forgettable.

    “The difference between the right word, and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.” – Samuel Clements

  3. A high proportion of sci-fi follows this formula and produces amazing results but it’d be nice if more authors moved outside it.

    What if we lived on a socialist planet?
    What if we lived in an underground hive organization?
    What if we lived on floating trees?
    What if you were born on a stalled settler starship?
    What if you could see crimes before they happened?

    Sci fi is one of the most innovative genres in terms of the worlds it creates, and least innovative in the way it tells stories.

    It’s as if authors think they must balance out creativity in one area by being traditional in another so that the reader isn’t overwhealmed.

    Iain Banks occaisionally pushes boundaries in all directions at once and that’s really refreshing for me.

    1. To clarify; those what-if situations are existing books (name them if you can!) that use this simple formula and don’t step outside it.

      1. Felix: Particularly interested to hear you drop Integral Trees in that list, because in a few of his classic stories Niven is unusual in attempting to do less than the formula – he doesn’t aim to have his protagonist grow and change in response to their problems, but to have the crisis change in response to the protagonist. Niven’s sometimes as interested in the puzzle/problem itself as he is in the character.

        Granted, Trees is one of the majority of stories where he does care about protagonist development. But compare, say, the Gil Hamilton stories, where the protagonist isn’t supposed to change or reevaluate himself or his thinking, only to solve the problem. (Hmmm… maybe that’s a property of detective stories, actually – Morgan’s Altered Carbon also springs to mind as a novel where the protagonist changes his situation, not his persona.)

        I take your point though.

        (I’m curious: which Banks books do you consider to be avoiding this formula in favour of pushing creativity in all directions at once?)

        1. That may be true of Altered Carbon, but by the end of Woken Furies, the 3rd of the trilogy, Takeshi Kovacs has become considerably mellowed by experience compared to his earlier persona.

          1. @Aeon: Good point. Kovacs certainly ends the series in a much less hostile place.

            A lot of that happens in Furies, though… I think it’s hard to argue that he experiences growth in Altered Carbon. (Unless you count the satisfaction Kovacs takes in revenge nearer the end… which I suppose you might, but he always had that ability.)

            imag has a point too. The Hero’s Journey is a great analysis tool that turned a lot less useful when people started using it as a script.

    2. Ooh! Let’s try…
      What if we lived on a socialist planet? – The Dispossessed, by Le Guin? You could also argue for Red Mars etc, I suppose…
      What if we lived in an underground hive organization? – Tricky. The Penultimate Truth?
      What if we lived on floating trees? – Yep, has to be the Integral Trees/The Smoke Ring
      What if you were born on a stalled settler starship? – Is this Heinlein himself, with Orphans of the Sky? That wasn’t really “stalled” though, hmm. You’d think this would be a common concept – Gene Wolfe?
      What if you could see crimes before they happened? – “The Minority Report” by Mr K Dick, of course – in fact, I’m not sure of many other books with this concept.

  4. The books that have always stuck with me are those that follow this formula most precisely. Sure, there is better literature – even in the genre – but as much as I enjoyed, say, Yiddish Policeman’s Union and as much as I envied the prose, I don’t really call the story except in the most general terms. Heinlein’s juveniles are of course not going for literature, but even though I read Tunnel in the Sky 30 years ago, I still recall Rod Walker’s dilemma of being a romantic kid in a practical age and that, in the end, he learned that life was complicated and he’d just have to “Sweat it out, son. Sweat it out.” A simple story, well done.

    1. Good point, Bevatron, although I can’t help but wonder if that’s because everything I read as a child sticks with me.

      Having said that, Felix carries an equally valid point – SF is frequently a very conservative genre in terms of story structure.

      (Cory… do you agree with Felix’s suggestion that the very traditional structure of many SF stories is a response to the need not to overwhelm the reader? Or if not, what would you suggest? Or don’t you accept the premise?)

      Where does, say, Accelerando fit in this picture?

      (Can’t decide if Yiddish Policeman’s Union bears out my point about detective stories or not; the protagonist doesn’t change much but everyone else does. And he does aim for some sort of closure.)

  5. I read somewhere Barbar Kingsolver taking the opposite tack with her characters. That they do just what she wants them to and they don’t “surprise” her at all. I think that affected the one-sidedness of Nathan in the Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver contends that’s an allegory anyway. But it shows the difference between more propagandistic writings and more open writings.

  6. “What if you were born on a stalled settler starship?”

    That could be Wolfe, but he definitely goes in a creative way with the storytelling itself.

  7. Is there an index of the degree of libertarianism in Heinlein stories?I’d like to read more of his work, but I don’t want to read his BS.

    1. @Pink Frankenstein: I don’t know if there’s an _index_ as such, but some rules of thumb:

      The later in Heinlein’s career it was, the more libertarian (and rambling) he got; sounds like you want to avoid anything written after about 1970. Possibly after 1960. (But that excludes ‘Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ which you might be OK with; it goes into full on Heinlein near-anarchy-society-with-group-marriage territory, but it does so without any of the distracting fervour of his later work; the book cares more about the revolution than the society it’s set in. And Mike and the Professor are classic Heinlein characters.)

      Anything written before 1960 is ‘Early Heinlein’, and there are some distinct differences in approach. (And some distinct similarities, of course!)

      The short story collections are a very good starting point; ‘The Man Who Sold the Moon’ is dated now but still a classic.

      Don’t overlook the juveniles; a lot of his best stuff was written for a young audience. (Around here I don’t suppose I really needed to say that.)

      I can’t know whether you’d like Starship Troopers, but it’s certainly not libertarian! Depends on how you feel about his militaristic tendancies.

      1. I agree but would also throw Moon out as well. It falls into that period where Heinlein treated his opinions as natural laws. His earlier books where he was interested in showing nature’s natural laws were much more interesting.

  8. Character growth stories can be great, but I think there is an overemphasis on them in this culture. The almost religious following of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has gotten out of hand. It seems the only stories we want to tell are coming-of-age. I think it’s part of our obsession with change as a great good, which ties into our love of self-improvement and adoration of the 15-25 year-old demographic. If you can’t be reinventing yourself constantly, they seem to say, you may as well be dead.

    Some of the greatest stories allow for the truth that people do not change nearly as much as they think they do, or even wish they did. Characters can be notes in a jazz piece; the interaction is what’s important, not their change.

    I guess I just worry that, in our effort to trip over one another telling heroic myths again and again, we stop telling the stories about ourselves, about adults as main characters and not antagonists. Chekhov’s stories, most great Westerns, and many Shakespeare plays manage to function just fine without self-realization and self-actualization; I just hope those kinds of stories continue to get told…

  9. I will have to argue that The Colonel, Jubal and Lafe (& don’t forget Hartley Baldwin) are all distinctive characters that sometimes change and sometimes don’t depending on the story. The way they are “all the same,” is as most of us are the same, and as most of our coming-of-age characters are as well.

    The clay of humanity is the clay we work with – and it jes’ don’t vary that much. That’s the challenge.

  10. Heinlein wrote about “how the character changed”? Ah, must be fiction, then. IRL, people don’t change, although their foibles can conspire to produce nonsense — such as canonizing Heinlein. Give me an ounce of Hemingway, rather than a ton of Heinlein, anytime.

  11. What Cory identified (and Campbell and others like Syd Field) is that most compelling reading successfully integrates the protagonist’s existential journey into the cultural zeitgeist.

    This goes beyond formula, as there are an infinite number of ways to present narrative.

    Oh, and Aristotle had this all figured out in his Poetics.

  12. Let me start off by saying I am a huge Heinlein fan, and have been since I was a young teen. I own at least one copy of every novel he’s published. I read most of them once a year or so.

    But if I were to give young authors advice about plotting and character, it certainly wouldn’t be to emulate Heinlein.

    Seriously, is the big lesson for tomorrow’s authors the “then I got smacked on the head and when I woke up it was all resolved” method?

    Heinlein had some brilliant ideas, and the first half to two thirds of most his novels are brilliant. But then he kind of peters out and the protagonists find alien technology that saves the day, or the hero gets taken out and is filled in on the miraculous solution later or something similar.

    I love the idea of getting to know a character and seeing where the character takes you, and I think it’s a valid method of plotting, but I think we need to seriously look at plotting advice from Heinlein as comedy advice from Saturday Night Live skitwriters. Great ideas, some cool stuff, but weak endings.

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