Essential writing skills: learning from Heinlein about keeping that plot plausible

It’s at least two generations since science fiction became mainstreamed – no longer popularly viewed as mere kiddie fiction and fodder for nerdish drop-outs, but a core part of everyday fiction consumption.

XE atomic rocket motor - exactly as Heinlein envisaged - being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
XE atomic rocket motor – exactly as Heinlein envisaged – being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The cause of it, by and large, has been the combined impact of Star Wars and Star Trek – both so popular they’ve become culturally iconic, well outside the limits of the sci-fi genre.

So it’s OK to write science fiction, and a lot of credible writers do. For those writing sci-fi, of course – and I figure that a fair proportion of NaNoWriMo novels and other fiction will fall into that category – the challenge is always keeping the stories plausible. It’s this plausibility that establishes and then sustains the suspension of disbelief, however way out the setting might be. And that’s one of the keys to capturing and holding reader interest.

So how’s it done? To my mind one of the doyens of ‘plausible’ sci-fi was Robert A Heinlein, author of Stranger In a Strange Land among other classics, but also of a dozen ‘juvenile’ novels set in what – by 1950s standards – was a far-away future. But they were completely credible stories.

He did it in three ways. First off, he found a balance between wild imagination and realism. The realism became the foundation. In Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958) for instance, incorporated a very realistic description of a spacesuit, thanks to Heinlein’s own work designing pressure suits for the US Navy in World War Two. It was completely credible – in fact the A7L suits that NASA used for real on the Moon a decade later were pretty much to this specification. Much of his future was based on what he knew was plausible – and, from a 1950s perspective, on its way. His ‘atomic’ rockets used NERVA technology – a decade away from hardware when he wrote about them – to propel his interplanetary rockets on real-life Hohmann transfer orbits. His ‘torch’ ships employed the mass-energy equation E = MC <exp> 2, and were limited by Einstein.

This meant that readers didn’t blink when Heinlein also introduced an undefined magic space-drive to propel the Wormface ships in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, adding a plot revolving around multiple dimensions and time travel. In fact, given that he wrote some of the hardest science fiction ever published, Heinlein got away with a great deal of hand-waving – telepathy in Time For the Stars, ‘monatomic hydrogen’ and the ‘mass-converter’ in most of his books, the Horst-Conrad ‘impeller’ drive that ‘gripped’ the ‘fabric’ of space-time in Starman Jones (that phrase really is woo woo, as Heinlein very well knew), along with artificial gravity in the same book. And then there were the FTL ships that ended Time For The Stars.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.
Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith and wearing a A7L suit that, in engineering terms, was a LOT like the fictional suit Heinlein described a decade earlier. Photo:NASA.

But those weren’t the only ingredients for suspending disbelief. Into that mix he also stirred credible plots based around realistic characters. And that is the secret, because it grounds the story, however way-out the setting, in the real world. In a world the reader can identify with. A world that is ‘different’, perhaps, but not ‘too different’. It all comes back to the fact that writing is all about people – people that you or I might feasibly identify with – or get to meet and know – doing things that you or I might also, quite feasibly, also do.

It’s all about character arcs, which remain the back-bone of novels – even science fiction stories. Heinlein was very well aware of this. His ‘juveniles’ brought it out particularly, because they were all coming-of-age stories. A well-established arc, and one of which Heinlein had complete mastery.

That’s why his stories were plausible. And those ingredients for plausibility also made his tales much more than just science fiction – with their realistic characters, facing realistic human problems, his novels demonstrated that Heinlein was one of America’s literary greats. In my opinion, he was up there with his near-contemporary, Ernest Hemingway.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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6 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: learning from Heinlein about keeping that plot plausible

  1. I agree that the key to writing science fiction (and really, any story) is through believability. I will only read a story if it is realistic. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy sci-fi. Believable sci-fi is the scariest because I believe it could actually happen! Great tips, thanks for sharing!

  2. One of your best on character arc, Matthew, for without realistic characters, the story won’t work. To use science fiction’s setting–one that is usually fantastic–as a backdrop for character arc is brilliant! Well done!

    Once again, I am behind on my reading but I save your posts for when I have time. I save your posts. They are too good to miss.


    1. Thank you! Heinlein us one of my favourite authors – he really nailed the art of novel writing. I think the quality of his literature was buried, for the wider public, by the fact that it was science fiction, which was never really mainstreamed until the late 1970s. But Heinlein produced landmark literature by any standards and I’d rank him alongside Hemingway as one of the great US authors of the twentieth century. I remain astonished by his science fiction. Time and again we’re confronted with a ‘sf’ idea from the mid-twentieth century that has come true, one way or another. And time and again it’s credited to this author or that – but if you delve down, Heinlein probably said it first. Everything from the cellphone (“Space Cadet”, 1947 – way ahead of Buck Henry’s “Shoephone”) to the medical bed (“Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”) later attributed to Roddenberry and Trek. And so it goes on…

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