Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

John W. Campbell on the art of science fiction

with 6 comments

John W. Campbell

I hate a story that begins with atmosphere. Get right into the story, never mind the atmosphere.

The trouble with Bob Heinlein is that he doesn’t need to write. When I want a story from him, the first thing I have to do is think up something he would like to have, like a swimming pool. The second thing is to sell him on the idea of having it. The third thing is convince him he should write a story to get the money to pay for it, instead of building it himself.

When there’s something wrong with a story, I can tell you how to fix it. When it just doesn’t come across, there’s nothing I can say.

When I think of a story idea, I give it to six different writers. It doesn’t matter if all six of them write it. They’ll all be different stories, anyway, and I’ll publish all six of them.

I want the kind of story that could be printed in a magazine of the year two thousand A.D. as a contemporary adventure story. No gee-whiz, just take the technology for granted.

John W. Campbell, quoted by Frederik Pohl in The Way the Future Was

Written by nevalalee

July 25, 2015 at 7:30 am

6 Responses

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  1. I used to read a lot of crime fiction and one day I discovered my favourite crime author also wrote crime fiction under a different name, so having read all the books under her previously known name I hoovered up all the books under the new alias. I then went on holiday in the middle of nowhere and sat down to read. Without exception every book was dripping with description yet nothing happened. No one disappeared, got shot or was burgled until half way through in every story. I yawned a lot during that trip.


    July 25, 2015 at 7:46 am

  2. Over-description in a story can definitely be tedious, but I do think that, in some cases, (including arguably Campbell’s most famous work) atmosphere can be very important to the context of the story. For instance, if you are writing about a team of scientists isolated in a frozen wasteland with a mutating ancient alien that takes over its host, atmosphere becomes kind of important. (Campbell was also notorious for saying the opposite of what he meant, just to get a rise out of people, so it’s sometimes hard telling just what he meant exactly.)


    July 25, 2015 at 8:30 am

  3. @scribblesfreely: Some writers can get away with a lot of description, but, crucially, only if the rest of the story is sturdy enough to support it without breaking.


    August 9, 2015 at 7:52 pm

  4. @domingosaurus: Campbell was a fascinating figure, wasn’t he? I’d guess that his objection wasn’t to description or atmosphere in itself, but to its placement: get the story rolling first, then pull back to flesh out the setting.


    August 9, 2015 at 7:53 pm

  5. Indeed a ‘worthy’ book will always have much description and often on one level it is no more than a journey into angst, for others the depth of description is so deep that it is practically a travelogue. Then one can only hope that the story is worth the effort.


    August 10, 2015 at 12:17 pm

  6. @scribblesfreely: Description is a tool like any other. The hard part is conceiving a story that demands a certain richness of description to work at all, not layering description onto a story that doesn’t need it in the first place.


    September 6, 2015 at 2:16 pm

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