There Are Three Main Plots for the Human Interest Story: Boy-Meets-Girl, The Little Tailor, and The Man-Who-Learned-Better

Robert Heinlein? L. Ron Hubbard? Catherine Crook de Camp? L. Sprague de Camp? Brian W. Aldiss? John Brunner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein apparently contended that there were only three basic templates for stories. One template was “The Brave Little Tailor”, a German fairy tale about a clever individual who combined luck and intelligence to perform a series of difficult feats, thereby obtaining success and happiness.

Would you please help me to determine the other two types of stories together with a precise citation for Heinlein’s commentary?

Quote Investigator: In 1947 Lloyd Arthur Eshbach published a variegated collection of essays about writing science fiction called “Of Worlds Beyond”. Robert Heinlein contributed a piece titled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” in which he initially splits speculative tales into two large groups: gadget stories and human interest stories. Next, he splits the latter group into three categories. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

There are three main plots for the human interest story: boy-meets girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better. Credit the last category to L. Ron Hubbard; I had thought for years that there were but two plots—he pointed out to me the third type.

The 1947 essay was reprinted several times, and the text above was taken from the 1977 collection “Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction” edited by Damon Knight. Below are additional details and selected citations in chronological order.

Heinlein’s essay included short descriptions of each of the three story types:

Boy-meets-girl needs no definition. But don’t disparage it. It reaches from the “Iliad” to John Taine’s Time Stream. It’s the greatest story of them all and has never been sufficiently exploited in science fiction.

The tripartite categorization was actually rather flexible. For example, Heinlein included many different tales within the first category:

It has great variety: boy-fails-to-meet-girl, boy-meets-girl-too-late, boy-meets-too-many-girls, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-renounce-love-for-higher-purpose.

The second category was described as follows:

The “Little Tailor”—this is an omnibus for all stories about the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa. The tag is from the fairy story.

The third category was described in this way:

The man-who-learned-better; just what it sounds like—the story of a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts.

In 1975 Heinlein’s analysis was recalled by SF and fantasy authors L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine Crook de Camp who published “Science Fiction Handbook (Revised)” and wrote the following: 2

Many have classified imaginative stories. Heinlein divided stories on a basis of interest into gadget stories and human-interest stories. He then further subdivided the latter group into three types of plot: Boy-meets-Girl, the Little Tailor, and the Man Who Learned Better.

In 1977 the journal “Science Fiction Studies” printed a book review by SF author and critic Brian W. Aldiss of the volume “The Craft of Science Fiction” which included a chapter by SF author John Brunner: 3

Brunner has an ingenious piece of jugglery to the effect that there are only three plots; he then justifies the argument with some brio. These are his three plots: Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and Man Learns Lesson. (Someone else in the book—I’ve lost the reference—says almost the same thing.)

In 1981 “On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back!” by George H. Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John M. Ford referred to Heinlein’s analysis: 4

Robert Heinlein has pointed out that there are only three basic kinds of plot (he originally knew of only two, until L. Ron Hubbard pointed out the third to him). John Brunner has further explained that these derive directly from the three ways that people can change or be changed.

In 1986 SF author Ben Bova published a collection of short stories under the title “Prometheans”. The tale “Priorities” used the following as an epigraph. The second plot type differed from Heinlein’s choice : 5

A well-known writer once pontificated that there are only three plots for fiction: (1) Boy meets girl; (2) If this goes on . . . ; and (3) The man who learns better. Well, here’s a short-short story about a couple of frustrated Prometheans that might be summarized as a fourth kind of plot: Put the shoe on the other foot.

The QI website has a separate article about an analysis offered by Jorge Luis Borges which categorized stories using four types.

The QI website also has a separate article about another assertion: There are only two plots: (1) A person goes on a journey (2) A stranger comes to town.

In conclusion, Robert Heinlein deserves credit for the story taxonomy he offered in 1947. The three categories were applied to speculative fiction stories centered on human interest. Heinlein allocated some of the credit to fellow writer L. Ron Hubbard.

(Great thanks to John Cowan who told QI about Heinlein’s three types of stories. Cowan’s comment led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, On the Writing of Speculative Fiction by Robert A. Heinlein (This article was reprinted from the 1964 Advent edition of the book “Of Worlds Beyond” compiled by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach; this book was first published by Fantasy Press in 1947), Start Page 199, Quote Page 200 and 201, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1975, Science Fiction Handbook (Revised): A Guide to Writing Imaginative Literature by L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine Crook de Camp, Chapter: Plotting an Imaginative Story, Start Page 103, Quote Page 126, Owlswick Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1977 March, Science Fiction Studies, Volume 4, Number 1, Review: The Craft Is Not the Art, Reviewed Work: The Craft of Science Fiction edited by Reginald Bretnor, Review by: Brian W. Aldiss, Start Page 71, Quote Page 74, Published by SF-TH Inc. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1981, On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back! by George H. Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John M. Ford, Chapter 5: Character: Human Problems, Human Solutions, Quote Page 59 and 60, Owlswick Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1986, Prometheans by Ben Bova, Priorities, Start Page 133, Quote Page 133, A TOR Book: Published by Tom Doherty Associates, New York. (Google Books Preview)