Larry Niven Writing Style

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Larry Niven's Evolving Writing Style

In December, 2005 (or so), I wrote this article about Larry Niven's evolving writing style, as seen in the Ringworld series. The titles of the books and their abbreviations are:

  1. Ringworld (RW)
  2. The Ringworld Engineers (RWE)
  3. The Ringworld Throne (RWT)
  4. Ringworld's Children (RWC)

A new mailing list member at the Larry Niven Mailing List ( asked about RWT and that reminded me something. I noticed that Larry's writing style seems to have changed in the time between RWE and RWT. In RWT and RWC, a lot happens that isn't explained, and the reader has to pick things over very carefully to work out what went on. I don't think that's true in RW and RWE: the characters talk things over more and explain what happened when there's any doubt.

One example from RWT: Louis sets up a "default option" with the stepping discs but we don't really find out what it was, and it doesn't get used. Are we supposed to work out what it was, or doesn't it matter? Did Larry work out a clever series of traps and escapes that ended up on the cutting room floor?

A second example from RWT: while watching one of the Protector battles on the Rim Wall, Louis says, "Did anybody notice..." and then passes out. Clearly that's an author's trick to hint that something important happened or a big clue was dropped, but what? I've never figured it out.

I think this is visible in Larry's other work, but it's more striking in the RW series because of the continuity of story and character: the discontinuity of style is quite evident if you read RWE and RWT back to back. The later two books are more disconnected, with more gaps that the reader has to fill in with inference. It gives them a staccato quality that is absent in the earlier ones. Puzzle solving is great, and leading the reader along by the nose is tiresome, but I think the later books overshot the mark.

Ay, there's the rub: by posting this I am admitting that I am not a smart-enough reader, that I fall short of Larry's standards or expectations. In the past I have noticed some impatience on Larry's part when he's asked to explain one of these gaps. (Not gaffes; those are different.) I've sensed that he hopes and expects that his readers are smart enough to keep up with him, and he's disappointed when they don't.

Am I the only one? Clearly not, since others ask about plot points and gaps. But is it pervasive? I think that RWT and RWC have a lot in common in this respect, and the two of them represent a style shift from RW and RWE and his other early and middle work.

This page was last edited April 26, 2008.