Brandon Sanderson 318R #3

Class #3: The illusionist writer

Motivation – The point of those character sliders, dossiers, and other techniques for understanding your characters covered in the last class is to know your characters’ motivations. You can have them act in line with who the reader knows them to be; or if you have them act outside who they really are, you can foreshadow so the reader understands why they’re acting that way.

Characters in motion – Your story needs motion, a sense of progress. Scrooge changes into a different person over the course of the story; this character arc is the motion of the story. In contrast, Superman accomplishes things but he doesn’t change himself. Either type of story can work, and you can combine the two where your character accomplishes things and also changes; decide what kind you want to write.

Plot as illusion

As a writer, you’re creating an illusion. You want the reader to feel it’s real and get caught up in the story, enjoying it, and anticipating but not quite knowing what’s going to happen. Use foreshadowing that makes the ending surprising yet inevitable. Hide your foreshadowing – it should be invisible.

Every story combines something familiar with something strange. This varies by genre and age. Middle grade books and cozy mysteries have more of the familiar. The essay The Strange Attractor by Terry Rossio explains it well. Decide where your own threshold for familiar and strange is.

  • Sense of progress – This is the most important part of plotting, and you’ll get better at it with practice. You can take any great story and boil the ending down to an unsatisfying one-sentence conclusion or drag it out into something long and boring. As the writer, this is your domain, and you can do anything. Your job is to make it exciting by creating conflict and tension in the reader. If the reader is bored, it’s because the story isn’t progressing; if they feel the story is moving forward, they’ll keep reading.
  • Promises – Learn to make promises early in your story, and fulfill them in a satisfying yet unexpected way. This usually happens in the first few pages, and it’s one reason epic fantasy often has a prologue – it shows the tone, where you’re going, what kind of book you’re getting into. The prologue in the first Indiana Jones movie shows you’re going to see fun wisecracking action with an awesome hero, and even though he fails in the prologue you expect to see him succeed later.

Promises unfulfilled might explain why another author’s first book didn’t succeed. It starts as classic epic fantasy, and about 3/4 of the way through the author upends all the tropes and it becomes a modernist take on the generic fantasy. The people who were loving it in the beginning suddenly hated it, and the people who would have loved the modernist take stopped reading before they got that far.

Plotting approach #1 – Three-act format

Most Western civilization stories can be put into this format. It’s useful because of its simplicity. Save the Cat – either the most important book ever written or the worst thing that ever happened to screenwriting – explains this in detail. Dan Wells’ Seven Point Story Structure videos on YouTube have great information on it from a discovery writer’s viewpoint.

  • Act I – Introduction – introduce characters, setting, tone. This is usually the second biggest part of the book.
  • Crisis point – character is forced to make a decision, enter a plot from which they can never return; things will never be the same. Luke’s aunt and uncle’s death in Star Wars.
  • Act II – Confrontation – things get worse. Establish what the character’s trying to accomplish; character tries things and fails and things get worse. This is usually the biggest part of the book, and it can be broken into parts.
  • Low point – do or die time. Character can’t fail again or we are defeated. The Death Star is pointed at the planet with the rebel base.
  • Act III – Satisfying conclusion – where you make good on the promise. Not necessarily a happy ending, but the reader accepts what happens as the end.This is usually the shortest part of the book.

Plotting approach #2 – The monomyth

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is worth knowing, but don’t use it as a guidebook – use it as a tool. Think about the reasons behind the elements. It’s basically a 3-act format but described as a circle.


Common elements include the mentor, who guides the hero, while the hero becomes more like the mentor. Often, the mentor dies, allowing the hero to become independent and take the mentor’s place. The hero often refuses at least once before crossing the threshold and entering the trials. The hero may have a boon, or magical gift, like Harry’s scar that tells him when Voldemort is near. Sanderson didn’t mention it, but I think the structure described in The Better Novel Project follows this model.

Plotting approach #3 & 4 – Two general ideas for pantsers

The try-fail cycle is the rising action diagram you may have seen in English class. This is too simple to help a writer, but you can modify it by making the rising line jagged instead of smooth – so the main character goes up two steps and down one, and repeat until they reach the top.

Yes, but/No, and is a simple technique to keep things moving. You introduce a conflict in the first few pages. The character tries to do something to address it. If it works, you introduce a “but;” if it doesn’t work, you introduce an “and.” This can be exhausting for the reader but it can work, like in Dan Brown’s books (The Da Vinci Code, for example). If you use this, string the events together with causality and motivation, so it’s not just a series of events. Be sure to make the main character proactive. You can also nest the plot cycles, so some things are getting resolved (she reconciles with her father) even as other problems are building.

Plotting approach #5 – Sanderson’s own method

He starts building a series of promises and great moments he wants to fulfill. For his Mistborn, these included a romance, overthrowing the empire, and learning magic. There are lots of these, reflecting all his goals and all the cool scenes he wants to include. Then he brainstorms bullet points for the progression of things that need to happen (i.e., for the romance, the character needs to learn to trust).

Readers keep reading because they see a little progress. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno is essentially a bunch of vignettes, almost like short stories, but they hang together and the reader senses progress because of the map at the front that shows them working their way to the center of Hell. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s corruption by the ring has outward manifestations, so even though this basically happens inside him, the reader still sees progress.

Consider the types of promises and subplots you might include, such as mysteries, romance and relationships, travelogues, time bombs, and overcoming character flaws. Then figure out what the steps are along the way.

Once he has all this down, he builds the book by taking something he likes from one place and mixing it with something else from another place to build a scene. To do this well, you must make sure there’s conflict and red herrings. Finally, you need to make sure the steps match the type of novel you’re writing.

For Sanderson’s actual high-energy lecture, with whiteboard illustrations and much more detail, see the original video.




Brandon Sanderson 318R #2

A few days ago I posted my notes from the first session of Brandon Sanderson’s BYU class on writing science fiction and fantasy at BYU. Today: notes from the second class. Link to class on YouTube

Class #2: Cook vs Chef

Your job as a writer is to be a chef who comes up with something new, not a cook who just follows a recipe. The chef looks at the ingredients and thinks about how to combine them in a new and interesting way — which may or may not work out. This class will talk about a lot of formulas, and there’s a danger of treating them as checklists. Instead, focus on why the formulas work, what you can learn from them.

The Hero’s Journey is a great tool. This is the idea from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which describes storytelling and common elements like the wise mentor who dies at some point in the story. It tells how the elements have been combined in the past. The chef looks at why these elements work. For example, the mentor dies to give the hero a chance to see that he can stand on his own.

Sanderson said that while planning a book, he thinks about the principles he talks about in this course, but while actually writing he isn’t consciously thinking about them. When he gets stuck or runs into trouble, he’ll go back and consider these ideas again.

Parts of a story 

A story has 3 main parts: plot, setting, and character. The conflict – a character at odds with some other element or character – draws them all together. How you tell the story – viewpoint, tense, tone, paragraphing, chapters – is your window into this structure, your personal voice. In this class, there will be about 2 sessions on each element (the 3 parts and “the box”).


Starting with a hook

Character is what keeps the reader interested. Rather than starting with a “bang,” start with a hook that grabs the audience’s attention and promises what the story will deliver. The hook should introduce the idea of your story in a concise, interesting way that encapsulates the kinds of emotions and tone you’ll be giving the reader. Part of the hook is the interesting and engaging character, maybe someone who wants something really badly.

What makes a character interesting?

There are lots of things that can make a character interesting. Maybe they can do cool things; maybe they can’t but they seem real and remind you of yourself. They may have conflicted morals; be out of their depth; be haunted by a powerful past; or be flawed. Their relationships with other people and the way they’re affected by the world around them can make them interesting. They may contrast against stereotypes, be funny, or be sympathetic (or not sympathetic). Consider why these things are compelling or interesting to you, and use that to help make your characters sympathetic and readable.

Character sliders

Three major forces drive whether a character is interesting to us. You can think of your character as falling along a spectrum in each of these dimensions.

The competence scale goes from everyman to superman. A hyper-competent character like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, where the reader just knows they can do anything, can be interesting because they do interesting things. Often this is balanced by an everyman, like Samwise from The Hobbit – he’s hyper-competent in loyalty and being a good friend, but mainly he’s an everyman. The main character can start on the everyman end of the scale and be dropped into an environment where they have to become hyper-competent (fish out of water type stories). We tend to see ourselves more as the everyman and wish we were more like the superman, so the everyman character is sympathetic. Everyone should have something they’re good at, even if it doesn’t relate to the main plot.

The likability scale measures how nice the character is, how much they remind us of ourselves, are they a good person, do they have friends. An easy way to make someone likable is to have another character talk about why they like them (but don’t overdo this; it can become sappy). In Hollywood, there’s a cliche that you have the character pet a dog or kick a dog to signal whether the audience should like them or not. You can increase likability by increasing the other scales, or by having an antagonist attack them.

Proactivity reflects how the person moves the story along. We like people who move the story, and get frustrated with people who refuse to move it along. This can lead to the villain problem – in a lot of stories with dynamic villains, the villain is the main source of proactivity in the story. Your challenge as a writer is to make sure the main character is also proactive. One way is to have the character arc be that they learn to step up and take control of their own life – but then how do you make the character sympathetic enough at the start of the story? You can force their hand early, as in The Hobbit where Bilbo is invaded by dwarves in the first chapter. Another way is to have a false plot that carries them through the beginning – they actually want something, and they’re working towards that while the real plot is sneaking up on them. Give an indication that even if they think their life is perfect, there’s something missing, like when Luke looks out at the two suns in the original Star Wars. You can show the character’s desires even if they can’t act yet. Give them small things to be proactive about even if they’re stuck in a rut.

These sliders move independently of each other. You can have a character who’s competent and proactive but not likable at all, like Sherlock. Villains tend to be this way and stay there, but heroes may move along the scale, like Gru in Despicable Me. If they can’t be proactive, you want to show them being competent in some sphere. We forgive people for being incompetent if they’re trying – if they’re proactive, like Wiley Coyote.

Flaws and handicaps

A handicap is something the character is stuck with and won’t get rid of, but learns to deal with. It’s not just physical limitations like being blind; it can be something like having a family you don’t want to endanger, or having been brought up by Muggles and not knowing things you should already know, or having OCD like Monk.

A flaw can be overcome. It’s something that might be the character’s own fault. Examples are arrogance or shyness. It causes the character trouble in the story, and they may learn from it and overcome it. Flaws make the character sympathetic because it makes them more like us.

Getting to know your character

Dossier method – questions you ask about your own character. You need to develop this for yourself, based on what’s meaningful to you. There are lots of examples from other writers out there. Answering these questions is a structured brainstorm to develop your characters. You can also brainstorm with friends to get yourself thinking.

Character monologue – if you’re a discovery writer, you can try writing a directed monologue like have the character write about their great passion in life.

What you’re trying to figure out is this: Before the story begins and the plot grabs them and carries them along, who is the character? What have they done with their life, what do they care about, what do they want? Stories that seem flat are usually because the character was built to suit the plot and doesn’t seem to have another life.

Figuring out the characters is how you figure out what the conflict is going to be, and what needs to happen in the plot. For example – if the character doesn’t fit the role they’ve been put in, like the wise mentor is actually the villain, or the loyal sidekick has to take over as the chosen one, this can drive the plot. Another example – what’s the character’s deep, dark secret? Hiding this or having it come out can drive the character arc that drives the plot. What goes wrong in their life, and why can’t they have what they want? Good characters change in some way over the course of the story, with a few exceptions like Miss Marple.

Character motivation is critically important and it’s the subject of another lecture.





Brandon Sanderson 318R #1

The talented and prolific author Brandon Sanderson teaches a class on writing science fiction and fantasy at BYU, and generously posted – or allowed someone to post – videos from one entire 13-week class on YouTube. He also has an ongoing podcast he does with other authors. I recommend watching and listening for yourself! Below are my notes from the class. Link to class on YouTube

Class #1: Course Overview

This session introduces the goals and philosophy for the course, and provides some specific guidance on writers’ groups. The course as a whole will cover plotting, creating likable characters, world building, and the business of being a writer. The goal is to give you tools you can try out and see what works for you – a writer’s toolbox. There’s no one right way to write. Listen to other writers talk about their style and think of it not as “this is what I should do” but just consider trying it out and see what the tool does for you in a given story.

Discovery writers versus outline writers

Discovery (gardener, pantser) writers like Stephen King tend to know their characters really well. They often don’t do a lot of world building in advance but may explore it in notes as they go along when something becomes important. Their first draft is their outline. They then go back and revise, sometimes even rewrite from scratch. Watch out for endless loops – when you write chapter 2, you find you need to change stuff in chapter 1, which necessitates more changes in chapter 2, and so it goes. Keep moving forward and get it finished first.

Outline (architect, plotter) writers like Orson Scott Card tend to meander less and have better endings. Watch out for world builder’s disease – when you can’t start writing till it’s all perfect in your head. A professional writer needs to complete at least one book a year. Almost every outline writer uses the outline as a changing skeleton, modifying as they go along.

Writers aren’t all one or all the other, but more 75/25 or 25/75. Sanderson “discovery writes” his characters but outlines his plot.

Science fiction and fantasy

Genre fiction means any story that fits in a particular section in the bookstore. The tropes of your genre are useful tools but they don’t define the genre. SF/F can be anything you want – literary, humorous, romance, adventure. It’s your job to say “what is it about vampires/rocket ships that makes people interested, what kind of emotion is it going to evoke in my readers” and go beyond the superficial.

Writing as a professional

The odds of becoming a professional writer aren’t as impossible as people think. You’ll have to spend 10 years of your life producing a novel a year to hone your craft and get a chance that the job will pan out (this is about 6 hours a week at 500 words an hour, which is a typical pace). Out of the 22 people in a writing class Sanderson was in, 5 are now professionals, including 3 who are full-time. His own job is more stable than his friends in the computer industry who have changed jobs multiple times.

On the other hand, never feel guilty about writing as a hobby. If you went out and played basketball once a week, nobody would expect you to go into the NBA. Writing is good for you, just like playing basketball is.

Write what you wish was out there – what you would want to read.


Workshopping helps you perfect your book, and can have other benefits – networking via his writer’s group put Sanderson in touch with the Tor editor who published his first book. (Tolkien and CS Lewis were in a writing group.) However, the group needs to be managed. Sanderson says writing groups will try to ruin your book. The biggest problem is when discovery writers workshop pieces that aren’t finished yet. “This is great, what if you did this?” and suddenly your story goes a totally different direction. People will hijack your story. You’ll end up writing to the wrong audience: the writing group.

What works for him is a weekly, in-person meeting, with writers who have a similar pace and are at about the same level.

  • Giving advice?
    • Be descriptive instead of prescriptive – “I was confused here” not “I know what you should do here;” “I was bored here” not “You should add an action sequence here.” Your editor’s job is to be prescriptive – they know what kind of book you’re trying to write, and how to bring it out.
    • Stay positive. List the positive things in a piece before getting to what’s bothering you. Prevents the writer from taking out the good stuff. “I loved this character’s voice.” “I laughed out loud here.”
    • Discuss. If someone else says they were bored on page 2 but it was something you really liked, speak up; you should talk about why each of you had those reactions. It could be a pet peeve for one member of the group, or it could be legitimate. If three people think a joke fell flat, that could show it’s a problem; if one thinks that and five like it, it’s probably that one person.
    • Drop it. Learn to say you’ve had your say about it and the writer has heard you, and leave it alone.
  • Being workshopped?
    • Be quiet. Avoid saying anything at all! Don’t defend yourself, don’t explain yourself. Treat your writing group like a test audience for a movie. You want to get the fly on the wall feedback.
    • Don’t argue. You can ask questions at the end if you need something explained more, but let them talk it out first.
    • If you’re a discovery writer, write the whole book first, and then workshop that one while you’re working on something else.
    • Consider the feedback and make changes when the comments bring up things that are important for your story. He usually takes about a third of the comments he receives and makes changes based on them.

Sanderson didn’t mention the need to develop a thick skin, but he did say that the people who like his books least are his writing group friends, because they only read his first drafts. The writing group doesn’t get your best stuff.

I plan to keep on with this class and post my notes as I finish each session. Have you watched this? Please share your thoughts in the comments!