I’m sitting in my Starbucks, on my day off, staring at my notes for Sanderson’s lecture last week. It’s scrawled in red pen, since it was all I could find, and it’s a mess of circles, arrows, and random side notes.
Typical for notes of mine.
We started off last week’s lecture by taking a look at what new writers really need to think about more often.
So, the title of this page looks like this:
The Problem w/ New Writers
Then the words Plot, Character, and Setting are scribbled in the rough shape of a triangle and circled, so that it looks sort of like a venn diagram. Except the bubbles aren’t quite touching. And then the word Conflict finds itself in the center, touching every bubble.
And here’s what Sanderson had to say about these words.
Character is most important to telling stories. Readers finish books because of characters.
Plot is generally a close second. And if it’s a Sci-Fi, it may come first.
Setting is where new writers really seem to struggle. New writers tend to overload on setting and have boring stories. New writers need to practice to be able to create an awesome setting unobtrusively.
And finally, Conflict. Conflict is the glue that hold all of these elements together. As a writer we need to actively seek out conflict. Not just the main conflict of the story, but conflict in the little moments. In a conversation, or even in an internal moment. Conflict should be everywhere. And that’s a problem I currently have in my longer works.
So, the first page of notes was rather tame. Flip the page and you’re greeted with an odd mixture of printing and cursive, my signature scrawl. Arrows point in all sorts of directions, words are circled or underlined, or maybe both if it really needs to stick, and the side margins are full to the brim with words going the wrong way.
Welcome to BZ note-taking 101.
Info Dumps & Learning Curves
As fantasy writers, we have to fight the urge to explain everything all at once. and this leads us to info dump. Literally, dump a ton of world information on the reader so that they can hurry up and understand so we can tell the story.
DON’T do that!
You want information to come to the reader almost organically. Nuggets of understanding should come in character and in an unobtrusive way. Also, you want it to make sense. The character should have a good reason to be thinking about something, not just randomly having a thought to teach the reader something about the world.
For those of you who have read it, think of Mistborn. That world has an extremely complex magic system, and the reader’s understanding of said magic system is integral to the conclusion of the story. But, if Sanderson had just dumped the laws on us machine gun style, we wouldn’t have really grasped it, and the ending would have been less than thrilling.
Instead, Sanderson takes his time. He develops his main character slowly, realistically, and allows the magic system to unfold as her character grows. By the third part of the story the reader has a natural understanding of the magic that allows them to anticipate things before they happen. So, in action sequences, where things are moving quickly and magic is used heavily, the reader understands the laws of the magic and can start to piece together and really envision what is going on.
It makes the story that much more immersive and incredibly realistic.
Another important thing to think of as you write is that every sentence, and therefore every paragraph should do multiple things. And this is great because it applies to every type of writing, not just Sci-Fi/Fantasy.
So, you’re sentence should simultaneously develop character, evoke setting, and move the plot along. And it is incredibly hard to do. That is a skill that requires a lot of practice, but I’m determined to get it down.
The next page is oddly empty, compared to its predecessors.
Blending the Familiar & Strange
I think I was pretty immersed in this particular lecture, because the notes are minimal. So I’ll summarize.
Basically, every story has a blend of the familiar and strange. It’s the familiar that brings readers in. A character they can identify with, or a setting that they really enjoy. But it’s the strange, the new, unknown thing that keeps them.
So, you need a blend of these two things to create a captivating story, and every story’s ratio will be different.
Sanderson made this sound more or less natural, something you don’t actively think of too much, but that you learn to recognize with time.
Generating Physical & Cultural Settings
That’s a mouthful.
This page in my notes has a sort of t-chart roughly sketched and labelled.
Flora and Fauna Race Relations
Weather Patterns Customs
Day/Night Cycle Holidays
And then the class started to build worlds. Sanderson suggested that, while all of these things are important and would be good to know about your world, you should pick 3 of them and really focus on those. Know those three elements of your cultural setting and tell your story through and about them. That makes for much more involved and interesting settings.
Strategies for Showing, Not Telling
We learn early on that showing is always more interesting than telling, and this relates directly to using an active voice instead of a passive one. But, what are some good methods to show instead of tell?
Use Dialogue! Dialogue is always more interesting, because good dialogue should characterize and be an exchange of power. And so, dialogue is more interesting to read than description, and is usually easier to read, because of its formatting.
Another method is using In Character Thoughts. This is where the character has a thought, and instead of saying it aloud, they internalize it, usually in italics. This isn’t as compelling as dialogue itself, because there tends to be less tension, but is still an attention getter.
And then of course there’s Description. Description isn’t as interesting as dialogue or in character thoughts, but if it’s done well, description can do a great job. Just remember that your descriptions should be seen through a lens. Meaning they should be described through the eyes of your characters. It allows you to evoke setting through character or plot eyes. Which sounds confusing, but it basically describes the setting with the voice of the character, or in the tension of the moment. So, you describe something in the room because your character uses it to do something in the scene.
Here Brandon reminds us not to fall in “World Builder’s Disease”. Basically, don’t spend 17 years building your world, and let it keep you from writing your story.
Ok guys, we’re almost there. To those of you who have made it this far, don’t give up yet!
Magic & Satisfying Resolution pt.1
1. Your ability as a writer to satisfactorily solve problems w/magic is directly proportional to how well your reader understands said magic.
2. Limitations are more important than the powers themselves.
3. Everything influences everything.
We should avoid “Deus ex Machina”. The scenario where the character is written into a corner and then saved by a mystical ability or entity. This undermines the conflict, and really draws the whole story into question. “If they could have done that all along, why’d they go through all the struggle?” Also, it keeps readers from being able to solve problems, which is part of the enjoyment of reading!
DON’T DO IT!
Magic & Satisfying Resolutions pt. 2
This one is a bit blank…
There’s a two-headed arrow. One end is labelled “Sense of Wonder” and the other “Solving Problems.”
Remember that we’re talking about magic here. Magic inherently should have a sense of wonder, but a strong magic system also needs to solve problems. Your magic should strike a balance. And it needs to be consistent. You can have irrational magic that’s mystical and unknowable, but it needs to be consistent. And you an have explicit magic that follows exact laws, but it can’t suddenly break the laws in order to solve a problem. Follow the rules you create!
Holy crap. That was one lecture.
What have I gotten myself into?
As far as responses go, they’ve been positive so far. Though last week I only got one response…