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.



Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.