Brandon Sanderson – Epic Challenges and Skillful Solutions

Epic fantasy is known for expansive milieus, overarching story lines, earth-shattering stakes, and a chorus of viewpoint characters. With each increase in the scale of the work, avoiding confusion and maintaining reader interest becomes more challenging. And yet, Brandon Sanderson makes it look easy in the Stormlight Archives.

Many readers are intimidated by the complexity of epic fantasy storylines, claiming that it is too much work to get to the good part of the story. To win initial reader investment, Sanderson chooses to start the Way of Kings very aggressively. Character, setting, and conflict are all established in the first 16 pages of the book, while simultaneously hooking the reader with action and mystery. In the series prologue, Sanderson shows us heroes who have fallen from their glory and abandon the world to face the ultimate evil they know will return. Along with capturing reader interest, the prologue establishes the scope of the milieu and conflict to come. Sanderson then goes on to chronicle the assassination of a king, an event that profoundly affects many of his characters and launches the main conflicts of the series.

Even with the reader invested, the long rising action of many epic fantasies saps the reader’s interest long before the climax. Sanderson combats this tendency by plotting each part of his books as individual story arcs. The rising action of each part draws the reader through the story to a mini-climax. The resulting falling action allows the reader to rest between parts and gives them permission to put the book down for a short while. In so doing, Sanderson leapfrogs the reader through his major arc, rather than forcing them to climb a single monumental rising action. Though such pauses are normally avoided in fiction, Sanderson uses the technique to avoid reader fatigue.

Additionally, epic fantasies tend to have a larger cast and more viewpoint characters than other works, so readers will often have a hard time keeping up with each individual and their goals. By using only a handful of key viewpoint characters, Sanderson limits the number of protagonists the reader has to track. Each book focuses on a single primary viewpoint character, delving deeper into their past and present than the others. However, because each part of his book uses two or three key protagonists to serve as viewpoints, Sanderson is able to maintain variety in perspectives.

Though epic fantasies often intimidate readers, Brandon Sanderson has made his Stormlight Archives approachable. First, he breaks his main plot lines up into smaller arcs, drawing his reader on through the story while providing points of rest and satisfaction. Second, his introductions are packed with action and mystery, drawing the reader into the story. Finally, Sanderson leverages a few key characters as reoccurring viewpoints to allow more time for the reader to bond with his protagonists. By accounting for human attention spans in the planning of his books, Sanderson is able to avoid many of the pitfalls of his genre.


2 Responses

  1. Frank Morin says:

    Great post. I agree with what you said. Brandon is a master. A lot of the most popular epic fantasy series lose their edge and start floundering when the authors either split into too many main viewpoint characters or let the story arc slow down. It’s one of my favorite genres to read and write in, and it’s always a great experience reading Brandon’s stories.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      The thing that impresses me more than anything, Frank, is how much he seems to improve with each story. Makes me feel like I have a lot of catching up to do, but hopeful for my own upward path at the same time.

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