My Sandershelf

Everything I Learned About Writing Fiction From Reading Brandon Sanderson’s Books

I’ve been in my fantasy book era for the past six months or so, and recently, I discovered The Cosmere — a collection of books and series by the prolific Brandon Sanderson, who is best known for The Mistborn Trilogy and Stormlight Archive series and one of the world’s most successful modern fantasy authors. (His latest Backerkit project, which raised over 23.7 million dollars, is a testament to that.)

I’m currently writing my first fantasy novel and have been floored by how difficult it is. I’m working hard to refine my plotting and writing skills through resources like Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and WriterTube.

Yet, I’ve also learned a ton of valuable (if more nuanced) lessons about the art of writing fiction simply from reading Sanderson’s books.

There were a few lessons, in particular, I’ve found especially helpful

My Sandershelf

Powerful Prose Can Be Simple

One of the most common complaints people have about Sanderson’s work is that his writing is too simple. But I don’t find that at all. Yes, it’s clear and easy to follow, but how is that a bad thing?

I want to be transported into the story, so there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a book with a lot of flowery prose only to reach the end of the page and realize I have no idea what I just read.

Some people love highly poetic prose, and certainly, there is a place for it. But if it’s overdone, it can easily break the flow of the story. In fantasy especially, the reader has enough information to parse through from all the world-building; they don’t need to get bogged down with purple prose, too.

And so, Sanderson’s simple style is not an accident. In a recent article Sanderson published on his website, he writes:

“I’ve slaved over my style, practicing for decades, honing it for crisp clarity. My prose is usually intended to convey ideas, theme, and character, then get out of the way[.]”

But what strikes me about Brandon Sanderson’s writing style is that the prose is just as poignant (if not more so) despite being simple. There were moments in The Hero of Ages that gave me chills. And Stormlight Archive has some equally powerful moments that often made me put the book down, lean back, and whisper, “Whoa!”

It reminds me that how your writing impacts the reader is far more important than the vastness of your vocabulary.

Great Adult-Classified Novels Can Be PG

Explicit gore and “spice” (as the BookTokers call it) are not synonymous with quality adult content.

In fact, there’s a troubling trend I have noticed among books published in recent years, and it’s — surprisingly often — the only thing separating an adult book from a YA book is the amount of sex, offensive language, and violence it contains.

I’m by no means a sensitive reader; I can handle some HBO-esque content if it enhances the story. But I feel like some authors use it as a crutch to keep the reader’s attention.

Sanderson’s books, in contrast, are all very PG. This is in large part because of his religious beliefs as a Mormon, but I find nothing prude about these books. They still contain war, violence, romance, and morally grey characters — but it is done in a way that puts the focus on the meaning of the events rather than the events themselves.

Honestly, it’s refreshing and makes me feel more confident in my own writing style, which is tame compared to the current trend in adult books. It’s a lesson that you should trust in your voice and writing style as an author — just because it isn’t what most writers do doesn’t mean it won’t resonate with your readers.

Mysterious Backstories Will Hook the Reader

One of the things I love about Sanderson’s characters is that they are almost always surrounded by an air of mystery. One of the best examples of this is in Mistborn. Early on, we’re introduced to Kelsier (a prominent character whose fitting motto was “There’s always another secret”), who is hinted at as having a tragic past. That hint of backstory made me want to keep reading and learn more about the character right from the start.

We also see this approach repeatedly in the Stormlight Archives. In the opening chapters of The Way of Kings, the main protagonist, Kaladin, has lost his brother, but we don’t know how.

Then there’s 17-year-old artist Shallon, who is clearly suppressing memories about something that happened to her mother a year prior, but we don’t know what.

The third important character, Dalinar, cannot remember his wife’s name, but we don’t know why.

All these narratives tease at something big in the characters’ pasts, keeping you hooked as Sanderson slowly doles out breadcrumbs of information as the series progresses. (I just started the third book in the series, and I’m still waiting for the backstory on Dalinar’s wife!)

While these details are not the main focus of the plot, they add depth and intrigue to the characters, making you feel more invested in them as a reader.

As a writer, it has me thinking more about the histories of my protagonists and digging deeper into their off-page experiences.

Explore Themes Over Imposing Viewpoints

Arguably, my favorite thing about Brandon Sanderson’s writing is how thought-provoking it is. Even though it’s fantasy, it gets quite philosophical with its themes at times.

But rather than using a story to make a point, Sanderson uses it to invite exploration.

As one of his characters puts it:

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings, Page 806.

For example, in Mistborn, Sazed is a scholar who specializes in learning about the world’s various religions, which the Lord Ruler made extinct a thousand years before. This character goes through quite a spiritual journey as the series progresses.

Some authors might have taken a storyline like that as an opportunity to be heavy-handed with their own beliefs. Instead, Sanderson uses the theme of religion with no agenda other than to ask thought-provoking questions about the nature of faith.

The way this is done is what makes The Hero of Ages (the final book in the series) one of my favorites of all time.

This is not to say that a good story doesn’t have a “lesson” that the characters need to learn, but as a writer, it’s important to know the fine line between demonstrating what the character needs to learn to complete their story arc and beating your reader over the head with the implied moral of the story.

Final Thoughts

Although I still have a long way to go before finishing the first draft of my fantasy novel, reading Brandon Sanderson’s books has kept me inspired and active in the pursuit.

And if I can apply these lessons even half as well as he has in his work, I know I’ll have created a book that makes me proud.

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