Brandon Sanderson’s advice on how to plot a novel (Part 1)

Brandon Sanderson has given a lot of advice in his lectures about writing a novel in Science Fiction. Here is a summary of all of his points on how to plot a novel.

Based on this lecture, we will give you a peak of the Brandon Sanderson’s writing process. You will also learn what you need to do before you start writing a novel and why you need them.

Where does a book begin?

It’s different for every book, and sometimes, it’s kind of a chicken or an egg sort of thing. Stories are made up of these three things – Plot, character, and setting. But they’re glued together by conflict, and that glue of conflict is where the book begins.

READ MORE: How many books has Brandon Sanderson written

Where did Mistborn come from?

I was reading Harry Potter, and I thought, “Man, these Dark Lords never get a break.” It’s always some dumb kid comes along and ruins the plan they’ve been setting up for a lifetime.

Same with Lord of the Rings. So I’m like, what if Frodo got to the end of Lord of the Rings and Sauron said, “Hey, my ring! I’ve been looking for that. Thanks. That must have been a really hard journey. Thanks for coming all this way.” And then killed him and took over the world.

I thought that was a bit of a downer of a book to write. But I filed the idea away in the back of my head as an idea. That would be a plot idea.

Taking Mistborn as an example, what comes first? Is this a setting idea? Is this a plot idea? The idea of the prophesied hero failing is kind of a plot idea, but the idea that it turned into, a world where the prophesied hero failed, was a setting idea. These things all mix together.

Separately, another time I was watching one of the Oceans movies, and I was reminded how much I love the heist genre. I thought, “I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy heist.”

You could give every member of the heist team a different magical power. So they could each be magical. And that was another plot idea. The idea for the mist came as I was driving and I passed through a fog bank and I thought it looked visually interesting.

READ MORE: 29 Best fantasy books and series for teens in 2023

Those became two setting details. This idea of the mist, of the fog, of this kind of almost living mist, and this visualization of cathedrals in the mist shining out light. Those ideas kind of combined together with this character I was developing of Kelsior.

Feruchemy was designed separately from Allomancy. If you haven’t read the books, there are three magic systems. Two of them were designed for separate stories, and when I combined them I liked them better. And then I designed a third one in my plotting and world-building sessions.

How does Brandon Sanderson plots a novel?

He notes down all of these above mentioned ideas in the notebook or in his computer under a file named “Working Ideas”.

These notebooks are just a big list of ideas. A novel comes out of combining several ideas from the notebook. When he has a seed of a novel that is working, he will go back to the book and see if there are other ideas that would mesh well with his idea.

Once he has a mix of ideas ready to work, he will try to plug in new ideas that would work with the combination and brainstorm from there.

After that, he builds an outline, find holes in the outline or the ideas and try to fix them. Now he has this cool new thing that is the sum of several different parts which makes the whole even more exciting.

That’s how Brandon Sanderson starts writing a novel.

Then he starts building an outline. He will find holes and brainstorm new ideas to fill the holes in. Add more ideas.
Brandon believes that this is where new authors sometimes have problems. They usually pick just one really good idea and try to write a book on it. This method works for short stories but a novel needs multiple ideas. They don’t even have to be good.

Can I start writing a novel if I have a great idea?

“Ideas are cheap”

You don’t need brilliant ideas to plot a novel. You just need different hooks and other elements that can make you and the readers excited. If there’s one thing to learn about how to plot a novel is that you need a variety of ideas and make them work through your writing.

As proven by Jim Butcher, who said in a forum that ideas don’t make the author. Authors are the ones who make the ideas work.

Bad ideas can lead to great stories if written by a great author but no matter how good the idea is, if it is given to someone unpracticed, it is still going to fall apart.

To prove this, Jim asked the person he was arguing with to give him two of his worst ideas or two incongruous ideas and he would write a good book using them.

The ideas given to him were lost Roman legion and Pokemon!

Jim Butcher accepted the challenge and wrote not just a good book but an entire epic series called the Codex Alera. It has been rated 4.13 by 106k readers on Gooodreads and 4.5 on Amazon and Audible.

“Its the skill of the writer that matters the most and not the ideas they have.”

That’s what the editors are looking for. A good editor can read a few pages and determine how skilled you are. They don’t need to read your entire manuscript.

The readers are more forgiving as they latch on to ideas and themes. The writing is not given that much thought. But if your writing is good then they can instinctively feel that the novel is working for them.

But you will get judged based on your writing a lot when it comes to editors. This means that no matter how cool your ideas are, it won’t matter if you can’t pull off the writing.

Plot your novel with these elements

So the main thing to learn in writing is to grab on to the attention of the readers and editors quickly. Convince them all that’s the story is worth reading till the end.

You can make this happen by writing a structured plot line and crafting in-depth characters. The setting is also important in world-building, but out of the three, it is the least important one.

Since this lecture is about Science fiction writing, you must have assumed that setting and world building would be the most important part of this class. Although it is the only thing that sets our writing apart from others, it is still the least important part of the book.

A story with a great setting and terrible characters is a bad book. But a story with the clichéd or an average setting has great characters then it is a fantastic book. It could have been better. You should try to build all the three parts to be strong. But keep in mind that the setting is the least important part.

What is a plot in a novel? Why is plot important in literature?

Have you ever wondered why some plots work and some don’t? Why readers gets bored even wen exciting things are happening.
This is one of the most important skill a writer should have.

To pull readers in, to make things seem interesting, and keep them reading through the night. The ability to convey information in an interesting way instead of dumping all the information about the new world you are writing.

The second most important thing to learn to write a great novel is understanding the promise, progress and payoff in the story.

Promise

All stories make their own promises. Sometimes, they make several in the beginning of the story. You will master the art of writing when you can control all the promises you make, progress on those promises throughout the book and write a satisfying payoff at the end.

You should be asking yourself this question during outlining or revising – “Am I making the correct promises?” There are several types of promises you are going to make whether you do it intentionally or not –

Tone promise –

The introductory chapter sets a tone of the entire book for you. It indicates the style and the type of story you are going to be telling. If you are writing a comedy, you cannot start with something tragic like a death scene.

A lot of writers start with a prologue that will interest the readers but then the tone of the first chapter is completely different. This means that the tone of the premise was presented inaccurately.

This is why cold opens are so popular in Hollywood. A cold open is where the viewers join a character in the middle of an adventure that is not even that relevant to the main plot of the movie. A classic example would be Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It starts off with this fun but solemn Indiana Jones going into the jungle, trying to get this idol, being betrayed, and failing. This is the setup in which the viewers can see that he is awesome but also like an everyday guy. The viewers see that no matter how hard he tries, he ends up failing at the end.

This makes him human and makes the viewers empathize with him. With this introduction, anyone who has seen movies before can figure out that this movie is about adventure of a regular guy. This guy is somehow cool and yet relatable. He will probably get kicked around a lot and maybe win at the end.

Whether he wins at the end or not, because we now are invested in the story, we want him to win. But the promise here was that Indiana Jones tries really hard, that the story will be fun, and thrilling. That’s the tone promise set at the very beginning for the viewers to get in the right mindset to fully enjoy the movie.

Setting the right tone at the beginning of a novel is the reason why prologues are so popular in fantasy. The writers have realized that starting the kid off on a farm does not convey the right promise of action and adventure in the beginning.

So they start with a scene that has a lot of action and adventure. Then they write about that kid in the farm whose life is about to be changed.

You should be warned though that having a prologue has become cliché nowadays. Readers are used to the story of an action hero at the beginning, he gets some information that is important, he dies passing it on to someone and then the story starts with the kind on a farm.

An inexperienced prince or a princess wants to go out and see the world is also played out. You also have to remember that if you do it well then it stops being a cliché. But if your story doesn’t have an impact on the audience then it is just another cliché.

The reason why clichés are bad is that they have been taken from their original intent to the point that the people no longer get the original intent from the words. They also bring all the baggage that the cliché has so if you don’t do it right then it will feel underwhelming to the readers.

Character promise –

That’s another promise that you make at the very beginning. You should try to make a promise of a character arc too if possible. You don’t have to promise what the arc is going to be, but you do want to promise the thing that is missing in a character’s life that they cannot have, and the obstacles that lead to them being unable to have it. Furthermore, you want to show us your character’s desires and what’s preventing them.

You can also do it the other way around. You can show the readers what the character should want and show that they don’t want it. Take Hobbit for example. We all want Bilbo to go on adventure despite the fact that he doesn’t want to go. We also cheer for him when he finally goes on the adventure.

While we are reading or watching the movie, we want Bilbo to go on that adventure. This book shows us a character who has a need, who has a desire, who has a flaw or a problem and they’re working on in their life. This gives us some sort of promise that tells us who our main character is and what’s their arc kind of going to look like.

The third thing you should do is indicate the kind of plot you are going to be giving us. The plot can be divided into two parts, call it an umbrella plot. This umbrella plot is structure of the plot that is visible. Then there’s a core plot that consists of your actual progress adn payoff.

When it comes to books that has romance, it is the core plot. Those romances get transposed to an umbrella plot of doing something and while they are doing that they fall in love, which is what the readers actually care about.

Romance genre doesn’t necessarily need to use the umbrella plot but a lot of other genres like in a fantasy novel, the core part that we really want people to read about is two characters falling in love. But the umbrella plot here could be an alien invasion.

The core and the umbrella plot can be two completely different things but you will have to show the umbrella plot. This will give the readers a promise on the type of story they are getting into.

If you are following a classic archetypes, the main character doesn’t want to leave their comfortable home, go on an adventure, become a better person, and learn all the things they want to do. In those cases, you want to focus on the character arc, and you want to find a way to promise that the tone is going to be what you want it to be going forward.

Keep these things in mind while writing not just the first chapter but the introduction to the book. Which means it can be one chapter or it can be a couple of them. It depends on what you are writing because for short story, it will be a couple of paragraphs while for epic fantasy it could be 10 chapters.

If you have read Eye of the World, the promises are made by the time the main character leaves the village. It starts with the kid on the farm, but in a couple of pages we see that everything’s wrong in the village. A shadowy figure is chasing them, there are strangers in town, and things in town are odd and strange. Here, the immediate promise is of action.

Then somebody kills themselves, we learn that there’s a dragon reborn who might go crazy, and the entire village is attacked. After that, the kids decide to leave the village so we know we are going to get a travelogue and what arc is going to be now.

By this point in the story, we have the promise that our characters are small town people who wanted an adventure but they realize it is way too dangerous when they do get it.

You would assume that the challenge of these elements is to be predictable enough to have the promises but not so predictable that it is boring. But actually you can be quite a bit predictable with the plot. As long as the setting is interesting and you can write characters that readers would care about.

Remember that any plot that you can conceive of has been used. So the only way for you to be unpredictable would be so unpredictable that it breaks your promises. It can be a feature of your story or you can do subtle inversions of the promises.

Terry Rossio is a screenwriter who wrote the Pirates of the Caribbean who talks about this idea that he calls “the strange attractor”. A lot of people in Hollywood refer to this as “It’s this meets this.”

The strange attractor idea for a story is you want to have your story feel familiar but strange at the same time. What you do here is that you take a new spin on a familiar idea, or you take two familiar ideas and mash them together in a way that doesn’t feel like it would make sense but is intriguing. Mistborn is actually a heist movie in a fantasy world, mashed up with My Fair Lady.

That’s part of why Mistborn works. That mashup, you know both of those plot archetypes. You know about the orphan who is taken in and trained to act all upper crust and things like that. You know what a heist story is. But both of those things in a fantasy book you haven’t seen before.

You have to either do that or do a classic archetype really well. There is something magnificent about seeing somebody really good do something really well that you want to enjoy. This is why people read a lot of romance novels, even though they know these two characters are going to get together. Even though the plot is predictable, people go to see the Hamlet performed by actors. They know the story and yet it is enjoyable. You don’t need to have a twist everywhere.

TL;DR

Before you start writing, you will need a combination of ideas to start with. If you have one idea, you can write an outline and brainstorm new ideas to fill the holes.

Whether the idea is good or not will depend on how well your writing is. You can get away with subpar ideas but if written well, you can get away with it.

But if you cannot hone your craft well enough, no brilliant idea will reach your audience as a good editor will throw your book out of the running.

We will teach you more on how to plot a novel in part 2. Stay tuned for the next article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *