Lecture #5: Worldbuilding Part One โ€” Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

Brandon Sanderson
5 Mar 202072:26
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TLDRBrandon Sanderson shares writing advice in a lecture format, explaining his 'Sanderson's Laws' which guide his creative process in developing magic systems and settings for fantasy novels. He emphasizes starting with a compelling idea, then expanding the details of the magic or world in ways directly tied to character and plot, rather than endlessly adding new elements. Sanderson uses examples from books like Lord of the Rings and personal anecdotes to illustrate storytelling techniques focused on maximizing reader engagement.

  • ๐Ÿ˜€ Sanderson's First Law: The ability to solve problems with magic is proportional to how well the reader understands it.
  • ๐Ÿ˜ฎ Sanderson's Second Law: Flaws and limitations in magic are more interesting than powers.
  • ๐Ÿค” Sanderson's Third Law: Expand what you already have before adding something new.
  • ๐Ÿ˜Ž Sanderson's Zeroth Law: Always err on the side of what is awesome.
  • ๐Ÿ‘ Use magic to showcase character strengths rather than externally solve problems.
  • ๐Ÿ”Ž Foreshadow solutions to avoid unsatisfying endings.
  • โ— Limitations encourage creative problem-solving within constraints.
  • ๐Ÿ“š Do a few things really well rather than many things shallowly.
  • ๐ŸŽญ Worldbuild enough to hook readers, not comprehensive histories.
  • ๐Ÿ˜Š Start with a cool idea first, then build rules and structure.
Q & A
  • What is the origin of Sanderson's First Law?

    -Sanderson's First Law originated when Brandon was working on the Mistborn book series. In Mistborn 1, he added a new power for the main character Vin at the 95% mark to give the climax some 'extra oomph'. This was an unsatisfying resolution, similar to authors inventing new plot devices late in the story to save characters.

  • How does Sanderson define the difference between a flaw, limitation, and cost in magic systems?

    -A flaw is something that can be overcome with effort, like a lack of skill or understanding. A limitation is something inherent to the system, like conservation of momentum in allomancy. A cost is a sacrifice or consequence required to use the power, ranging from resources to emotional trauma.

  • What are the three main Superman story paradigms according to Sanderson?

    -The three Superman story paradigms are: 1) Someone shows up who can punch harder than Superman, 2) Kryptonite removes Superman's powers, 3) Superman is unable to use his powers to effectively solve a problem, like making someone fall in love with him.

  • How does Sanderson apply lessons from the Lord of the Rings films about saving characters externally?

    -Sanderson notes it's about narrative promises and payoffs. In The Two Towers, Gandalf's arrival was promised - if they survived 5 days, he would come. In Return of the King, there was no such setup. So the former payoff feels emotionally satisfying, while the latter feels arbitrary.

  • What is the purpose of mentioning unseen parts of worldbuilding?

    -Mentioning unseen parts of worldbuilding hints to the reader that there is a larger, coherent world beyond what is directly shown. This builds trust that the author has fully developed the world, even if the reader only sees a fraction of it.

  • How does Sanderson apply the iceberg theory of worldbuilding in practice?

    -Sanderson argues most working fantasy authors create 'hollow icebergs' - they do only as much worldbuilding as needed for the current story, while implying a larger foundation underneath. This satisfies readers without requiring impractical amounts of unused detail.

  • What was a main flaw in Sanderson's early draft of The Way of Kings?

    -The early draft of The Way of Kings had too much exposition and tried to start too many character arcs without completing any. Sanderson realized this 'bigger is better' mindset hurt the story, and later focused on telling a smaller number of arcs more fully.

  • How did Sanderson come up with the idea of magical power armor in The Way of Kings?

    -Sanderson thought power armor was cool, and wanted it in a fantasy setting. He devised giant magical swords to justify wearing the bulky armor, as oversized swords wouldn't normally make practical sense. This rule-of-cool concept was a starting point for the book.

  • What is the purpose of Sanderson's Zeroeth Law?

    -Sanderson's Zeroeth Law states to 'always err on the side of awesome' as a reminder that compelling ideas, not magic systems or worldbuilding, are what initially inspire his stories. The other laws govern outlining and revision.

  • How can limitations and costs make magic systems more interesting than pure powers?

    -Limitations force creative problem-solving within a system's constraints. Costs tie power use to plot and character choices. Both mechanics make abilities feel more earned and impactful compared to someone simply having unlimited power with no consequences.

๐Ÿ˜Š Introducing Sanderson's Laws

Brandon introduces the concept of Sanderson's Laws, which he developed while writing Mistborn. The first law relates to satisfyingly solving problems with magic based on how well the reader understands the magic system. He promises more details on the first law later.

๐Ÿ˜ฒ Adding Powers to Characters

Brandon reflects on whether he is being derivative by basically giving his Mistborn characters Superman's powers. He concludes that seeking to write enjoyable stories doesn't make you a hack. With experience, writers learn to make their work more original by adding their own perspective.

๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿซ Understanding Hard vs. Soft Magic Systems

Brandon explains the continuum between hard magic systems with clear rules for problem solving and soft magic systems focused on a sense of wonder. He gives Lord of the Rings and Name of the Wind as examples using both types effectively.

๐Ÿ˜ฑ Subverting Expectations with Magic

Brandon notes that sometimes you don't want to satisfyingly solve problems with magic because you have other goals for the scene. He gives examples like introducing characters or building tension rather than neatly resolving conflict.

๐ŸŽฅ Adapting Magic Explanations to Film

When asked about info dumps while explaining magic, Brandon describes overlapping two early Mistborn scenes in the screenplay to increase narrative tension while still explaining the magic system.

๐Ÿ“š Building Scenes Around Magic Mechanics

Brandon advises constructing scenes deliberately to highlight magic mechanics while still showing compelling characters and settings. This helps explain magic without boring info dumps.

๐Ÿ“ Sanderson's First Law of Magic

Sanderson's First Law states: "Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic." This relates to proper setup and payoff with foreshadowing.

โ“ When Should Magic Break Sanderson's First Law?

Brandon clarifies Sanderson's First Law applies when you want a satisfying solution to a problem. If you have other goals for a scene, like introducing a character, you may break this law.

๐ŸŽฅ Comparing Satisfying and Unsatisfying Saves

Brandon analyzes how Gandalf saving the day at Helm's Deep gives a more emotional payoff than Aragorn's save at Minas Tirith. It's because the first fulfilled an explicit promise, while the second avoided established consequences.

๐Ÿ‘” Making Superman Relatable

Brandon looks at why Superman is hard to write for but was done well in Lois and Clark. He notes Superman stories focus on problems his powers can't easily solve, like relationships, rather than feats of strength.

๐Ÿฆน Introducing Flaws, Limitations and Costs

Brandon defines flaws in magic as gaps in understanding that effort can fix, limitations as unchangeable handicaps to work around, and costs as prices paid to use magic.

๐Ÿ”‹ Using Resources as an Interesting Cost

Brandon notes a common magic cost is expending a resource, like Stormlight. This can tie into economics and narratives around obtaining more resources to use magic.

๐Ÿ˜ˆ Crafting Satisfying Magic Wish Stories

Brandon gives an example magic with three wishes that all go horribly wrong as a way to craft a limited but impactful magic system that leads to an engaging horror story.

๐ŸŽฉ Quirky Magic with Low Costs

When asked about quirky, low-cost magic, Brandon says having powers disconnected from problem solving can work to characterize or inject humor, as long as they don't later create plot issues.

๐Ÿ˜Ž Sanderson's Second Law: Flaws and Limits Over Powers

Sanderson's Second Law states that flaws, limitations and costs are more interesting than powers themselves when developing magic systems and create more storytelling potential.

๐Ÿ‘ถ Telling Stories About Gaining Magic Skills

When asked how to tell stories about lacking magical skill, Brandon says whether you frame it as a fixable flaw or unalterable limitation depends on if gaining skill aligns with the character's arc and the climax you envision.

๐ŸŒŠ Managing Expectations for Huge Epics

Brandon describes reader hype over his next, more complex series suspecting it would have 30 magic systems. But bigger is not always better, which informs Sanderson's Third Law.

๐ŸŽž๏ธ Comparing Magic Systems to Game Worlds

Brandon notes expansive fictional worlds hook some but get criticized as "an ocean that is an inch deep." Deepening select parts of a world resonates more than shallowly exploring all of it.

๐ŸŒŸ Sanderson's Third Law: Expand What You Have

Sanderson's Third Law: "Before adding something new to your magic system or setting, see if you can instead expand what you already have." It's better to dig deeper on a few great ideas than pile on shallow additions.

๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ”ฌ Applying Lessons on Magic to Characters

Brandon notes Sanderson's Second Law about flaws and costs applying to characters too. Limitations likewise work for characterization. This reinforces focusing depth over breadth.

๐ŸŽฉ The Illusion of Deep Worldbuilding

Brandon says rather than a thick worldbuilding iceberg, most writers create a hollow illusion that hints enough depth exists to satisfy readers without actually developing superfluous details.

๐Ÿ˜Ž Sanderson's Zeroeth Law: Awesomeness First

Sanderson's Zeroeth Law reminds him that stories often start from whatever ideas seem coolest, like armor-wearing knights with giant swords, not meticulous magic systems or worldbuilding.

๐Ÿ’กmagic system
A magic system refers to the rules, limitations, and mechanics around magical abilities in a fictional world. Sanderson discusses building compelling magic systems that enable interesting problem solving and narrative tension. He provides examples like allomancy in Mistborn and sympathetic magic in The Name of the Wind.
Foreshadowing refers to hints or clues planted earlier in a story about events that will pay off later. Sanderson emphasizes properly foreshadowing magical abilities so that their later use feels earned rather than abruptly introduced.
Limitations or restrictions around magical abilities create more interesting stories than unlimited power. Sanderson uses Superman as an example of a character that is hard to write given his lack of limitations.
Costs refer to prices, consequences or tradeoffs for using magic. These costs provide narrative tension and opportunities to explore themes around privilege, economics, etc. Stormlight Archive uses stormlight as a resource cost for magic.
Flaws are weaknesses, gaps in knowledge or deficiencies with a magic system or character that can be overcome through effort and change over the arc of a story.
๐Ÿ’กiceberg theory
The iceberg theory states that writers should build extensive world lore that remains mostly hidden, subtly hinted at through the story. Sanderson argues most writers actually rely on the illusion of depth without creating much unseen background.
๐Ÿ’กhard magic
Hard magic systems have clear, defined rules and mechanics known to both characters and readers. This enables problem-solving plots and satisfying twists when abilities are cleverly applied.
๐Ÿ’กsoft magic
Soft magic systems are more mysterious with unknown rules and unpredictable outcomes. These foster a sense of wonder and horror but reduce narrative satisfaction from logical problem solving.
Sanderson references archetypes like the heist story structure that provide useful templates for crafting narratives powered by imaginative magic systems and tools.
Sanderson's Zeroeth Law states to always err on the side of awesome - pulp appeal and high concept imagination often birth compelling fantasy tales rather than extensive worldbuilding.

Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

Flaws or limitations are more interesting than powers when developing a magic system.

Before adding something new to your magic or setting, see if you can instead expand what you already have.

Doing a really good job with a few key elements is usually better than barely touching on many different things.

Start with the cool, awesome idea first, then work backwards to build the rules and world around it.

It's not strictly true that bigger is always better when worldbuilding - one well-explored idea can be more engaging than 100 shallow concepts.

As a writer, you generally only build as much worldbuilding as needed for the story, hinting that more exists without actually creating it.

The most original thing you can add to a story is your own perspective - don't worry too much initially about being derivative.

A story's tension often comes from flaws, limitations, and costs - for both magic systems and characters.

Superman stories work well when focused on things his powers don't help with, like relationships, rather than who can punch harder.

Explain and showcase magic in scenes that advance character and plot, not just info dumps.

Low-stakes quirky powers for characters are fine if they don't later undermine bigger conflicts.

Whether a limitation is something to overcome or work around depends on the character's arc and the story's climax.

Soft magic with uncertain effects and consequences can create wonder and horror, while hard magic with rules lends itself to problem solving.

Splitting a story over multiple books lets you focus each one on a different magic system and retain a sense of wonder.

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