I’m giving something a shot here, let’s see how it goes.
For some time now, I’ve been considering writing book reviews, but from a writer’s perspective. As any writer knows, you can’t write well without reading often. While reading, writers aren’t only entertained, but it becomes a form of research as well.
Through reading, writers can analyze the storytelling strategies chosen by the author. For example, you may recognize the story structure as a whole, the development of a certain character, the author’s clever twist of a genre stereotype, or even just the author’s style itself. We can learn from these strategies.
We can learn from them, but we shouldn’t copy them. A good writers takes that which has already been done, and does it differently, hopefully better, but at least differently. All of our writing should present something new to the world of fantasy, science fiction, romance, or wherever you find your niche.
So with all of that being said, I would like to review Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance by looking at some of the writing strategies Sanderson applied. I’ll do my best to keep this review spoiler-free, just in case any of you haven’t read it.
Before I get into specifics, I loved this book. Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy authors, for many reasons, but mainly because I feel that he is doing something very unique in his approach to fantasy and epic fantasy.
Anyway, now that you know that I’m a bit biased, here are three effective writing techniques from Words of Radiance.
1. Magic System
Sanderson is known for crafting interesting and unique magic systems. His Mistborn series introduced readers to the magical arts of allomancy, feruchemy, and hemalurgy, three magic systems based around metal. Another of his books, Warbreaker, had magic that was powered by color.
In Radiance, the second book in The Stormlight Archive, the magic system is not fleshed out for readers as quickly as in other books, since it is an art that has been lost for centuries. In choosing to make this magic just as new to the characters as it is for us, Sanderson has a chance to very naturally reveal different facets of the magic as it is relevant to the story.
I have to be careful how much I talk about Surgebinding (the magic system in Radiance), because the details revealed about the magic are very relevant to important parts of the story. Like most of Sanderson’s magic systems, Surgebinding seems to be a very hard magic system, which means that it has very clear abilities, limits, costs, etc. A hard magic system would contrast with a soft magic system like in Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf can pretty much do whatever he wants and the scope and limits of the magic aren’t clear.
Sanderson’s magic systems effectively teaches writers that everything should have a cost. I’m not saying it’s bad to have a magic system where you can just wave a wand and something wonderful happens, but magic can’t just solve all your character’s problems. Believe me, the characters in Radiance do some jaw-dropping, epic and cool things with their magic, but before all that, they learn the costs and limits of their abilities.
This concept applies to more than just magic. Everything has a cost. Let me repeat that. Everything has a cost. Just like nothing is really ever free in our lives, nothing should ever be free for our characters. Sometimes that cost may be that the character gives up something personal, maybe something that has been motivating them, for something greater. It doesn’t always have to be a physical cost; it may just as well be emotional or spiritual.
2. Character Depth
Now, this point probably seems like a given. Every character, especially in a novel, should have a kind of depth to them. But Sanderson takes this to a whole other level. In Words of Radiance, we get a glimpse into the past of Shallan Davar through a series of flashback chapters. These not only give us information relevant to the story, but it contributes to the reality of a very interesting character.
Through these flashbacks, we learn more about how Shallan developed her personality, her motivation, and we even learn more about the history of her interesting abilities. This is effective not only because it helps create a more personal connection between the reader and Shallan (so that we feel what she feels, understand her motivation, etc.), but it also makes Radiance a very real story.
With depth, characters gain tangibility. When characters gain tangibility, a story becomes more than just words on a page, it becomes a history of people that readers learn to love or hate, or maybe both at different times.
Again, this seems like something that’s kind of a “no duh” to point out, but I think it can be easy, as a writer, to forget that the reader doesn’t know as much about a character as we do. A character must be as real to the reader as they are to us, as much as is necessary for the story, at least. I suppose it’s another one of those balance things: you can’t have too much or too little.
Ah, worldbuilding. For some writers, it’s the bane of their existence, and for others, it’s a hobby. Especially in epic fantasy, worldbuilding is an extremely important (but also delicate) part of a story. You want to have enough detail that your world feels real, but not so much that you practically suffocate your reader under a puffy pillow of description.
Brandon strikes an effective balance between too much description and too little by describing the world through the lens of the characters. He doesn’t coddle the reader by going into an encyclopedia about everything in the world, but he instead allows the reader to figure it out for themselves as elements are revealed very organically, such as in dialogue or simply in what a character notices or considers.
Also, having different types of characters (a surgeon-turned-soldier, a hardened general, and an aspiring scholar, to name a few) is another organic way to reveal different aspects of the world through the lens of each character. By the end of Radiance, we are finally beginning to get a good picture of the world of Roshar.
I can’t possibly stress enough the benefits of reading as a writer. As an aspiring novelist, I have learned from other authors some of the writing techniques that led to their success. While no one should simply copy another writer, these authors are successful because they take universal principles and place their own spin on them.
Words of Radiance is a great read. If you haven’t picked it up, I definitely recommend it (but of course, if you haven’t, first read Book 1 of the Stormlight Archive, Way of Kings). There are obviously many many many more writing techniques in this novel than the ones I’ve very briefly explored, so if you would like to add to this conversation, feel free to comment and continue this exchange.