Brandon Sanderson is a prolific author of fantasy and science fiction. In this video I break down some of the most useful takeaways from his novel Steelheart.
If you are at all connected to the sci-fi fantasy community, especially as a writer, you are probably familiar with Brando Sando. He is an extremely prolific author who also has a variety of free videos teaching writing on the internet and he’s sort of famously immensely prolific and is the target of a lot of envy for writers.
So how does Branderson Sanderson do it?
- Don’t frontload backstory and worldbuilding. Spread it out. Get to the action instead.
- Walk and talk. Have your characters be doing something while they have a discussion.
- Relax. You don’t need to follow all the writing rules all the time.
- Action is interesting when there is a sequence of successes and failures that depend on character actions. In fact, every scene should have ups and downs.
- Make the goals crystal clear such that the reader is able to determine whether or not the goal has been achieved.
- How to write natural dialogue?
- Use interruptions in moderation.
- Make your characters respond to the meaning behind words, not literally the spoken words.
- Keep it brief. Dialogue should be snappy unless you have a good reason for a character to be running their mouth.
Number one: he does not overwhelm the reader with backstory and world building right at the beginning. He gets right into the action instead.
This is a sci-fi book. It’s basically a superhero story, or really super villains, and the heroes have no powers whatsoever. And what would that world look like? There’s a lot of changes that society has undergone as these super villains have taken over the world, but the reader doesn’t need to know all of those things right away.
On page 148 of my copy, there is a discussion of the main character’s baggage with the word “nerd.” He doesn’t like being called a nerd and why is that? Well it’s because of the structure of the society and the way the education system now works and how the people that rise to the top academically get taken by these super villains, and, you know, put into very particular jobs and the hero didn’t want to be scooped up and taken into these jobs where he would have more direct scrutiny of himself a more direct oversight by these villains that he’s trying to take out. So he doesn’t want to be called a nerd. He doesn’t want to be perceived as smart and he’s worked really hard to find that middle ground of not too smart but not too stupid, because that has real repercussions in the world.
So that’s a huge amount of world building and a lot of character backstory as well. That’s at the 40 percent mark into the book. That’s almost halfway and we didn’t even know any of this about the character or the world.
So don’t overwhelm your reader with all the information right at the beginning.
Number two thing that Brando-san is doing in Steelheart; he’s taken a page out of Aaron Sorkin’s book. His characters are always going to walk and talk.
And what I mean by that is, a lot of times authors fall into a trap of having a scene that is just discussion between two characters. I say this, this other person says this, and that’s all that they have. There’s not something else that’s happening at the same time and that can be very static for the reader. Now for the author it can be very difficult to juggle both a conversation and a set of actions that are occurring—and authors I do encourage you if you’re writing a first draft just have the dialogue, just have the discussion that you know they need to have, but upon revision figure out some action that they can be doing at the same time.
I gave this advice many times to a very particular individual in my writing group and he rewrote the scene eventually where one of the characters is doing the dishes while they have this discussion and it’s unbelievable how much more dynamic that scene became. So in Steelheart for one thing the characters sometimes literally walk and talk. On the way from the first action sequence to the hideout the characters have a discussion when the hero is trying to convince this other group to follow through on his plan. They are all in this room that has this imaging technology where they can see the whole city from above in this three-dimensional view and they can move the imager around the city. That’s very dynamic and an interesting visual to go along with the discussion. There may be scenes in it where it’s only dialogue I vaguely recall… I don’t remember if there was something happening when the hero is trying to convince this group of of super villain killers that he is worthy of joining them I think that might just be a discussion without any other action happening but that’s also okay. It’s okay to sometimes break the rules especially in that particular instance because the stakes are extremely high. It matters a ton. Nothing matters more, in fact, to the hero, than being able to join this group. So everything is on the line for him during this discussion, and that transitions into the next point for Brando Sando:
You don’t have to follow all the rules and you don’t have to follow them all the time.
The main character in this book, I don’t think he really has a very obvious flaw. He has a few minor little flaws but he doesn’t have a particular thing that he’s doing that is ruining his life or foiling all the plans and he has to overcome this main particular problem. And you might think that’s the most fundamental thing for a writer to do is to have a character that has a flaw and has to overcome that flaw. That’s what a character arc is and yeah he has a flaw and he does overcome it, but it’s not central. I would say it’s not a huge deal. I would say for the most part the main character is very likable, very capable, and in fact has a lovely improvisation skill that he puts on display in a variety of scenes that makes him extremely likable. I wouldn’t say he has a prominent primary flaw and that’s okay.
Next one, how does Brandon Sanderson write an action scene? And this is really important because this is just how action scenes are done. This is how to write a good action scene. NK Jemisin does it this way. Steven Spielberg does it this way. Everybody does it this way. Your action scene has successes and failures, and more than one of them throughout. The plans go wrong, the characters adapt, something they do works, but then something that they do doesn’t work, and they have to go back and forth and figure these things out as the scene progresses. There can be moments of silence. There can be pauses in your action scene to check in with the characters.
The character tries something. It doesn’t work. Try something else. Okay maybe that succeeds a little bit, but something else goes wrong. That is the way to write an action scene. Let’s look at Steelheart and just talk about the opening action scene. The group that you need to know about is The Reckoners. They’re sort of the super villain killing group. They’re the good guys. So the Reckoners are trying to lure this lesser super villain into a dark alley where they can ambush him, only a lackey runs up from a more superior super villain and says, “hey, you’ve got to come back. You got to do this thing.” So that’s something that went wrong.
Well the hero steps in and is like, “Ah no no it’s actually okay. They got it worked out. They sent me to tell you that like they don’t need the guy.”
And this lackey is like, “who the [ __ ] are you?”
And the hero’s like, “Ah well you know i’m so-and-so.” And he makes up a story. He improvises and that works at first, but then the guy catches him in a lie. It goes wrong. There’s a shootout. The hero ends up getting away, but the lesser super villain that they’re trying to ambush has also escaped. Okay, but they have a contingency plan. They set off some explosives that force the villain to change where he’s running away and he’s running back towards the trap, but then his superpower helps him escape from that ambush, but now the hero is involved and he’s helping alongside this group, the Reckoners. There’s a chase scene that ensues and they’re chasing down the super villain and finally they’ve got him cornered, but he’s got another superpower that they didn’t know about, and he nearly escapes, but there’s some cooperation, there’s some luck, there’s some cleverness, and they end up getting him.
You can see how things go right, things go wrong, response, action, reaction. It goes back and forth between these things. That’s what makes for a dynamic scene, whether it’s an action scene or even just a discussion. Even in the dialogue scenes if somebody’s trying to convince someone else, well you make your point, that point gets shot down, well you say, “oh but look at it from this angle.”
They’re like, “Oh maybe that is a good point, oh but what about this? This is a problem.”
“Okay well let me tell you that.”
It’s the back and forth action, the ups and downs that make it dynamic.
Next one: the goals are always crystal clear.
The hero wants to join the Reckoners. That’s goal number one. It’s one of the first things that’s stated in the first chapter. Then he’s got to convince the Reckoners that they should do his plan, and then there’s a little side mission that they go on where he’s got to recover some sensitive documents; a very clear goal. Okay they need to buy some weapons that are important for their plan, but oh no one of the villains shows up to this weapons dealer. Okay so now they have to escape from this super villain that showed up and it goes on and on like this. The goals are always crystal clear and even right from the very beginning—the overarching goal—he wants to kill Steelheart.
Now I’ll take this moment to just say that I think that one of the flaws in this book is that it is almost too squeaky clean. There’s not a whole lot going on here, but I think that’s actually a strength in some respects, keeping it simple, which many of us—aspiring writers that I am and that I’m hopefully speaking to—need to learn. You need to start there before you are adding on lots of complexity in many situations.
Lastly, realistic or natural dialogue. Sometimes with dialogue someone asks a question and somebody else answers it, or someone else someone makes a statement and someone else responds in a very direct manner. Sometimes that’s how conversation is, but other times things are messier. So for example uh from page 40.
“Fire at him. Slow him down.”
“What?” Megan demanded. “Who are you to give me—“
The person interrupts her. In fact she doesn’t even get to complete her sentence right there. So interruptions add naturalness. Again you can overuse that, so be aware of how much you’re interrupting people.
Another one that I think is super important is: people respond to meaning, not words.
Let me give you an example. This is from page 63 in my copy of Steelheart which is the hardback version:
“Do I need to know any, I dunno, secret handshakes?”
“Son, you’re not one of us.”
The answer to the question is not “no” or “yes” or “we don’t have secret handshakes” or “here’s the secret handshake.” That’d be very blunt. So that would be a response to the words that were used, but the meaning that the character is trying to convey is, “Hey, am I a part of your group?” which is what he really wants and the other character understands that because he’s a human and he understands context and meaning. And the other character says, “You’re not part of our group.”
And that’s so very powerful, because not only is it a response to what the character is actually asking for, but it’s showing that he’s not achieved his goal yet.
Humans respond to meaning, not words.
So what is the meaning behind the words? Have your character respond to that, not literally the words. But also I wanted to say there are other parts of this book where somebody does ask a question, a very direct question, and somebody else answers it, because that also happens in dialogue. You’ve got to use any technique of dialogue in moderation.
I think the main thing for natural dialogue is keep it short. People don’t run on and on and on typically.
Alright, so tell me what you think. Was that helpful? Would you like to see more videos / articles like this? What are some books that you’ve learned some things from? What do you think of Brandon Sanderson?
I enjoy his stuff although I don’t like to only read one author over and over and over again, which I think it’s easy to do with him because he really churns them out, but what’s your favorite Brandon Sanderson? Mine is actually the novella ‘Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell.’ I love that one. I think it’s got the best twist I’ve ever read in a story. It just blew my socks off. Unbelievable.
Have a good one. Until next time, bye folks.
2 thoughts on “6 writing tips from Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart (no spoilers)”
Thanks for posting this. I’m going to reread this and see what I can do about not dumping loads of backstory in my own book. I do see it in a lot of other fiction and it’s irritating. The problem is if I don’t dump it then a lot of the action makes no sense! It’s an interesting dilemma. Maybe I’ll go through the stuff later and see what isn’t needed to keep things moving.
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Keep moving along! Finish first, rearrange backstory later.