One of the best things about the internet is that you can get anyone to teach you to write; as long as they’ve recorded and posted a series video lectures of themselves doing so. Luckily Brandon Sanderson, one of the current greats in fantasy writing, has done exactly that. A while ago did a post detailing this news as well as giving a recap from my perspective on the first in this lecture series in order to enhance my own education. Today I do the second.
Find the lecture below, and my recap below that.
This lecture, entitled ‘cook vs chef’ covers writing formulas. Sanderson starts by explaining what cook vs chef means, which is that the difference between the two is that a cook follows a recipe and a chef comes adds to a recipe and comes up with something new. Meaning that when using writing formulas the idea isn’t to rigidly stick to the formula and make sure you tick every box, but to start with them but then add more, add your own style. He also notes that for himself he doesn’t think about formulas while he’s writing, but usually when he runs into a problem or as a way to analyse a story when it isn’t working. For myself it’s much the same. Having studied screenwriting I was well initiated in the three act structure, which I find extremely helpful, less when beginning a story but more throughout it when I need to figure out what sort of plot point should come next.
The first formula he sets up is an analyses of the parts that make up story structure. Think of a venn diagram, where you have three unconnecting circles representing plot, setting, and character. Over the top and connecting all those is a fourth circle representing conflict. Sanderson explains how conflict is what ties them all together. For example you could have a character at odds with their setting, or at odds with other characters (or even themselves) or at odds with the plot and what the world thinks they should do. At its most basic that is what a story is.
The next formula, or rule, he talks about is the advice that ‘you should always start a story with a bang’. Sanderson explains that this doesn’t mean start with an action sequence but with a really intense character moment that will draw people in. I’ve learnt much the same thing. With screenplays the rule is to start as close to the action as possible. Another way to put this is ‘in late, out early’. Meaning start your story as late into the action as possible, then leave as early as you can once it’s resolved. He then goes on to explain what it means when people say you need ‘a hook’, namely something that introduces the idea of your story in a concise and interesting way, and encapsulates the kinds of emotion and tones you are going to give your reader by reading this book.
Sanderson next talks about what makes a good character and what makes a character interesting. He references the quote by Kurt Vonnegut “Start a story with somebody who wants something really badly, even if it’s just a glass of water”. I’ll add to that by saying that the character has to have a strong will to seek that something that they really want, there’s nothing worse than a passive protagonist. He then goes on to list aspects that make a character interesting, including: conflicted morals, they need to be capable, they’re out of their depth, their relationships with others, that they seem real and relatable, that they are proactive, they’re flawed, they’ve got a past, and they’re funny.
To aid with this character development Sanderson next gives us another formula; a timeline where at one end you have the everyman and at the other you have the superman. He tells how the everyman reminds us of ourselves, who we see ourselves as, and are a person we can become sympathetic towards, and that the superman are hyper competent people who we want to be like and find interesting. A lot of stories have characters who move along this line throughout the story, becoming the superman. Which here can mean becoming super dominant in their field, or in high society, or whatever.
His next formula sticks with the character development and involves three scales that range from high to low; they are competent, likability, and proactive. He explains you can use these scales to drive what makes your character interesting. Someone who’s competent is very interesting to us, even if that competency is in a very narrow area. Likability works simply by making us like the character. He states the adage “if you want an audience to like someone have them pet a dog, if you want the audience to dislike someone have them kick a dog”. Finally, proactive. Simply, we like a character who moves the story along, who tries to fix a problem even if they don’t always succeed.
Sanderson explains how by moving characters up and down these scales you can create different styles of characters who will all be interesting for different reasons. Take Sherlock Holmes for example. He has high competency and high proactivity, but low likability. Whereas Watson has high likability and medium competency and proactivity. Both are interesting characters but for very different reasons.
Sanderson then finishes up the lecture by detailing a few further methods for the development of characters. Including: Create a list of questions to ask yourself about each character. Write a monologue from the point of view of a character, almost as if they were being interviewed. Ask yourself why doesn’t a particular character fit the role you’ve given them? With the aim to develop the worst person for the job in order to maximise conflict.
Lecture number two done. Good stuff, right? Learning continues to be fun.