Learning From Mistborn

I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast lately (which is excellent imo), and Brandon Sanderson often refers to his own works as examples of the points he’s making, so I thought I’d read some of his stuff. First up is Mistborn.

I’m reading this book “critically,” as opposed to reading for pleasure, so I’m making notes along the way about what I think works and what doesn’t. (I think a big part of learning to be an author is learning one’s writing preferences, which might sound silly, but one doesn’t always know what one likes writing when you start.) By the way, calling Mistborn an epic fantasy really stretches the definition of the genre, if you ask me. It feels more steampunky or urban fantasy-ish to me.

So here’s what I’ve learned for myself after reading six chapters. I don’t want to write a heist story. Why? Mainly because the complexity of plotting such a story intimidates me. I don’t do well working from the ending backwards (yet?) and it’s impossible for me to conceive of writing a heist from the beginning forward. It’s an extremely plot-driven kind of story, and I think thusfar I might be more adept at charcter-driven stories.

In chapter 5 we learn all about this thing called Allomancy, which is Sanderson’s magic system in this trilogy. He is known for inventive magic systems, and I have to say that it’s plenty inventive. What I’m learning for myself though is that I prefer magic that is more “mysterious.” What I mean is this: Sanderson explains Allomancy down to the most minute detail; how it works, the power behind it, how it can be used, the advantages, the disadvantages. It’s almost the level of detail you’d expect in hard science fiction (is there such a thing as “hard fantasy?”). There’s nothing really wrong with that, but to me it takes away a lot of wonderment and turns it into something mundane. When I think of magic in a fantasy story, I think of something that would make your jaw drop if you saw it. Something divine, mystical, and mysterious, used by a class of people who are set apart from ordinary men. But that’s just me.

Also in chapter 5 we see a pretty complex fight scene. What I learned here is that detailed fight scenes are hard to follow and not very interesting to read. Particularly when there are a lot of complex gymnastics interspersed with a complex magic system that we are just beginning to understand. You know how in the movies they sometimes slow down a fight to super slo-mo so you can see the super awesome move the guy just made? This fight in chapter 5 would have had like twenty of those super slo-mo shots. It just doesn’t work for me. My fight scenes seem to get less and less detailed the more I write. (Also, in real life, fight scenes don’t last very long, particularly with swords.)

One overall critique I have is this: When I’m reading fantasy, if I notice anything from the modern world that pulls me out of fantasy setting, it’s pretty jarring. So when I’m writing, I try to be conscious of terminology or speech patterns that sound “modern.” In Mistborn, I can see what happens if you don’t. Sanderson has a perfectly logical explanation for this: The person who translated the work from the fantasy world translated the colloqualisms into something we modern readers could relate to. Again, a perfectly logical explanation, which I’ve thought to use myself. But when I actually read the results, it still pulls me out of the world. For example, some dialog in Mistborn goes like this: “That was kind of the point” or “That was so not what I meant.” Not much, mind you. Just occasionally. But those two examples are enough to pull me out of the story and make me think of Seinfeld or Friends. Here’s another example. He used the word “caliginous” in a sentence. First of all, I had to look up what it meant heh. As you might guess just by looking at it, it stems from Caligula, that wacky old Roman Emperor, who should not have been known in the Mistborn world.

One argument I just now thought of against the “translating into modern language” theory is this: Most translations of things like Beowulf and Chaucer don’t do that. They leave the original colloquialisms intact, and I think I will continue to do so in my fantasy writing as well (as long as they make sense to a modern reader).

(By the way, I hate it when I begin a paragraph with a sentence like this: “One thing I’ve noticed is …” or “My feeling on that is …” Why do I keep doing that? Why don’t I go back and fix it?)

Chapter 6 of Mistborn deserves close study. I will freely admit that I am terrible at dialog, so there is a lot I can learn here. The chapter is nothing but a group of people sitting down and brainstorming how to pull off the heist. There are at least six or seven different characters speaking. I won’t say that I could have told them apart without dialog tags, but I did notice certain characters had distinct speaking patterns. For example, one of them said “my dear boy” a lot. Anyway, I found this to be an interesting chapter because I often find myself writing out a character’s problem-solving process (usually one at a time!), but I always want to go back and delete those scenes because the problem was that I had written my character into that corner, so the writing is my way of thinking up a solution to get him out of it. I guess it depends on the character and the situation.

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