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FFC #76 - Opening impressions of The Stormlight Archive

Posted August 16th, 2021 at 04:04 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
Updated August 18th, 2021 at 03:20 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #76

A while ago, I finished the Mistborn trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson. In a word, Iíd describe it as a solid read. Some things I took issue with, others I thought were masterful. The end result was that it got me excited to start the Stormlight Archive. I finally got my hands on the first book about half a month ago, but in all that time, Iíve only read through the second chapter.

While there are a few reasons for my apparent lack of enthusiasm for the book (some of which have nothing to do with the book at all), there were a few which I feel have contributed heavily to the bookís current un-read state, and which I think can be instructive in how not to start a story.

Iím coming to realize that Brandon Sanderson is known for his unique style of switching PoV constantly throughout his books. While he certainly managed to use it to his advantage in Mistborn, here itís causing me to lose interest after I get through each chapter. This is because he's breaking the following rule for starting a story:

Always open with your protagonistís PoV.

In writing, rules are meant to be broken. But they are there for a reason, and you can generally only break them so much before things start to go sideways. In Mistborn, Sanderson opens the trilogy from the PoV of a random antagonistic character we never see again. It works fine.

Whatís the difference? There are, I feel, a few things at play, which Iíll get at soon. But the one which first jumps out at me is that Mistborn opens with a single PoV before getting to the protagonist. Stormlight goes through no fewer than three random characters before we get to the protagonistís PoV. For the first two, the protagonist isnít even present or known.

So why is this rule important? First and foremost, stories are about people. Not just any people, very specific people. These are your main characters. When reading stories, readers expect the story to revolve around a single person or small group of persons. Much like when playing an RPG, you can go through a few cutscenes or tutorial, but you expect that youíll arrive with your main character soon. In the same vein, readers are used to the first chapter or prologue featuring someone else, but by the second chapter, they expect to have at least met the main character.

Sanderson doesnít help himself out with these non-protagonist PoVs, either. Two are dead and gone (or at least I assume so) by the end of the chapters. This is the nail in the coffin for me. Itís like the author dangling a character in front of you and saying, ĎIs this the main character youíre waiting for? *character dies* Nope! Youíre wrong!í.

I know Sanderson isnít doing this intentionally. His host of prologues and introductions feel like heís spent a lot of time building this world and story, and just needs to go through some different PoVs to set it up. Itís justÖ not working for the story.

This all presents a question though. I said Mistborn opened with a non-protagonist PoV. So why did that work where Stormlight so far isnít? I mentioned that Stormlight goes through three PoVs where Mistborn only has one before the protagonist, but there is another reason, which brings us to another rule Sanderson breaks:

If you canít introduce what you need to right away, use bridging conflict.

Bridging conflict is basically a mini-conflict, designed to tide the reader over until the main story arrives. Usually it takes the form of an unanswered question. This question serves the dual-purpose of keeping the reader interested despite the lack of a protagonist, and subconsciously lets them know that the main conflict (and presumably main character) is coming.

Mistborn has bridging conflict. In the one chapter without the protagonist, thereís a very simple question, which is answered in the second chapter with the protagonistís arrival. Stormlight does not do this. Well, rather I think it tries to, and instead ends up breaking the third rule:

Give the reader time to digest things before introducing more. Answer questions before posing others.

This, more than anything else, is I feel where Stormlight fails in spades. I have the overwhelming feeling that Sanderson has spent so long developing the world and story, that thereís simply too much to introduce. Iíve struggled with this myself, so I know whatís going on.

Sanderson jumps in full steam, introducing characters, worlds, politics, magic systems, mystical creatures, and random conflicts at breakneck speed. Add in the complete lack of a solidifying protagonist, and the reader is left reeling.

When I was reading, I had only inklings of what was going on. Things were hard to keep straight, and more and more kept being introduced until I was genuinely relieved to see the end of the chapter coming up. Thatís never something you want your reader to feel.

Compare this to Mistborn. In the first chapter, a shred of the world and its politics are introduced. No mystical creatures, no magic, no named characters aside from two, and no conflicts except for that single bridging conflict I mentioned earlier (which is good; a lack of conflict draws reader attention to that single question). Sanderson takes his time with Mistborn, introducing the world slowly, using our lack of knowledge about things like the magic to increase interest, and also hold our attention when the explanations finally come (side note: this is how you fix info-dumps).

Stormlight certainly doesnít give us all the answers; it simply asks too many questions. Thereís a rule with bridging conflict: when you ask a question, make sure you answer it before you ask another. Start failing to answer questions, and the reader subconsciously loses faith that you will, and thus loses interest. This is what started happening to me while reading Stormlight.

The verdict.

Now Iím definitely going to get back to Stormlight. Iíve heard way too many good things about it not to. Iíve only read the first two chapters, plus the two prologues, and Iím sure that now the protagonist has finally arrived (at least this better be the protagonist), things can start rolling. The interest isnít there right now, so it might take me a while to get back to it, but it will eventually happen. I just felt like the opening was such a good example of what not to do when starting a story, that it warranted this FFC.

Meanwhile, whatís the status with my own writing? My last update was towards the end of June, when I wasnít sure if my writing was going to take off or not. Unfortunately, the presence of my new job has made certain that I will not be writing while I am working. I require at least two days to recharge my creative thinking, and two days off is the most I get at a time, meaning that the stories I might be coming up with are consistently getting shoved to the side and forgotten.

It looks like this pattern will continue, at least for another three months. By the end of the year, there should be new developments which should allow me opportunities to get back into an environment more friendly to creative writing. Until then though, there will be no stories. I hope to use this time to continue working on what lingering writing issues I have. When I do return, I do currently still plan to write at least one fan fiction to test out some theories before starting work on my first novel. As always, plans are subject to change.

But until then, keep reading, keep writing, and remember to think outside the book covers.

~TGRF.
Posted in FFC
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TheAverageFan's Avatar
Reading this actually made me reflect on how rarely I start my stories with the protagonist, almost always opening with some other hook or inciting incident with other characters, going all the way back to my first entry on this site. It's an easy way to set up the plot in advance, grab the audience's curiosity, and get a bit of action in before the slow beginning.

The protagonist always shows up in the second scene though. I can't imagine doing three opening hooks in a row. Without knowing the context, I can't see it working.

~TAF
Posted August 18th, 2021 at 03:32 PM by TheAverageFan TheAverageFan is offline
Old
The Grim Reaper's Friend's Avatar
@TheAverageFan It was a bit jarring. It felt like three openings back to back, not counting the second chapter, where we finally have the protagonist's PoV.

If Mistborn is any example though, everything will turn out being crucial to the ending, so maybe there was no other way.

~TGRF.
Posted August 18th, 2021 at 04:55 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend The Grim Reaper's Friend is offline
 
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