With the re-launch of my website to focus on Fantasy and Sci-Fi, which are my passions, I’ve also decided to re-focus my blog. My plan is to take a published book and analyze the beginning of it from an editor’s perspective. Most books struggle in the beginning chapters, particularly after the first draft, so my goal with this analysis is to show how first chapters are done well and why they’re good.
My first subject is the prologue of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Book One of the Stormlight Archive series. The prologue is titled “The Kill.” Brandon Sanderson is highly successful and one of the best fantasy authors ever, current or past. He’s also a friendly guy who is happy to share his knowledge and passion; I had the opportunity to see him at several panels at Dragon Con in Atlanta. He also co-hosts a podcast called “Writing Excuses,” which I recommend for authors of all genres.
The Stormlight Archive series has four books and two novellas published at the time I’m writing this blog, and it’s not finished. The Way of Kings is an excellent story overall. However, Brandon Sanderson is known for writing books with lots of words. This one has over 400,000 words; the hardcover is 1,007 pages long. If there is anything to criticize in this book, it’s that it’s not tight enough, meaning that there are some things that could be cut to make a more streamlined story. That said, I was never bored. If you’re a fantasy fan, you should definitely read this book.
Note that before the prologue that I’m analyzing, there is also a prelude. However, relative to story time, it occurs in the past. Therefore, it’s not as relevant to the main story as the prologue is. I think analyzing the prologue instead will be more informative to writers. Alright, let’s get started.
Before the text is a quote and information about where the quote was collected. These quotes appear at the beginning of each chapter. Here it is in its entirety:
“The love of men is a frigid thing, a mountain stream only three steps from the ice. We are his. Oh Stormfather . . . we are his. It is but a thousand days, and the Everstorm comes.
Of course, the quote doesn’t mean much to us yet. Over time, we notice that there’s one at the beginning of each chapter and that they were all collected very shortly before death. This is a way of foreshadowing. Near the very end of the book we find out more about these quotes. By then, our curiosity is very piqued, which makes the payoff of finding out what they’re for very satisfying.
In addition to the overall purpose of the quote though, we are introduced to a couple of terms specific to this world we’re entering: Stormfather and Everstorm. We’re not sure what Everstorm is, but it doesn’t sound good, does it? It sounds like something we should be dreading. Stormfather, on the other hand, sounds like a god. It sounds like the person is praying to the Stormfather, or using it in the way that we say “Oh God.” By making the phrasing something commonly used, but replacing “God” with “Stormfather,” Sanderson made it easy for us to conclude that the Stormfather is a god, or perhaps the god, in this world.
Moving on to the information about how the quote was collected:
—Collected on the first day of the week Palah of the Month Shash of the year 1171, thirty-one seconds before death. Subject was a darkeyed pregnant woman of middle years. The child did not survive.
We learn that the calendar is different in this world. The first day of the week is called Palah, and there’s a month called Shash. We also learn that the quote was collected in the year 1171. That tells us that the years are tracked similar to the way ours are tracked, but we don’t yet know whether this is present time or sometime in the past. As we see each quote or other references to the year in the text, we’ll be better able to judge that information.
As I mentioned before, we learn over time that all of these quotes were collected shortly before death. The oddity of this information makes it stand out in our minds though. How often do you have specific information about how close to death a person was when they said something? Sure, sometimes we learn that it was a person’s last words, but we never know down to the second. This specific information tells us that these words being spoken very shortly before death is what makes the quote important.
We also learn that the shade of eyes is meaningful in this world since it’s mentioned that the subject was a darkeyed woman. We’ll learn quickly that the color of eyes determines the caste that people fall into, and this is an early introduction to that subject.
Lastly, it’s mentioned that the subject was pregnant, in middle years, and that the child did not survive. At this point, we don’t know whether any of this information is relevant or just a thorough description. However, it does give us a good enough description to be able to picture the person without going overboard describing a person who isn’t even a character.
We’ve already learned a lot about this world, just from the quote and the information on when and from whom it was collected. The text hasn’t even started!
The first paragraph is only three sentences long. They’re full of good information and introduction for us, the readers, so I’m analyzing each on its own.
Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king.
The first thing I notice is that its written in third person. This is the norm for the fantasy and sci-fi genres, so Sanderson is confirming to genre, and therefore reader, expectations here. In third person point of view, we readers can get somewhat into the character’s head (called third-person limited), but not as close as something being told from first person point of view.
Next, notice that Sanderson is introducing us to action right away. This character is going to be trying to kill a king. He’s not going to waste time telling us a bunch of information first; he’s going to jump into the plot right away. This is definitely the way to go. If you have a lot of exposition at the beginning, readers will quickly grow bored and may not see any reason to continue reading.
Another important point is that Sanderson gave us the character’s name right away and a very brief description to give us enough of an idea of what this character looks like for us to start forming a picture in our minds. These details are important because it grounds us. Have you ever gotten several pages into a book before you learn the character’s gender, and you thought it was the opposite? It throws you out of the story. Sanderson tells us the name of the character, that he’s male, and that he’s wearing white. We also know he’s going to kill a king, so in my mind, I’m picturing someone who is athletic, though that may not be the same for everyone. Regardless, we have enough information to ground us in who this character is, but not so much description that it bogs us down from moving on in the action. We’re also wondering whether this person is an assassin.
Lastly, the way the name is written and the title after the name tells us something about the world. It’s kind of an old style from our world. Thus, we expect similarities to our world from times when names were like that, such as the use of swords, the existence of castles, and so on.
The second sentence tells us a bit more.
The white clothing was a Parshendi tradition, foreign to him.
This sentence tells us something about the clothing mentioned in the previous sentence, specifically that it’s probably not something he would choose to wear.
It also introduced the Parshendi people to us. Now we know that the Parshendi are a group of people and that while Szeth is among them, he is not one of them.
The third sentence might raise an eyebrow.
But he did as his masters required and did not ask for an explanation.
His masters? Okay, so he’s a servant or slave of some kind, and he’s going to kill the king because they told him to, not because he wants to. He’s definitely an assassin, but it seems he’s not the kind who can pick and choose which jobs he takes.
We also start to learn a little about the master/servant relationship here. Either Szeth is too subservient to ask questions, or questions are frowned upon or forbidden. It doesn’t sound like a symbiotic relationship, in any case.
What did we learn just from the quote and the first paragraph? Quite a lot.
- There’s a god called Stormfather.
- There’s something called Everstorm, which doesn’t sound like a good thing.
- Someone is collecting quotes from people right before death.
- The calendar looks somewhat different in this world, with different names for days of the week and months of the year, but it’s still familiar in that there are weeks, months, and years.
- The shade of people’s eyes is important.
- The main character in the prologue is named Szeth.
- The setting is familiar to olden times in Earth history.
- Szeth is a servant or slave who has been directed to kill a king.
- Szeth is wearing white and is among the Parshendi people, but he is not Parshendi himself.
- Szeth does not ask questions of his masters; he does what he’s told.
It almost takes as much page space to recap everything we learned from the beginning of the prologue as the quote and the first paragraph itself! That is masterful writing. We learned a lot of information in a very short amount of page space. We’re getting introduced to the world, the characters, the plot for the prologue, and some foreshadowing of a deeper mystery.
This prologue is an excellent beginning. More paragraphs to come in the next blog.
Interested in working with me to make the beginning of your book as strong as this one? Contact me, and let’s get started!