Welcome back to my analysis of the beginning of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Book One of the Stormlight Archive series, from an editor’s perspective. My goal with this analysis is to show how first chapters are done well and why they’re good.
In Lesson 1, I covered the quote before the text and the first paragraph, which is critical to draw in the reader. Now I’ll discuss some elements of setting and point out some specific areas where Sanderson does things well.
Setting: Enough but Not Too Much
It’s necessary to give readers some indication of where the events of the story are taking place. Having a glimpse into the surroundings helps to enrich the story because it lets readers in on where the author was envisioning the events take place.
Some avid readers don’t pay much attention to setting. They are adept at creating worlds in their own minds and don’t need much help from the author. Those readers tend to skim over the setting to keep back to the story; therefore, you don’t want to belabor setting and therefore annoy them.
On the other hand, readers who are not as adept at that need something to spark their own imaginations, so authors need to give them something.
In other words, it’s best to strike a balance between giving enough setting information so that readers can start picturing where things are taking place but not so much that they know the thread count of the sheets on the bed and how long the chair in the corner has been owned by the family and who made it.
Striking a Balance
Here’s an example from The Way of Kings. “He” in this example is Szeth, the assassin we met in Lesson 1.
“He sat in a large stone room, baked by enormous firepits that cast a garish light upon the revelers, causing beads of sweat to form on their skin as they danced, drank, and yelled, and sang, and clapped.”
This is good imagery, right? We can picture a stone room with firepits. We don’t need to know how many there are or where they’re placed; that can be left up to the reader’s imagination. It’s enough of a description to give readers something to spark their own imagination but no so much that we’re ready for him to get on with the story already.
Also notice that he doesn’t just describe the setting but mentions how the setting impacts the people in it. We can picture the garish light thrown on the revelers’ faces from the fires because we’ve all seen what that looks like. It doesn’t need to be described further. We can imagine how hot it must be in a stone room filled with firepits, especially when people are dancing and drinking, and the mention of “beads of sweat” shows us just how hot it must be.
Lastly, we can picture the revelers themselves. We don’t need descriptions of each of them or what they’re wearing. We see in our minds what a group of people dancing, drinking, yelling, singing, and clapping looks like, slightly sweaty and with firelight on their faces.
Main Character in the Setting
It’s great to have the above imagery to help us picture what’s going on in the scene in general, but we also need to know how the main character fits into that setting. For example, is he also a reveler? Is he just watching the revelry? We don’t know yet. Sanderson next brings us back to the main character so that readers can reconnect with him.
The next description is about Szeth, the main character for the Prologue:
“Szeth did not sway to the drums, drink the sapphire wine, or stand to dance. He sat on a bench at the back, a still servant in white robes.”
This contrast helps us to picture a solitary, still man in white clothing. This description may initially make readers wonder if Szeth stands out by nature of his stillness, but the mention of his being a servant gives us a different impression: servants are ignored. It probably makes perfect sense to the revelers that a servant is still and not joining in the fun. As a servant, he goes unnoticed, which is perfect for an assassin.
It’s important to give readers some indication of where story events are taking place. However, you don’t want to spend so much time on setting that readers get bored. Give a taste of the setting to spark the readers’ imaginations and let them into your head a little, but don’t belabor the details.
Bonus points if you can show how the setting is impacting the characters in the story, such as the garish light and beads of sweat that Sanderson mentioned.
Lastly, make sure you place your main character in that setting and not just describe what’s going on around them. It’s critical for readers to understand where the main character fits in with their surroundings.
More to come in the next blog.
Interested in working with me to help develop or trim your setting? Contact me, and let’s get started!