Warning, this is going to contain major spoilers along with gushing praise.
If you haven’t read Brandon Sanderson’s, Mistborn, stop here, go read it, and come back later.
1. You can make old tropes new again
At this point it’s impossible to write something that’s completely trope-free. Even this blog entry you are reading at this very second is a trope-tastic masterpiece. How many people have written list posts? At least 2,546,000, probably more, because listing out your ideas in numerical order just works. It’s as common as the trope of the mean, blonde cheerleader.
The same goes for Mistborn. The tyrannical ruler oppressing the masses isn’t new. We’ve seen it more times than we’ve seen list posts. But gosh darn it, isn’t it great to have a villain we can universally hate? This is why the tyrannical ruler is a most beloved trope of fantasy writers. It’s a cause we can all rally behind. It makes us an immediate cheering squad for the protagonist, and it’s something we can recognize. Um…Hitler, Kim Jong Un, the evil Empire, and Sauron, anyone?
The Lord Ruler is definitely a card-carrying member of this club. He’s enslaved an entire race of people and makes a big party out of public hangings. But he’s more than just your standard, genocidal villain. He’s immortal, indestructible, and he’s got a backstory.
Throughout the novel, we get to see little snippets of his journal, from before he inherited his immortality and became the infamous Lord Ruler everyone loves to hate. Way back when, he was kind, thoughtful, and hopeful. He wanted to save humanity…or at least that’s what we think.
And with each reveal of his humanity, we lower our pitchforks, douse the torches, and go, “I wonder what happened to make such a nice man turn into such a monster?” And just like Luke Skywalker, we’re wondering if that former good guy is hiding behind Darth Vader’s mask. That’s the twist to the trope.
2. Give Information through Dialogue
World-building is the bane of every fantasy writer, more so than writing a synopsis…no wait, I take that back. They might be on par, holding hands, sitting at the bar together, devising new ways to make writers miserable. But without a doubt, when I sit at a round table and give seven people my first ten pages to read, one half of the table will accuse me of info-dumping (telling them too much about the fantasy world up front,) and the other half of the table will have a list of questions of things they want to know–immediately.
You can’t win.
I think, for the most part, diehard fantasy readers will give the author a little leeway in either direction. Some stories can unload a lot of information quickly, and others string you along with little bits here and there. You might get lost along the way, but eventually, you’ll get your answer.
A common favorite is to use the novice and the expert to explain your world, or the student and the teacher, á la Harry Potter.
In Mistborn, Vin is our novice. She knows very little about Elemancy until she’s found by Kelsier who becomes her teacher. Through Kelsier and the other Mistings, we learn the rules for burning metals, the limitations, the history, the source, which metals do what, and the inner nuances of getting the most out of each one.
Every time Vin asks a question, we become the student, and the world-building is broken into depictions of the scene, snide remarks, and quippy comebacks. It’s a far superior way to share information versus listing it out like a Wikipedia entry.
3. Destroy Everything
This is a widely touted solution for writer’s block. If you get stuck, throw your character into some trouble and see what happens. We reveal our best (or worst) selves when we’re in danger. What does your character do in the middle of a bank robbery? Does she cower under the table? Or crawl toward the robber in an attempt to subdue him? Maybe she stands up and does the chicken dance in an attempt to distract him.
But our dear, Brandon Sanderson did much more than rattle the cages. He burned the entire city down–in the middle of the book. Imagine if the Empire blew up the rebel base before the rebels even got the Death Star plans.
Yeah, it was kind of like that.
There we were, on this jaunty little ride to find out if our lovable crew of thieves and miscreants would actually topple the Final Empire. They have their secret army in the caves. They’re spreading dissent through the wealthy. Everything is going to plan.
Then the army goes on a rogue hunt and ninety percent of them are killed. Whaaaat??? How can they possibly overthrow the evil regime without an army?
That’s a great question, and why I continued to tear through page after page to find the answer. It’s not uncommon for a book’s middle to be referred to as, “the muddle.” Because, frankly, that’s where a lot of authors run out of ideas and lose their readers. You want to make sure your readers keep going? Blow up the whole damn city. Put your heroes at their lowest. Destroy everything they’ve built and make them choose to give up or start from scratch. Now, not only are they righteously fighting evil, they are doing it with sticks and stones. And as much as we love to hate on the evil tyrants, we love even more to root for the underdog.
4. Really Fool your Readers
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of M. Night Shyamalan, at this very moment, cashing a stack of residual checks from the Sixth Sense, based entirely off of this very classic technique—the plot twist. If you say you didn’t audibly gasp when you found out Bruce Willis was a ghost, you are lying.
There are two reasons why Mr. Shyamalan is able to fill theatres with goosebump-covered patrons: conviction and plausibility.
There was never a doubt in our minds that Bruce was a living psychiatrist, trying to make-up for his failed patient by helping a little boy with the same affliction. But as soon as we learned the truth and went back through the scenes…well, it all made perfect sense.
The problem is, the more we get fooled, the less likely we are to get fooled again. Especially fantasy readers. We’re always ready for an intelligent AI to come crawling out of the floor or for someone to sprout wings in their sleep. It’s really, really hard to trick us.
So I take notice when someone does. Like our friend, Brandon. Through those journal entries I mentioned before, we had committed to the Lord Ruler once being a decent guy, and Kelsier had us convinced that the only way to kill him was with the eleventh metal.
Wrong, and again, wrong.
Our hopeful, all-around-good-guy and journal writer was murdered…by the current Lord Ruler, and it was that secret, not the eleventh metal that helped Vin vanquish the foe. The pieces fit, just not in any order that I expected, and that’s exactly what we all have to strive for in our work.
5. Close the Loop, but Leave a Few Fraying Ends
After spending six hundred pages with a novel, I need some closure. Don’t you dare lead me on an epic, month-long journey and literally leave me hanging at the edge of the cliff. If that’s the case, then let’s all just admit that your novel is nothing more than backstory.
The boiled-down plot for Mistborn: the Final Empire is, a ragtag gang of thieves with heart is in a battle to topple a centuries’ long tyrannical government. You better believe I expected by the end of the book to either see the Lord Ruler crush them, or for Vin and Kelsier to have the Lord Ruler’s head on a post, parading him through the city.
I won’t say which one happened, but I will say that one of them did.
Had it not, I probably would have thrown the book across the room, muttered curses under my breath, and I definitely would not be here, writing yet another list post in praise of Sanderson’s work.
But there’s more. Sanderson left questions, secondary plotlines still moving forward, the potential for more drama in the now changed world. There are reasons for me to keep reading, and because there was no cliffhanger, I’m not reading because I feel like I have to. I’m reading because I want to.