Writing Excuses 9.21: Sanderson’s 3rd Law

Brandon has some rules about magic systems — rules he uses as guideposts for his own writing. In his own words, “I name them Sanderson’s Laws partially out of hubris…”

Sanderson’s third law states, in effect, that a thorough exploration of a single magical ability is better than the creation of lots of different abilities–going for depth rather than breadth. And to immediately break that rule, we explore the wider application of this rule in other arenas.

We talk about how we apply this principle–depth rather than breadth–in many aspects of our own work, and then we drill back down (*ahem*) on its application in the creation of magic systems.




A magic system in which digging holes somehowe generates magic, and the depth, breadth, and location determine what kind.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, narrated by Simon Prebble

6 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.21: Sanderson’s 3rd Law”

  1. The “third law” essay really helped me awhile back. I had tons of ideas for a world I was building, but something just wasn’t coalescing. But then I read the essay and realized that I needed to combine the two magic systems in my book. Suddenly everything clicked and about a year later, I now have a finished novel.

    I do still tend to have blind spots when “going deeper” though. Any tips for questions to ask yourself when creating a magic system so that you don’t run into problems later on (like when Mary said she almost invented the telephone)?

  2. Go for depth, not breadth. I like this. It sort of calls to mind the old adage, ‘less is more.’ I think this is one of the possible flaws in going just for word count with writing exercises. It’s something that events such as NaNoWriMo tend to encourage. Not that it’s a bad thing. In fact for the neophyte writer and anyone who has trouble simply making the commitment to get to the keyboard, I think it’s a worthwhile lesson. But one of the follies here is that one can get into the habit of simply throwing myriad words together just so that they have their word count.
    This, as was touched upon, can also effect plot. Mary brought up the unknown Sci-Fi author’s paraphrase in the bit, “When a writer is stuck they introduce new characters.” It’s the same idea. Unless you’re looking at an incredibly long series in which one of the delights of the series is the bulk of characters – one particular series of graphic novels comes to mind, and that’s One Piece by Oda Eichiro, which has I think the most number of characters in any Manga/Graphic Novel series in Japanese history.
    Yes, I believe that, above all things, we as writers should do everything in our powers not to stop and just drop our work, but let’s push our work not so much in a minimalistic sense, but just expand on the few items that we do have. Certainly, stories need more than just one element; there are always various elements that stories need, but beyond that, what the cast is going for, we shouldn’t just go for excess just to build scope.

    P.S. Loved the Balrog reference, Dan.

  3. Personally, I used to have trouble with distinguishing what was adding depth to a magic system, and what was just adding breadth (for example, in allomancy, is separating powers into internal and external ones adding depth or breadth). However, it became much easier once I realized that depth is basically the result of giving your magic system to a bunch of intense fans. Give fans a Bag of Holding, and they’ll turn it into the perfect hiding spot. Give them an iron twinborn, and they’ll turn it into someone who can fly.

    So now, when I make magic systems, I try to look at it from the eyes of fan. What about the system would fascinate me, if I was on the other side of the book (as it were), and make me wonder how else it could be applied.

  4. I wish I had remembered this law last november. It’s a rule I seem to break often in everything I do.

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