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Transcript for Episode 9.21

Writing Excuses 9.21: Sanderson’s Third Law


Key points: Sanderson’s third law is that a writer should expand what they already have before adding something new. Dig deeply, don’t build widely. Beware of multiplying magic systems, villains, and characters. But don’t just sink one hole, dig a few deep holes and some shallow ones. Think about ramifications, and variations. How do people react to new things? First ask how is this going to affect the characters and the conflict? Then look at how this culture and others adapted to it. Look at the energy budget, the economics. How can it become a commodity? How can it be misused? Books are about immersion, and making the story feel real. As an author, your final goal is to entertain. Sanderson’s Zeroeth Law is err on the side of what’s awesome. Pick what’s fun.

[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 21.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Sanderson’s Third Law.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m unable to remember the second law.
[Brandon] All right. Well, we’ll… Second Law you can Google.
[Howard] Okay.

[Google indicates Sanderson’s Three Laws:
1. An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
2. Limitations > Powers. (Weaknesses are more interesting than abilities.)
3. Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Courtesy of Wikipedia,]

[Brandon] Sanderson’s Third Law. So I have these sort of rules for magic systems that I use to help me write better magic systems. I named them Sanderson’s Laws, partially out of hubris, but partially because they are laws I have learned about my own writing. It’s not necessarily that people need to follow these laws, but when I am writing, I ask myself these things and they have helped me create better writing. They are specifically about magic systems, but I feel that each of them applies to writing in really more broad senses. So, Sanderson’s Third Law is that a writer should expand what they already have before adding something new. This is, in essence, me realizing that as a writer I was trying to create deep, immersive worlds for my world building, and my first instinct was to therefore create lots of stuff. Because if there’s lots of stuff, your world will feel bigger and more immersive. What I found is that the stories where I wrote lots of stuff actually felt less immersive and less large than the stories where I created a couple of things and really, seriously considered the ramifications and worked very deeply to create a magic system that I had explored. So I started using this rule for myself. Instead of inventing a new part of… A magic power, I would say, “Do the magic powers I have right now, can I did deeper into those?” Instead of creating a second culture, I say, “What does this culture that I have, what are the ramifications if a splinter branch of that starts their own culture because of that?” Which is what really happens in our world a lot. Then this forces me to what I call dig deeply rather than to build widely.
[Howard] You know, at risk of derailing us early with an extension into another field, this is the thing that was wrong with most of the music that I wrote when I was a musician. I would write something catching and infectious and interesting and two and a half minutes long. Then move on to making something else. When what I needed to do was take that melody and refine it and do some variations on it and alter it and really explore what I had created in that piece of music. Never got around to doing it with music. Figured out how to do it with comics. Yeah, you’re right. It’s critically important that you go deep rather than going wide, because that’s where all the interesting stuff is.
[Mary] I can’t… I wish I could remember which science fiction writer said this, but that if you introduce any piece of technology into a science fiction story, you should use it more than once and in different ways.

[Brandon] Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re talking about right here. The thing about it is, I figured it out for magic systems. One of the points where I realized I was straying into a wrong path and I needed to… This law needed to help me was when I was talking about the Stormlight Archives for it came out, and I was working on it in the outline and I… In the Mistborn series, I quote unquote had three magic systems. Right? It was this idea of “Oh, bigger is better, right?” So when fans would come up and say, “Tell me about the new series,” I’d say, “Oh, it has 30 magic systems,” or something like this. They’d be like, “Wow, that’s mind blowing.” When as I was sitting down and looking at it, I was like, “30 magic systems? Who cares?” One good magic system is better than 30. This happens in films where you get the sequel problems. The Spiderman… The original Spiderman films had this problem where it’s you’ve got one villain, now we’re going to do two villains, and then the third movie became famously all over the place because the studios said you have to have this villain, they wanted to add this villain, they wanted to add this villain, and so they had the bigger mentality, we have three villains, but then you can’t dig into each of them as well as you did any of the first ones, and you have a weaker story.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s funny, because one of the… A friend of mine who teaches screenwriting says that the number one common… The most common screenwriter mistake is that when a writer is stuck, they introduce new characters.
[Brandon] Wow. Yeah.
[Mary] That it’s much better to look at the characters you already have…

[Howard] Yeah, that’s how I got into the mess I’m in.
[Howard] No, that’s… I’ll own up to that. The pool of characters in Schlock Mercenary is as big as it is because I would get stock and I would want to… I would want to get out of getting stuck by introducing a POV, and so I’d pull in a new character. [Whistle]
[Brandon] This is actually a… I won’t call it a problem. It is an issue with working in something very long form. You will find that this is the case, that people talk about Robert Jordan and George RR Martin in these same ways, saying, “Wow, the cast has gotten so big.” I can totally see as a writer working on something… You run into this issue where my main characters have been through so much, I can’t really legitimately put them through anymore, so I add new characters to put through things like this. Then that balloons your story and introduces problems. Now this can be awesome, it can create these enormous casts, but you as a writer have to realize, this comes at a cost. At some point, you have to say, let me end this story and start a new one as opposed to trying to keep your story fresh by adding new characters and ballooning. Now, I’m not saying that’s what you did.
[Mary] Now can…
[Brandon] I think…
[Howard] Well, no, but… Let me. The… I say I need to own up to the problem. I’ve known this was a problem for years. What I started doing is, every time I launched a new book online, I would make a clear delineation in my head so that when we start this book, I… Any time a character walks on screen, I’m introducing that character is if I’m introducing them for the first time. So that people know who it is and they have to have a reason to participate in the story. What I have found since then, and this was people talking in some of the community posts, they were trying to figure out who the protagonist of Schlock Mercenary was. I said, “Well, what a silly question. Why would there just be one?” “But it’s one story, isn’t it?” Oh, my goodness. What have my careless hands wrought? So recently, I built a bunch of new header images that helpful… That hopefully helpfully define beginnings and ends of books in the web archives so that people get this sense of we are done with that story. There is closure. It is time to start something new. Hopefully. That allows me now to go deep instead of having to cover all of these zillions of different bases.

[Mary] Now, the converse of this is that when you’re going deep, you also have to be careful that you don’t go into just one hole, because that will provoke a claustrophobic sensation whether you’re dealing with characters… It can create this sense of monoculture if you’re only doing one thing. You had a… Howard, you had a good analogy when you were talking about archaeology?
[Howard] Oh. Yeah. The… Well, I got it from a music professor, so… Again, the double metaphor mixing. Music analysis guy who said, “We’re going to analyze four pieces in a lot of detail, and then we’re going to cover another dozen or so pieces in just a little bit of detail, because if you’re doing geologic survey, you don’t want to dig one really deep hole, and you don’t want to dig a thousand really shallow holes. You want to take a few deep holes and some shallow holes so you can get a sense of what the surface is like and have some deep samples from some different areas.
[Mary] Yeah. So when you’re dealing with… When you’re applying that to writing, then what you’re basically looking at is you’ve got a couple of things that you explore in depth, but you reference larger things.
[Brandon] Lots of other things. Then that gives you that sense of… You’ve done three cultures really deeply. When you reference the rest, then your reader can say, “Oh, these cultures must be as deep, because everyone’s talking around this way.”

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week though. Our book of the week this week is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I recently listened to this book, an audiobook. This is a really interesting one to promo, because I talked about the fact that it’s the best boring book I’ve ever read.
[Brandon] It was fascinating. I couldn’t stop listening, even though not a lot happens in this book. It is a world building book. When I realized this is about the setting and the language more than anything else, then I just sat back and enjoyed the setting and the language. It was just an absolute blast. It was wonderful. I don’t think I would have enjoyed this book nearly to the extent I did if it hadn’t been read to me. The narrator did a fantastic job with the different voices and also just with the tone and the setting of it. So I highly recommend the audiobook, in specific, of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s this idea that magic is real. It’s Napoleonic Wars era. Magic has always been real. But for some reason, magic left England a number of years ago. All now that we have are theoretical magicians. Which is a profession that a nobleman will take up, just like having a hobby in any sort of area. Then a real magician comes onto the stage, having discovered some of the things that… He’s practical. He’s practicing, and nobody knows what to do with it. It is a lot of fun, and it is beautifully narrated.
[Howard], start a 30-day free trial membership, support your favorite writing podcast, or Writing Excuses if we’re not your favorite writing podcast…
[Howard] And download a copy of Jonathan Strange and Dr. Morel…
[Brandon, Mary] Mister…
[Dan] Mr. Norrell.
[Howard] Mr. Norrell. I’m sorry.
[Brandon] That’s all right.
[Mary] Morel is a mushroom.
[Howard] I was all… I was going for Dr. Moreau, and that’s even…
[Brandon] Even more delicious books.
[Howard] Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell… And who is the author?
[Brandon] It is by Susanna Clarke.
[Howard] Susanna Clarke, and you can get it for free.
[Brandon] Time Books book of the year, the year it came out.
[Mary] It’s a fantastic book. I was so, so depressed when it came out because it came out right before…
[Brandon] Like, and you’re doing some of the same things.
[Mary] But it… They’re nothing alike.
[Brandon] They’re very different.
[Mary] Aside from being in the same era.

[Brandon] I want to bring this discussion back towards specifically magic systems, because it can apply to a lot of things, and I want this podcast to talk about the idea of magic systems, and going deep with your magic systems, so to speak. Because it is for me…
[Howard] Can I use science systems as well?
[Brandon] Science systems as well.
[Howard] Okay. [Wicked?]
[Brandon] But I love, specifically, glamour in your books is a great example of going deep on a magic system, rather than going wide. You could have invented 40 different arts that magic did in this world. Instead, you took glamour and you really started to ask what are the different ramifications of this as a new branch of art that exists in the world.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the things that I’m also doing in Of Noble Family is I’m looking at how that magic system plays out in different parts of the world. Because… Just because you have one magic system in one world does not mean that everybody is going to use it in exactly the same way, anymore than everyone uses paint in exactly the same way. So for me, this is again an example of going deep, but going deeper with multiple holes. A lot of what I do when I’m doing this is look at kind of how people react to things in general in the real world, as a model for how to… for how they react to new technologies, which is magic in my world, and what are the cool things I can do with it, and whether or not I can allow them to… For instance, in Valor and Vanity, I had them using technology and I realized that if I… Or using magic, and I realized that if I let them use glamour in this particular way, I would have invented telephones, which changes everything. I was like, “I can’t have that.” So there was a place where I actually had to fill the hole in a little bit.

[Brandon] Where I’m… When I’m developing magic for a story, my primary goal is to say, number one, how is it going to affect the characters and the conflict? That’s where I’m going. But I also want to say, “All right, how is the culture adapted to this magic? How have different cultures adapted to this magic?” What… By changing some fundamental laws of physics, what have I done to how science is going to progress and all of these different things? If you are doing a magic system, asking yourself these sorts of things and allowing yourself to take different spins off of this one little change that you can make to the world will honestly make your magic and your world feel much more fully realized than just adding a ton of new things.
[Dan] This is what we did in the Partials series with the link. The Partials use a system of pheromonal communication to talk to each other. When my editor and I were first putting together the series, we were trying to figure out what can make the Partials fundamentally different. They had to be… They look like people, they act like people, they had to be alien in some way. We came up with so many different ways, and over time realized all we really needed was the link. Because once we considered all those ramifications, this changes how they talk to each other, this changes how they talk to humans, this changes how they perceive each other. By the third book, it essentially is a magic system. I’ve been telling people on tour that Ruins is an epic fantasy disguised as post-apocalyptic novel, because we just took this one element of the link and followed it as far down the rabbit hole as we could.
[Howard] The Schlock Mercenary universe, the economics of it, energy is cheap. With energy being as cheap as it is, a lot of things should be cheap. So why aren’t things less expensive? There’s the scientific theory that there are some islands of stability in the high numbered atomic elements, and I went ahead and ran with that, because that gave me what I called post-transuranics. Really expensive to create, heavy elements that allow us to create armor compounds and whatever else. Then I looked at how expensive it is for us to create an atom of Lorentzium. The amount of energy we have to expend to slam these things together. I realized that the things that we’ve been… These warships have as power plant materials are super expensive to create. The more I dug into that, the more I realized that the whole idea of energy budget could actually drive plot line, motivation, lots of things in the Schlock Mercenary universe all the way up to the end of the series. It all grew out of this idea that let me take something that I haven’t looked at closely and drill down and start coming up with answers and more questions.

[Mary] Actually, the energy budget is something that will apply to pretty much any magic system as well. There’s the personal energy toll, there’s the economic toll, how can it be… How can magic or science be commodified? How can it be misused?
[Howard] If it’s cheaper than having the donkey do it, what happens to the donkeys?

[Brandon] Now I do want to offer here what you’re trying to avoid. All right. What this is going to do. Because I have a counter example. But it’s a counter example of… I’m going to use role-playing game systems. For anyone who’s played in a role-playing game system, their goal for that system is not to create an immersive, real world. Their goal is to create a fun world for you to game in. So if you go to a lot of the classic gaming systems, they have 40 magic systems. Right? You can pick the one you want to play because it’s going to be fun to do something different. They… You want to avoid your fantasy novel feeling like that. Because that works really well for the gaming system. But you play the game system… Anyone who’s done like D&D knows, the economy makes no sense. The adventurers go and they find these +1 swords, right? Which are basically useless to them by the time they’re third or fourth level. They’re throwing these things around. You come back with 20 of them, because you have to have enemies to fight who have legitimate threats. These things are worth a thousand gold pieces. You go look at what a gold piece is worth, it’s like a year’s wages for a laborer. You’re like, “This economy is ridiculous.” But the economy exists to make the game fun to play. You have to make sure your magic isn’t breaking reality for the reader in that way because your book is about immersion and about the story being real.
[Howard] You’re not building an MMORPG, you’re building an MMRB. Massively Multi-Reader Book.
[Dan] But it’s important to point out that your final goal as an author is to entertain.
[Garbled… Yes, your reader…]
[Dan] So don’t get buried. I mean, if you’re writing hard science fiction, then yes, that’s what your audience wants. But don’t go so far into the realism that you’re not interesting anymore.
[Brandon] I warn people, Sanderson’s Zeroeth Law is err on the side of what’s awesome. That has to overshroud each of these other laws. Pick what’s awesome, then make it work. Pick what’s fun.
[Howard] In Larry Niven’s N Space, he posted the outline for the destruction of his Known Space Universe. Which grew out of the fact that he sat down and drilled into the Slaver stasis technology and the Puppeteer hull technology and realized his whole universe just needed to burn, because it was no longer… It no longer made sense. So he wrote an outline in which it did burn. Then his editor said, “Hey, this Ringworld idea? You should put it in Known Space.” So he went with the rule of awesome.
[Mary] This is one of those places where you drill into the hole and then you think I’m just going to drag a tarp over that.
[Howard] I don’t like what’s at the bottom of this one.
[Dan] You delve too deep and you get a Balrog, so… Watch out.

[Brandon] Howard. You have a writing prompt.
[Howard] Okay. You have a magic system in which you are actually digging holes. The depth of the holes versus the breadth of the holes versus where you are digging governs the output of your magic.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] Go, and cast dirt.
[Brandon] Maybe you’ll find Sheloby or whatever his name is… This has been… How do you say his name?
[Dan] Shaiya.
[Brandon] Shaiya? He’s [garbled]
[Howard] I don’t even know why we’re saying his name.
[Dan] Because he was in holes.
[Mary] Great. Now we’re doomed.
[Howard] Oh, he was in holes.
[Mary] Doomed. So doomed.
[Howard] We could stop now, right?
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You might have a few excuses, but go write anyway.