The Dragon’s in the Details: Establishing Setting in a Fantasy World, Case Study #2–The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

If you haven’t read the first part of my series on establishing fantasy setting (where I looked at Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind), you can find it here.

This Week’s Case Study: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is without question my favorite fantasy author. He excels at creating gorgeous worlds and detailed magic systems. In this article, I examine how Sanderson establishes the physical setting in his epic fantasy The Way of Kings. Even if you don’t own the book, I’d suggest jumping over to Amazon and using the “Look Inside” option to read through the complete Prelude, Prologue, and Chapter 1.

Way of Kings Cover

Why this book?

In addition to being a best seller, The Way of Kings is the introductory book to Sanderson’s most elaborate world. Without being technologically advanced, it avoids the common feel of medieval Europe and provides an immediate feeling of historical and cultural depth.

By The Numbers

Prelude: approx 1300 words, 36% setting description

Prologue: approx 6100 words, 17% setting description

Chapter 1: approx 4500 words, 14% setting description

Right at the start, it became apparent to me that Sanderson uses less space for setting detail than Rothfuss in the opening sections (Rothfuss had 90% for the prologue, and 28% for chapter 1). This doesn’t make it less rich, with Sanderson offloading a lot of world-building into other areas such as culture, character, and magic.

Five Lessons from Sanderson’s Use of Setting

1. Thread a Key Setting Feature Through the Narrative

Here is the setting for the book’s opening: a rocky battlefield. That’s it. When it comes to pure physical setting, there is nothing else, but Sanderson takes the defining feature of stone and uses it to create atmosphere.

The prelude opens, “Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge . . .” The dying creature he encounters is literally an “enormous stone beast” with “granite shoulders.” After a description of the creature, Sanderson goes on:

The plain was a place of misshapen rock and stone, natural pillars rising around him, bodies littering the ground. Few plants lived here. The stone ridges and mounds bore numerous scars. Some were shattered, blasted-out sections where Surgebinders had fought. Less frequently, he passed cracked, oddly shaped hollows where thunderclasts had ripped themselves free of the stone to join the fray.

Again and again, Sanderson hammers on the same imagery, that this is a place of desolate broken rock. Corpses don’t just burn in piles, they burn on smouldering rock. Kalak doesn’t meet his ally on the plain, but “in the shadow of a large rock formation.” The swords he finds are drivin into “stone ground.” His friend’s mental state is defined as “hanging from a cliff.” Stone is kept at the forefront to define a harsh and unforgiving place that will end up hosting the major story events later on.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Create New Terms to Give the Impression of Depth and Otherness

In these opening sections, I caught at least 17 new terms: thunderclast, surgebinder, dustbringer, shardblade, oathpact, cycle of desolations, radiant, truthless, spren, voidbringer, lashing (a magical term), sky eels, axehound, cremling, rock bud, herald, and chull. Most of these aren’t defined immediately, and that’s oaky. This world-specific terminology establishes a sense of novelty and otherness. It says that this fantasy setting isn’t dealing with goblins and orcs, but is a truly different world. It also creates mysteries with an implicit promise that the meanings will be revealed as the story progresses.

I could see how this could easily become confusing word soup, but Sanderson manages his new vocabulary in key ways. Some things he defines and then repeats. For example, the thunderclast is defined at the beginning as a giant rock monster with the term presented three times in the opening paragraphs.

The enormous stone beast lay on its side, riblike protrusions from its chest broken and cracked. The monstrosity was vaguely skeletal in shape, with unnaturally long limbs that sprouted from granite shoulders. The eyes were deep red spots on the arrowhead face, as if created by a fire burning deep within the stone.

Likewise, copious text is given to lashings and how they function.

In other instances, Sanderson just gives hints of definitions. Radiants are implied to be less powerful versions of heralds, just as the Shardblades are less powerful than the swords left in an abandoned circle. Spren are mentioned seven times but never explained other than that they are colorful and associated with things like music, flame, fear, and pain. By associating the unfamiliar term with something familiar, Sanderson provides hints at meaning without slowing the narrative to explain.

Lastly, Sanderson chooses some terms that are self-defining. One doesn’t need much imagination to guess what a sky eel is or form an image of a rock bud, or to know that voidbringers and cycles of desolations are bad.

Yet in every case, repetition becomes key. Each of Sanderson’s three opening sections take place in different locations at different times, but he makes sure to repeat key elements of vocabulary to provide immersion and connection within the word, creating the depth and wonder that is the hallmark of great fantasy settings.

3. Set the Scope of Your Tech/Magic Quickly

Fantasy worlds love swords. It seems like regardless of every other setting detail, swords are always there. However, there is a big difference between Conan-style sword fighting and swashbuckling, between cold steel and enchanted blades. Having a light saber in chapter 5 would be quite a surprise if the groundwork isn’t laid ahead of time. In these opening chapters (and even in just the prelude), Sanderson makes a point of clarifying the tech and magic level very rapidly. Battles with giant stone monsters? Check. Magic users? Check. Crazy powerful and enchanted swords? Check and check. Sanderson makes it clear in the world that battles transcend the merely human, that magic is integral to war and that the choicest weapons are scarce and only available to the elite, while the common soldiers must deal with mundane spears and blades. Fires and torches are present, but magical light is available as a luxury. None of this is fully fleshed out, but it provides enough of a framework in the beginning that nothing else that happens in the book–or the series for that matter–feels out of place.

One caveat here. Urban and portal fantasies, I think, are a bit of a different story. The whole point in these books is the intrusion of the fantastic on the mundane and so the initially chapters may have little to say about the scope of the fantasy elements. Even the farm boy trope called to adventure in classic fantasy is a spin on this. Nevertheless, one cannot wait too long. A fantasy book where the framework of the fantastical elements doesn’t occur until the midpoint, for example, risks losing fantasy readers who crave wonder or alienating those who stuck through the first half only to discover this isn’t the type of paranormal vampire romance they were expecting.

4. Make Your Setting Detail Serve Multiple Functions

Sanderson’s setting detail is wondrously sparse. So much of his world doesn’t reside in the mundane trappings, but in the characters and their behaviors. We already discussed that the prelude essentially described a rocky battlefield (also the kind of setting for Chapter 1, by the way). The prologue, however, takes place in a palace that has even less physical setting description. Though an assassin battles his way through and outside the royal palace in a quest to kill the king, most of the physical scene elements are either fantastical or somehow involved in the fight sequences. Other setting detail is limited to quick highly specific details that serve multiple functions. Why? Because we know what palaces are like.

Sanderon’s initial setting introduction in the prologue is limited to this: “He sat in a large stone room, baked by enormous firepits.” Later, we learn there are tables too. All the other detail is in the characters, their appearance and their actions. Sanderson does take some extra space to describe the festivities as he prepares to turn the assassin loose, but isn’t very interested in physical setting. Let’s look at some of those few instances of setting detail he does provide:

Torches burned on the walls, their light unsatisfying to him, a meal of thin broth after a long fast. Tiny flamespren danced around them, like insects made solely of congealed light. The torches were useless to him.

Why mention torches? The detail here isn’t really to tell the reader about the lighting, but as a contrast to the magical light that fuels the assassin’s powers–and a chance to talk about spren some more. It is a detail with a purpose, the least of which is setting.

Szeth crossed the room in rapid strides, weaving around the shrouded furniture that had been stored here. It was of red cloth and deep expensive woods.

Yay. Furniture. Why? Partially, it is setting, but again, Sanderson’s does more with it. It is a setup for when the assassin’s gravity bending stunts that will send said furniture crashing around. It also introduces the color red, something Sanderson plays on later.

Tall, red ceramic vases lined the pathway, and they were interspersed with nervous soldiers. They flanked a long, narrow rug. It was red, like a river of blood.

See? More red because it is the color of blood heralding the conflict at hand. Blood that is common to death, but never spilled by the Shardblades that burns out your eyes instead. All these little details serve double duty in the scene.

Other than that, Sanderson’s setting descriptions are largely limited to: hallway, floor, doorframe, wood, and ceiling, and those in the service of being things to hit, crash into, and affix magical lashings to. It has to be that way because the active scene of the assassin’s rampage through the palace doesn’t permit the time for a slow and ponderous description of every tapestry, cabinet, and doorknob. And what would be the point? If a setting detail doesn’t serve a story purpose, why do we care what the reader’s imagination fills in?

Setting detail on its own is a pause button on the story. Without character interaction, nothing can happen while the description is being given. This is why we are told to fudge action in our descriptions. We don’t say: “The water was hot.” We say: “The water bubbled and hissed.” We do this because the active verbs in the descriptions give the illusion of action, but it is just an illusion, a shiny bauble to hold the reader’s attention until we’re ready to hit the play button again. Any heavy setting description is the antithesis of action and must earn the words devoted to it.

5. Give Added Depth Through Character Reaction

This really goes with the point above, but I thought it deserved emphasized on its own. When Sanderson does take the time to drip out setting details, he frequently uses it as an opportunity to tell us more about the character as well.

In the prologue, Sanderson makes special use of Szeth’s religious belief as he interacts with the setting. The floor isn’t just stone, but something profane to walk upon. The use of stormlight for illumination and in jewelry is heresy in the assassin’s mind. This subtle detail makes the setting more interesting and teaches us about Szeth in the process.

None of us view the world neutrally. We all have a point of view, and our POV characters should too–that’s kind of the point, right? And it’s not just about opinion, but backstory as well. Setting details provoke memories. For example, Sanderson uses Kalak’s description of the thunderclast in the prelude to tell us that the man had been killed by the same kind of creature centuries ago, a cool detail more interesting than the monster itself.

RuleDragonThe Rule Dragon speaks:

Talking about rules in writing is a bit like talking about dragons; some people don’t believe they exist. But if they do, there are two rules that Brandon Sanderson appears to have broken.

Rule #1: Prologues Are Passé And Shouldn’t Be Used

I don’t know how much of this is true in practice, but there is a common sentiment floating around that prologues should be relegated to the history museum. I’ve heard it said that some agents will reject a submission on that basis alone. This thinking has made me hesitate about including the prologue in my current book that is about to go out for submission. That being said, there are still a lot of books being traditionally published with them. Here, Sanderson has not one prologue, but two (he doesn’t fool me by calling one a prelude). Is he insane?

The rule dragon says no. These sections are great. True, Sanderson can get away with it because of his track record, just like he can get away with 400,000 word manuscripts. His reputation promises quality and pay off, but that doesn’t change the fact that these sections work. They provide an interesting and tension-filled introduction to a detailed world that screams epic scope. I only see one downside: it takes 7500 words to get to a main POV character. And I say if you don’t like prologues, watch the start of the movie Up. I know it’s not a book, but I don’t care. It’s a prologue too, and it’s awesome.

Rule #2: Don’t Underestimate Your Readers By Repeating Information

Sanderson has some serious repetition going on early in the book. He mentions the ring of swords four times in his 1300 word prelude. We’ve already discussed his frequent stone imagery in the same section. Did I mention there was a ring of swords? Shardblades are constantly forming from mist as well. Shouldn’t he trust us to remember those details?

No. This rule usually applies when speech and action say the same thing side by side.

Over the top made up example:

India Jones cringed at the writhing mass of snakes on the floor far below. “Hey, Marion,” he said. “Do you see that writing mass of snakes down there? They really freak me out.”

Sanderson doesn’t do that, and he has ample reasons for the repetition he does use. The first is that he is presenting a detailed fantasy world with a bit of a learning curve. Remember all the new terms he had? Repetition is key to reinforcing and building upon the sparse introductions. Second, the repetition is a signal of importance. The ring of swords and Shardblades are linchpin components of the story and deserve to be foregrounded early on. Third, magical swords that you can summon from thin air, are as tall as you are, can cut through rock like paper, and kill people by making their eyes burn are just plain cool. The rule dragon says that you are always free to repeat cool things if you do it in cool ways.

Conclusions

The biggest thing that stuck out to me by analyzing the opening sections of The Way of Kings is how little world building Sanderson actually does in physical setting detail. What he does supply is tightly focused and usually serves multiple functions. I’m a big fan of his style and hope to integrate many of his techniques into my own craft.

What do you think of Sanderson’s opening to The Way of Kings and his use of both a prelude and prologueWhat authors do you think are masters of introducing fantasy worlds?

Next month, we’ll look at The Eye of the World by Robert JordanAlso, come back next week for my review and giveaway of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story .