Overview: Summary of Way of Kings. Three prologues? Shallan? Setting? Dalinar? Outlining, plotting, and writing? Revision? Ending? Naming? Kaladin?
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 24, Project in Depth, The Way of Kings.
[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] And Brandon's on the spot today.
[Brandon] I'll just go ahead and start, since I know it's going to be the first question, and give you an overview of the story just in case. The Way of Kings is an epic fantasy set in a world where this massive storm hits the world periodically, every couple of days. Like, I imagined it as the most powerful hurricane that nature could produce, upped a little bit to magical levels. Blasts across the land so it has created a landscape where all sorts of life have to deal with this. It is primarily the story of a couple of characters, one the son of a surgeon who has been drafted in the army, then done some things that ended him up as a slave. Then the king's brother, who is one of the main heads of the entire army that this man is fighting in, is a slave in.
[Dan] Now, if you missed the last in-depth episode, what we're going to do is grill Brandon for probably about the next 20 minutes on very specifically why he made the choices that he made. Mary is going to start us off with a question.
[Mary] And also again to warn you, just in case you hadn't caught this, this will be spoilerriffic. We will definitely be talking about plot points. So when you started this, this actually starts with a prologue...
[Brandon] It does start with a prologue. It actually has...
[Dan] Three prologues.
[Howard] Three prologues?
[Mary] I know, three.
[Brandon] it has a prelude and a prologue. I'll start there. It was really hard to decide where to start this book. Because I begin with a character named Szeth who assassinates the king's brother. Dalinar's brother, the king. I wanted to do this very evocative, dynamic, action-packed sequence that basically launches a lot of the way the characters react, particularly Dalinar, his entire history, this is... His whole story for this book is kind of launched by his brother being assassinated. That worked really well. But then my editor came to me and said, "You know? One thing we're missing is kind of the epic scope that a fantasy of this size sort of feels like it needs. You talk a lot about the past. I would like there to be more of a sense of the past. I agreed. So I wrote another prologue that was set thousands of years before. Then I said, "But do we cut this other one? Do we make it a prologue?" I mean, we start with the assassination, and then we jump forward whatever, 20 years or 15 years. What do we do? So I just ended up putting on two prologues. A prelude, a prologue to the whole series, and then a prologue to the book. Which, by the way, listeners, is not really very smart. The only... Sometimes you have to choose between two bad choices. The problem with this one is our learning curve in The Way of Kings is inordinately steep. It is huge, even for an epic fantasy book. Because we have two prologues and then launch into our main characters, during our curtain time. You have that much more time to lose a reader who doesn't have a chance to really get in depth into a character. It's basically my biggest worry for The Way of Kings. If someone's going to put down The Way of Kings, they're going to put it down probably in the first five or six chapters when they're getting so many characters thrown at them that they're not having time to invest in any one.
[Howard] I'll be honest with you. After the prelude, I thought, "Oh. Well. It's on. It's on." Then when I turned the page to prologue, and I thought, "Oh. Really?" I read the prologue and realized, okay, the prelude threw down the gauntlet. Then the prologue takes off the other glove and slaps me in the face with it, and challenges me to read the rest of the book. But I was desperate to. Because those two were, for me, they really drew me in. So I think it was the right decision. The thing that I didn't like, and here's my question. Shallan. My least favorite character in the book because the whole time I'm reading her, I'm waiting for exposure. It's a storyline of "I've been cheating. I've been lying and cheating the whole time." What were your decisions surrounding her? What were the challenges in getting these chapters likable?
[Brandon] The big challenges. What I've got going on in this book is... I originally wrote a version of The Way of Kings back in 2002. It was a train wreck. It was a great book, I loved it, it was also a train wreck. You can love a train wreck. The reason being I had six main plot lines going in six different locations with six different main characters. I thought this was a good way to write an epic book. It did feel epic, but it was also, like I said, a train wreck. So for this draft, when I came back, that was one of my big things I wanted to fix. So one of the things I did is the character who had been in Kaladin's place -- he had a different name then -- he's basically the same person, and Dalinar, I overlapped. So I'm putting them in the same place, I'm making them have to deal with a lot of the same things. Then I'm going to take the character... There is another character that I replaced... I took out, but I was going to overlap Shallan and Yasa. Then I was going to take some of the main viewpoints and shove them off to later books. So I was really trying to consolidate, and keep everyone closer together and remove some of the viewpoints for later books. But when I was left, I still had Dalinar and Kaladin as main characters being in one place, and Shallan off by herself. The big challenge was I really felt that since we had double time on one plot line, that the plot line that was the odd man out was the one that people were going to like the least. It generally has been. That happens a lot in books when you have viewpoints like this. People will latch onto some. They'll actually start to resent the character that takes you away from the main plot line. Which is a big challenge with epic fantasy. What did I do? Well, I tried to make her stories very distinctive and different so that if there were things you didn't necessarily like about the Kaladin/Dalinar arc, the things that Shallan would be offering you would be different. It wouldn't be more of the same in a different place. It would be distinctly its own story, which hopefully would have a better rhythm to it, was my goal.
[Dan] See, that worked for me, because her... At least the second half of Shallan's story was the ghost story, which is what I got... Typically me, that's what I responded to.
[Brandon] Yeah. She had ghost stories, she also had the kind of fakery story going on, and she also had all of the court banter. Kaladin is dying, life is dreary, life is awful. Dalinar is the honest, straightforward man amongst a sea of vipers. Shallan is we're engaging in court politics and lots of back-and-forth and the witticisms that I like to write into my stories. So I felt that that could give her more of her own soul for her story.
[Dan] Now, I want to ask you about Dalinar, but first, the first question, you mentioned the learning curve. Let's hit that really quick. Specifically, in setting. Most epic fantasies tend to be Earth analog, like Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones, and you chose...
[Brandon] And Mistborn.
[Dan] And Mistborn. Well, Mistborn, even then, Mistborn has some weirdness to it, but it doesn't hold a candle to the weirdness of the planet of Way of Kings. All the animals, and even the plants, are crustaceans. Why did you go down that route, and add that extra level of "this is weird?"
[Brandon] One of my personal... I won't call it a hobbyhorse, but one of my personal desires for fantasy is to be a little more extreme with its settings. I feel that science fiction does a fantastic job with this, and fantasy could do just as good a job, and have settings that science fiction never could because we can break the laws of physics, we can break science. We can do things... We can have a magical component to our world. For instance, Way of Kings. I did try to mitigate this somewhat, but we have giant crustaceans. Basically, I couldn't make this work without magic. Even making the planet .7 gravity, even doing what I did, the size required to have an exoskeleton of that size, they would crush under their own weight. They wouldn't work. So I can add a magical component that allows me to have crustaceans the size of buildings, but that are cool new monsters to fight, or to deal with, or a new aspect. I mean, there's a coolness factor to this for me as a reader, when I come across something and say, "Wow, that's different." I wanted "Wow, that's different." So one of my guiding rules for this, actually when I was back designing this world 10 years ago now, more than 12 years ago, was I started looking at an above-the-water coral reef, because I felt that a lot of the... Not necessarily a coral reef, but also tidal pools. Really tidal pools was what I was looking at, but also coral reefs. I felt that the kind of drifting currents and the water coming in and out was a good analog for these storms. Because you have such different states you have to survive in. You have to live when things are perfectly calm, but you have to survive an hour or two of these massive storms. So I started designing creatures... Plants that would pull their leaves and branches in, in the same way that in a coral reef, something swims by and they all kind of tuck in together. I started designing things that lived like tidal pool creatures that can live out of water, or in water for a little while and then live out of it, and stuff like this. The whole goal was to give a new experience for a fantasy setting. I think you can go too far, I think you can go way too far. I tend to write my fantasies in such a way that I want my characters to be very relatable, that they are people that you could get to know. So I don't take my characters to extremes of how a new culture might be. To balance that, I wanted to take my setting to an extreme of how a new culture could be.
[Brandon] Let's start... Stop for our book of the week, if we may. Mary is going to actually deliver it this week.
[Mary] Yes. I'm going to suggest Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Audible has the unabridged version. Now you may have read Stranger in a Strange Land before, but the unabridged version is interesting because Heinlein had to cut about two thirds to a half of the length of his original draft in order to get it published. Most people have read the abridged version. The unabridged version has everything that he originally put in. It is very interesting to compare the two.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] Okay. Browse out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start yourself a 14 day free trial membership, and download for your complimentary book Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Who's the narrator?
[Mary] Christopher Hurt.
[Howard] Christopher Hurt is the narrator.
[Dan] So, browse out, that's our new head out?
[Brandon] Oh, he has to do something new each week now, we decided.
[Dan] Okay. Awesome.
[Mary] This is you stalling, so we don't come back to you.
[Howard] Thank you. Thank you for hanging a lantern on that. I was hoping for a lampshade instead, but no...
[Mary] Oh, but you're already wearing that.
[Dan] And nothing else.
[Dan] Okay. Back to the question. Let's talk about Dalinar. I am in your writing group, so I actually haven't read the published version of this, I just read the writing group one. I know, because I was in your writing group the first time around as well, you have had problems with Dalinar the entire time. He was a character that didn't work for years. I do think this final version does. Can you talk a bit about that?
[Brandon] Yeah. First version, Dalinar was weak as a character. Actually, everybody was basically weak as a character, except for Szeth, in the first one, which was a problem. It's the villain problem. So, with Dalinar, I had to struggle to find out really who he was, and also make him very proactive. These were difficult things. Making Dalinar proactive, also making him deal with the struggle well. Even in this draft... I can talk specifically about this draft, what was wrong. In this draft, I was going with two things. I started wanting Dalinar to sort of start having these visions of the past. During the high storms, Dalinar's been given visions of the past, where he goes and lives life during another era to kind of... Partially, to draw the screen back, I wanted to give more of that epic scope. In fact, I started adding these in as part of... Partially because I knew we were going to have problems with this epic scope. When you read a 400,000 word book, you want to get a sense for the entire world. So I wanted to show more of the past. So I started giving Dalinar these visions. I also wanted a call to action, which is part of the Hero's Journey, actually. It's part of good storytelling is some... The hero needs a call to action. Something to get them moving. I wanted to give him a call to action that reflected him as a character. I designed him as a person who... My original design for him had been this noble, awesome guy, and that was too boring. So in this new draft, I wrote him as a man who had been a tyrant, and kind of a not care about much. Then he wasn't there for his brother when his brother got assassinated. He was drunk at the High Table. This really changed him. He became a different person. He started reading some works of great philosophers that change the way he views being a leader. And put him into this sort of a conflict of "I am no longer a tyrant. I don't want to be the tyrant. But what else is there for me?" The call to action, therefore, can mirror that change within him, desiring and wanting to kind of change his whole society, because he's just a reflection of his society. Looking at this kingdom that he's part of, that used to be known as this grand kingdom, full of these honorable knights and things, and now it's just this awful... Not awful, but full of vipers, like I said. Allowing him then to make the call to arms. But mixed with that, in the draft Dan read, and this was the big flaw for Dalinar, was I had him also wavering and uncertain whether or not he was mad because of these visions. That contrast, I thought, would make him deeper as a character, and it actually failed completely. Because what it did was it made him wishy-washy, it made him spend a lot of his time just thinking about what am I going to do with this. He became so introspective that he was uninteresting. The fix to that was actually to bring out his son as more of a main character. Who had not had any viewpoints in the original draft. And in the published draft...
[Howard] You bring out somebody else to call him crazy.
[Brandon] Exactly. I brought out his son, who hero worships his father, who could then say, "My father is going mad. I love this man, I have to protect him. But he's also going mad. What do I do?" Therefore, it becomes an external conflict instead of an internal. It's good to have internal conflicts, but Dalinar had too many. So moving one externally to his son allowed this big conflict between them that allowed him actually to grow stronger as a character. Because an external conflict, you have to forge both of them into stronger characters. It just fixed everything for his character.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, it made the madness aspects of Dalinar, which are still in the book... It made him that much cooler because he was essentially embracing that madness, rather than hiding from it all the time.
[Mary] I'm actually curious about... Because I know you're an outliner, and you're talking about having... Basically you've got to plots going over here and one plot going over there, so I'm curious, when you're approaching plotting something like this, how do you approach that? Do you plot like one of them all the way out and then go back and interweave the two storylines together or...
[Brandon] Great. That's a great question. For this one, I actually plotted them altogether, but wrote them separately.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Brandon] Then wove them together. So the plotting was done so I could keep everything interconnected, because one of my goals with this was also by the end of the book to bring all the plots together. We really do have three main areas of plot. We have Szeth the assassin who we follow a little bit. We have Dalinar and Kaladin, who from the beginning you see pretty early how they are going to mix, because they're fighting in the same place. And we've got Shallan. By the end, I make what Shallan's been researching with the coming of the Voidbringers directly related to where Dalinar is fighting, then I assign Szeth to go assassinate Dalinar in the epilogue. That's been building up for him the whole time. So one of the big goals was bring this all together, so I plotted them all at the same time. But I did write by viewpoint. I actually... I did some weird things with form in this one. I would actually write by viewpoint. I broke it into five parts. I said, "Part one is going to be Kaladin and Shallan." I wrote Kaladin part one and then Shallan part one. Then I stopped and said, "Okay. Part two is Dalinar and Kaladin." I wrote Kaladin straight through and Dalinar straight through to part three. Then I swapped back, Kaladin and Shallon, and then Kaladin and Dalinar. I actually, if you go look at the beginnings of the parts, I say which characters are going to be in there. Which I don't know if people like or not, but my editor hates it. I did it because reading the Wheel of Time, I loved it, I loved the characters, I loved lots of things, but you get these big chunks where a character vanishes. I wanted to give readers up front "Dalinar vanishes until part three. You just get used to that, that's that chunk, this is a new almost little mini novella for each of these two characters. Dalinar will be back to do his own in the next part." I hoped it prepared readers.
[Mary] Oh, interesting. When you went back and wove things together, did you wind up... Where there scenes that you wound up cutting because you didn't need them?
[Brandon] There were lots of scenes that I ended up reworking dramatically. There were sections that I cut out of some of those scenes. But, yeah... The first revision for me is a big... Involves a lot of work doing that, smoothing out the fact that I've often written these sequences separately. Sometimes it's more a matter of pacing. The pacing is what throws it off. I don't usually end up with repeated sort of things. I get thrown off by, "Oh, no, we've just had this sequence that comes to a big dramatic climax, and then the next chapter involves the exact same emotional buildup and climax, and that's bad, to put right next to each other." So I either have to move this one to later in this character's story, or I have to put something in between, or I have to just rework all the pacing.
[Dan] Okay. We've talked about how you chose very difficultly where to begin this book. Let's talk about the end. This is your... This is the first of a 10 book series, so you're setting a ton of pieces into place. This book ends with a big, crazy, out-of-nowhere cliffhanger, at least for me. Why did you make that decision?
[Brandon] I do that with a lot of my books. I... What I try to do is I try to beginning, middle, end, and then by the way, here's what the next book's going to be about. The issue with this one is, I had beginning, middle, end for these three different plot lines going on and then some subplots. So when it came to the big kind of here's where we're going next, I ended up having five of those. Which I then put together into one big sort of section, that became my ending. All that is, is boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, here's where we're going. So we got almost climax... Cliffhanger overload in that epilogue. Why did I do that? I just loved them all, and decided I couldn't cut them. It may be the wrong move, but it's what I did.
[Dan] Okay. Awesome.
[Mary] You haven't asked a question for a while.
[Howard] [gulping sound] It's because... Yep...
[Brandon] I should ask a question to myself.
[Mary] Great. Good. Ask it.
[Brandon] Because one of the things that started us off on doing these projects in-depth was a question from audience, said, "Can someone... Can Brandon go through step-by-step how he named things in The Way of Kings?"
[Howard] Oh, that question.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, that's right. Whoops. Sorry, listeners. Forgot about that.
[Brandon] So, naming in The Way of Kings. Naming in the Way of Kings came for me partially by sounding out cool sounds and wanting them in characters' names. Dalinar I've just named... I named him years ago, like 15 years ago now. I just liked the name. So I actually took Dalinar's name, and I built a linguistics around it, to use for that name. However, in designing this now, 15 years later, the new revision, I realized I wanted to make symmetry a holy sort of thing in this culture. So I'm like, "They've got to start naming people with symmetrical means." That forced me to build a second linguistics for that. So I said, "Okay. Dalinar's name structure, I don't want to abandon this because it's really actually pretty good, is kind of the classical name structure. Then this is kind of the holy symmetrical naming." Shallan's name came from that. They name people palindromes with one letter off. So her name would be Shallash if she were the palindromic name. But instead, she's named Shallan, because one step from holiness. You don't want your kid to be named a holy name, just something that feels like the holy name. You'll look and see a lot of the names are this. Sadeas and whatnot. So I built cultures. I built naming structures. Szeth came from just sounding cool, and then I built an entire cultural name around that. Yeah, it's just...
[Dan] Can you talk very quickly about Kaladin...
[Brandon] Yes. Good.
[Dan] Because he used to have a different name.
[Brandon] He did.
[Dan] Most people probably don't know that. You changed it at the last minute.
[Brandon] I did. He had a name, which was Marrin, which was his name in the original draft. It was a bad name for a number of reasons. Number one, I'd tell people it, and they'd say that sounds like a girl's name. Number two, it didn't fit the new name structures that I'd come up with. So midway through writing the book, actually like three quarters or 90% of the way through, I decided finally to bite the bullet and come up with a new name. I went back to the way I'd named Elantris. Which was picking a cool word that I like and then seeing if I could make it fit the linguistics of what I was doing. I realized that the word Paladin actually fit the linguistics of the Dalinar naming structure. So I changed a few things around, because I like the sound of that name, and I made it fit the linguistics, and I named him Kaladin. It's that simple.
[Dan] Awesome. Let's close with Mary's question. What are you most proud of in this book?
[Brandon] I'm most proud of this book that... I would guess that it's probably getting Dalinar right, because it was such a struggle. Kaladin came out right. He was broken in the 2002 draft, but in this draft, came out right from the get-go. Didn't need to do anything to fix him. Dalinar was a struggle to get right. He's the character... The first book I wrote, when I was 15, had Dalinar in it. So I wanted Dalinar to be right. I got it right. So...
[Howard] Writing prompt time, folks. Take a page from Brandon. Literally, page 320... No. Take a page from Brandon. Take a character of yours who you think maybe is not working the way you want them to. Split that character into a character and a foil.
[Brandon] Ah. Nice. Very nice.
[Brandon] All right. You're out of excuses, now go write.