“The Way Of Kings” And The Designing Principle

I recently binged Brandon Sanderson’s The Way Of Kings and its sequel, Words Of Radiance. I love the series so far, but I believe storytellers across all media could learn a thing or two from why some parts from the first book felt weak. Don’t misunderstand–this is one of the best books I’ve read. However, as a writer myself, my philosophy is that to say any creative work is perfect is to stop improving. It halts progress and innovation. This book is great, but that should not stop us from striving for something greater.

Before I can begin talking about the book, I need to discuss some vocabulary from John Truby’s Anatomy Of Story:

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original.

The designing principle of The Way Of Kings is, in my opinion, the part which fell short of greatness. I want to focus on the designing principle of the story and what we can learn from the problem with it. And of course, minor spoilers ahead for the first book only. I tried to tell just enough to make my point, but to leave the book largely unexplored to encourage readers to give it a shot.

The Review

We are initially treated to a few powerful opening scenes of Szeth and Cenn that serve perfectly to set up the story’s inciting incident (the death of King Gavilar leading to the Vengeful Pact), two of the main characters (Kaladin Stormblessed and Dalinar Kholin) as well as a really cool magic system. For some time, Kaladin and Shallan make for quite interesting main characters, and I would have had no problem with the book if they were the only main characters, but there was a third. Let me explain.

The Designing principle

The designing principle of The Way Of Kings is to tell the story in three perspectives: two simultaneous hero’s journeys and third subplot which puts the rest of the subplots into a greater context to tie them into the grander story that spans the rest of the series.

The Execution

Kaladin starts off the story as a powerful soldier, an ideal hero. He earned the loyalty of Cenn and the others, and the battle is almost won. And then it happens. Next thing you know, he’s a slave, betrayed and falsely accused of being a deserter. He spends the rest of the book returning to this former glory, having learned the truths about the world. Along the way, he struggles with the inner balance between his surgeon and warrior selves.

Shallan has the second perspective of the subplot. She has finally decided to stop being so timid and indecisive, making the biggest, boldest decision of her life to leave home on an adventure to steal from one of the smartest, coldest scholars alive. She then struggles for the rest of the novel alternating between holding back in self-doubt and striving forward with spurts of courage. She questions the authenticity of her texts and her teacher while spewing lies herself in the form of humor and self-denial.

Both characters experience very similar character arcs and similar pacing, with each keyframe happening at the same time for each character. On one hand, this means that neither character’s subplot is less exciting than the other. Both are thrilling, full of crazy twists and turns. However, this also results in a much more rigid, formulaic story. Each scene that progresses Kaladin’s arc is a preview into the next step of Shallan’s and vice versa. A new hope in one scene, a new hope in the other. A betrayal in one scene, a betrayal in another. Pay too close attention to this pattern and the exciting twists lose their surprise value.

Still, Sanderson’s risk-taking and ruthlessness to his characters make for two incredibly enticing subplots nonetheless. If this was a novel about Kaladin or Shallan, it would belong among the timeless masterpieces. But it’s not. There’s a third main character. Highprince Dalinar tells the reader just how much else there is about this world. He plays politics with the ten princedoms, giving the reader insight into just how big the world is.

Dalinar’s role in the designing principle is to give exposition without just having a character had only said it. This exposition comes through frequent visions of past moments in history. The characters doubt the authenticity of the visions, but the reader never questions that they are real due to how much work Sanderson put into them. Still, as they go unexplained in the first 1000 pages, they are deux ex machina, and because they are only visions, Dalinar and the reader know he is never in any real danger during them.

Aside from these visions, Dalinar tries to steer the direction of the kingdom toward restoring the old codes, uniting all the princedoms into one grand kingdom to finally bring about the end of the war against Parshendi: either unite everyone and stop the war peacefully, or unite the kingdom and blast through the enemy and claim their long-awaited victory. Dalinar’s subplot is on the scale of armies against armies, highprinces against highprinces, and man against nature.

The Problem

Dalinar’s subplot was far more important than any of the others. The further Dalinar delved into his subplot, the more we learn just how insignificant the other main characters are. Dalinar is the former king’s brother, a war hero, a shardbearer, and he’s receiving visions from the Almighty about saving the world. Kaladin is a slave and exists solely to be used as arrow fodder. Shallan is a scholar who doesn’t trust her texts, her teacher, or herself. While Kaladin and Shallan had very similar subplots and neither fell behind the other, both of the subplots fell far behind Dalinar’s. His subplot was too large, too important, and this resulted in dwarfing the other characters’ subplots until they feel insignificant. It’s not until the end of the book that the reader has any reason to believe that Kaladin’s or Shallan’s subplots mattered at all.

If not for Kaladin’s flashbacks giving so much attention to his backstory, I might have believed Dalinar was the real main character while Kaladin and Shallan were merely minor characters intended for exposition.

And that is where the designing principle fell short. All three (four if you count the flashbacks to Kaladin’s past) subplots are filled with thrilling twists, and the plot is thrust forward by crazy decisions by the characters. But even though all were interesting, the scope of one was just too much greater than the others. Imagine watching small children playing their first-ever game of basketball in between commericial breaks of the NBA playoffs.

The contrast does give a lot of insight into the worldbuilding and delivers strong characters, but at the cost of feeling like two thirds of the plot didn’t matter. This problem is addressed at the very end of the book, but the end was too late.

The Takeaways

Sanderson is quite a skilled author. One of my favorites. He wasted no scene, he invented such believable yet empowering heroes, and the worldbuilding was borderline addictive. However, his use of the parallel subplots designing principle is far from his own. This disjoint storytelling technique appears in almost every epic fantasy story I have ever read or seen. It has its uses:

  • Valuable worldbuilding and insight into the parts of the world that any single character might never know.
  • A more engaging story with much higher stakes, as each subplot compounds the plot and conflict.
  • More variety in pace and atmosphere. Constantly high tension and stakes desensitizes the reader.

However, like all things, it is only good in mediation. It has risks:

  • One subplot might be more boring than another.
  • One subplot might be too far removed from another.
  • One subplot might be more important than another.

The problem with The Way Of Kings, and the reason it will struggle to stand up as a timeless masterpiece (no small burden by any means), was this last bullet point.

Consider The Lord Of The Rings.  The journey to Mordor to destroy the ring is clearly the most important subplot, but that doesn’t mean the war between Orcs and man is insignificant. If they lose the war before Frodo and Sam reach Mordor, then there would have been no point saving them at all. Thus, we care what happens not just because we care about the characters but because the plot depends on the subplots.

By contrast, Kaladin has already been shown be a strong warrior and capable leader, so his subplot is really just how he comes back from one betrayal to return to the role of a strong warrior and capable leader.. Shallan’s subplot is almost all internal development, and the largest role she plays in this book is stopping just one of countless other assassination attempts on Jasnah’s life. Everything in the middle of both of these subplots, while very interesting, mattered very little in Dalinar’s subplot, the plot which is the foundation to the rest of the series. Kaladin and Shallan had countless opportunities to die, and until 1000 pages into the book, The Way Of Kings gives the reader little reason to believe that their survival made any difference on the world at all.

TL;DR

The sad truth is that, while all of the subplots are very interesting, one subplot was just far too important compared to the others. When telling a story with parallel subplots, care must be taken to be certain that each subplot is important not only in its own right, but in comparison to each other.

That all said, this book series is great and I recommend to any reader of fiction.. My goal for this post was to think critically about a work I really loved.

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