A few weeks ago, at the insistence of a friend of mine, I read the YA sci-fi/dystopian novel Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States where a group of people, called Epics, have gained superpowers. The main character, David Charleston, is seeking revenge against Steelheart, the Epic who killed his father. To do so, he must enlist the help of the Reckoners, an underground group that fights against the Epics.
As I was reading Steelheart, I not only enjoyed the intriguing storyline and fun characters, but it was also a very well-written book. Sanderson did a wonderful job in crafting the story, and I realized that many of those things could be applied to my own writing. So instead of writing a book review, I give you: “Writing Lessons from Steelheart”
(Don’t worry, no spoilers! The only plot elements I’ll discuss are ones revealed in the book’s synopsis)
1) Getting readers to care about your characters
A book can have the most unique premise, an interesting plot, and a fantastic setting, but all of that means nothing if your readers don’t care about what happens to the characters. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they don’t become invested in the plot.
In the prologue of Steelheart, the readers are introduced to David’s father. In these first sixteen pages, we don’t learn a lot about David’s father, but what we do learn is important. He’s a single father who has recently lost his wife, he’s struggling to earn enough money to support himself and his young son, and he tends to see the best in people. As a reader, I instantly liked him. So although it didn’t come as a surprise to me (because of the book’s summary), I was still saddened when he was killed a few pages later.
When writing characters, especially important ones, we should make an effort to get our readers to care about them. While my enjoyment of Steelheart likely wouldn’t have been affected if I didn’t care about David’s father, it’s a perfect example of how the right information can persuade a reader to care.
2) Spreading out information
In other words, Steelheart does a great job of not infodumping. Infodumping is basically when you throw a bunch of information at your reader at once, usually about a character or a setting. Although the world of Steelheart is very complex, Sanderson avoids infodumping by spreading out the information.
Steelheart takes place in a dystopian version of Chicago, now called Newcago. There’s plenty of important information to know about Newcago and the rest of the world, but instead of explaining it all at once, Sanderson brings it up only when it becomes relevant. For example, at the beginning of the story, it isn’t important for readers to know how Epics are classified based on their abilities. However, as the plot continues and the readers learn more about the Epics in Newcago, the classification system becomes relevant and is explained.
As writers, we should take care not to infodump. For example, your character’s backstory might be very important to his or her personality, but don’t throw all of it on your readers at once. Instead, feed it to them in smaller bites. It will make the story flow more naturally and your readers will feel less overwhelmed.
3) Writing the first book in a series
Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been reading so many bad “first books” lately, but this was something that stuck out to me. A current trend in YA is to write trilogies. I think that many times, this stretches out a story too much, but I’m going to save that discussion for another time. Instead, I want to focus on the first book in a series, since those often have a very unique set of problems.
I’ve discovered that the most successful First Books follow a certain formula – they have a complete story, but they’re also open-ended enough that the overall plotline can continue in later books. This is the formula that Steelheart follows, and it does so very well. The novel has a self-contained plot (David’s quest to defeat Steelheart), but it also contains enough loose ends to keep the reader wanting more.
The application here is straightforward – if you’re working on the first book in a series, you must strike that balance. If you wrap up things a little too nicely, then the readers won’t have the same amount of excitement for the next book. However, if you leave too many loose ends, your readers will feel cheated out of a full story.
4) Keeping the story moving
Steelheart does not waste time. I don’t mean that there aren’t any breaks between the action, but rather that time isn’t wasted on the boring parts of the story. For example, the readers aren’t told about all of the Reckoners’ plans as they prepare for an operation. Instead, we’re told that they’ve prepared, and we get to see the plan unfold in “real time,” so to speak. Not only does this keep the story moving, but it also keeps the information fresh – readers aren’t learning about the same thing twice.
In our own writing, we should take care to leave out the unimportant and boring parts of the plot. There should be breaks from the action, but if a story slows down too much, readers will lose interest. Yes, this may mean you have to part with some beloved scenes in your book, but it’s for the better.
And that’s four little lessons I learned from Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson! I really enjoyed putting this blog post together, so perhaps I’ll continue the series in the future! Let me know what you think!
Have you read Steelheart (or anything else by Brandon Sanderson, for that matter)? Did you enjoy it? What books have helped you with your writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
See you next week!