Story Skeleton—The Way of Kings
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning novels.
By David Griffin Brown
The Warp and Weft of A Multi-POV Masterpiece
Brandon Sanderson has become a staple in fantasy circles. Some may know him as the guy who swooped in to finish The Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan passed away, but his own book sales have put him at the top of the game—over 30 million books by early 2023 compared with 100 million for Jordan himself.
The Way of Kings is the first book in his Stormlight Archive series which, along with the Mistborn series, takes place in Sanderson’s “Cosmere” universe. As with many fantasy novels, The Way of Kings is a complex story told through a number of POV characters. Another feature it shares with the genre is an elaborate world and world history.
For this Story Skeleton, I’m going to break down the plot lines of each of the main POV characters, and then examine how Sanderson ensures the world-building is a seamless part of the story.
Kaladin is arguably the primary protagonist since his narrative takes him through two arcs—the second of which arrives via parallel-timeline backstory.
In the present timeline, Kaladin starts out as a slave in a caravan. He has attempted escape more than once and now has largely given up. Even still, he considers poisoning the slaver in charge. That means he’s not without motivation, even if he feels at present like freedom is out of reach.
Kaladin is sold to the warcamp of Highprince Sadeas in the Shattered Plains where the War of Reckoning rages between the Alethi and the Parshendi. Kaladin tries to get recruited as a fighter, but instead he’s relegated to a “bridge crew.” The Shattered Plains are like a plateau that has been sliced up by many gorges, so for the army to launch an attack, a group of expendables is sent ahead carrying heavy mobile bridges from one segment of the plateau to the next. And Highprince Sadeas is notorious for not valuing the lives of his bridge crews.
While Kaladin has no agency in where he ends up, his assignment to Bridge Four definitely gives him a clear, specific, and relatable narrative goal: survival. He might not have the freedom of a soldier, but he’s still in a war zone. His actions will determine if he makes it to the next bridge run, and the next, and as a natural leader, he is also extremely concerned about the survival of the rest of Bridge Four—after a few weeks, he is the only survivor out of the original group.
Kaladin is so dejected about his situation, especially his inability to save the other bridgemen, that he contemplates suicide. However, Syl, Kaladin’s mysterious spren companion, dissuades him from giving up. As a result, he attacks Gaz, the sergeant in charge of the bridge crews, and demands to be made leader of Bridge Four in exchange for a fifth of Kaladin’s wages. In other words, he takes a risk to get closer to his narrative goal: to survive and help his bridge crew survive.
Kaladin gradually wins over his bridge crew and convinces them to train during their free time to better ensure everyone’s survival. In particular, they train in a new technique of carrying their bridge sideways to protect themselves from Parshendi archers. Since Gaz is being pressured to arrange for Kaladin to die in battle, he suggests that Bridge Four employ their new side-carry strategy in the hope that it gets them all killed.
When Bridge Four accomplishes the maneuver, proving its effectiveness, other bridge crews try to copy them, but without the same training they end up exposed in battle and many are killed as a result. Kaladin is blamed and beaten, then left for dead—tied up outside with a highstorm approaching. However, the storm doesn’t kill Kaladin; instead, it reveals the truth behind his strength and ability to survive so many battles—he is able to draw on the magic inside spheres, even the ones used as everyday currency.
This is a midpoint for Kaladin for three reasons. First, he now knows that it’s only a matter of time before someone in command makes a more direct attempt on his life. Second, he realizes that bridge crews aren’t supposed to survive—they are meant to be bait for the Parshendi archers. Third, Kaladin has a new ability (Surgebinding) that can help his team beat the odds and possibly even escape into the chasms.
All Is Lost
After Kaladin starts rescuing people from other bridge crews, one of the overseers decides that Bridge Four has gone too far. She decrees that they will do daily bridge runs with chasm duty every night. There is no way they will be able to survive for long.
Kaladin needs to come up with a way to keep Bridge Four safe until they have the chance to escape. In one of the biggest battles yet, they wear carapaces and shields that they have harvested from dead Parshendi in the chasms. This provides them with protection but also attracts the enemy’s rage.
Then the battle takes an unexpected direction. The bridge crews are given the order to retreat, getting Sadeas’s army to safety while leaving a second army cut off and surrounded. Kaladin decides to help, and they head to the plateau where the army is trapped without a bridge. Using his magic, he saves his men and joins the fight. At this point he hears a voice which prompts him to say, “I will protect those who cannot protect themselves,” which of course has been his narrative goal all along, even in his backstory. He not only protects his men but also saves the leader of the abandoned army.
This final act ensures that Kaladin achieves his goal.
Kaladin is offered protection for all of Bridge Four by Highprince Dalinar—the army of whom he saved in the final battle.
Kaladin (Backstory—Parallel Timeline)
As a boy, Kal learns the medical arts, including surgery, from his father Lirin. Despite Kal’s intelligence and skill, he dreams of being a warrior. This stasis is drawn out over several POV sections as Kal learns from his father but also comes into conflict with him—his father wants him to be a surgeon.
Following a conflict between his father and the citylord, Kaladin’s brother Tien is conscripted to fight for Amaram’s army. As a result, Kaladin volunteers to go to war so that he can keep his brother safe.
The backstory segments skip over a few years of rising action in which Kaladin and Tien fight alongside each other.
Kaladin becomes an accomplished soldier in Amaram’s army, but he fails to keep his brother alive. Unable to return to his parents for the shame he feels at having failed Tien, Kaladin enlists again, determined to keep fighting to help those who cannot protect themselves—to cut the evil from the world like his surgeon father amputates infected limbs.
This midpoint is arguably also Kaladin’s all-is-lost moment leading up to the false victory of a tragic arc.
False Victory and Tragic Climax
While fighting for Amaram’s army, Kaladin manages to defeat a Shardbearer. The implication is he can take the Brightlord’s sword and plate to become a Shardbearer himself. Now Kaladin has the potential to fulfil his narrative goal, to fight in service of those who cannot, and in a much greater capacity than as an ordinary soldier. However, he decides that he doesn’t want the sword and plate and instead gives them to Coreb, his friend and fellow soldier.
When Amaram hears of this, he sends his men to kill the four survivors from Kaladin’s squad, including Coreb. He then takes the sword and plate for himself and brands Kaladin a slave.
Kaladin begins his life as a slave—a new period of stasis that leads into his main story arc.
Shallan’s story opens after her inciting incident, the death of her father. Her backstory stasis is the time when her father was still alive.
When Shallan’s father dies, the children are left destitute—on the verge of losing their family home and reputation. Part of the issue is that their Soulcaster is broken, so the siblings hatch a plan. Shallan is to apprentice as ward to Jasnah Kholin, sister of the Alethi king, with the goal of secretly swapping their broken Soulcaster for Jasnah’s working one—with which they will be able to settle the family’s debts.
This is where Shallan’s story begins. The first order of business is to convince Jasnah to take her on as a ward, and that in itself is no easy feat. The royal researcher rejects her more than once.
Once Shallan is finally accepted as Jasnah’s apprentice, she must play her part while waiting for the right opportunity to steal the woman’s Soulcaster. While she knows that her siblings are depending upon her, she relishes the opportunity to study under Jasnah and therefore despairs at the theft she has committed herself to.
All Is Lost
Shallan’s internal conflict—her desire to be Jasnah’s truthful student rather than a thief—leads to an “all is lost” or “dark night” peak when she finally swaps the broken Soulcaster for Jasnah’s, but she’s unable to make it work. It could be that her betrayal, which will ruin her chances as a ward, was for nothing.
Her external conflict reaches the “all is lost” moment soon after. Shallan’s confidante, a friendly ardent (priest) named Kabsal turns out to be an assassin trying to get at Jasnah. But he flubs the poisoning, dosing himself and Shallan instead of Jasnah. Shallan assumes Jasnah needs the stolen Soulcaster to save her, so she hands it over.
Shallan has been betrayed by her friend, she has betrayed her teacher, and she has failed her siblings.
Over the course of the story, Shallan has been getting better at peering into Shadesmar, another plane of existence. It’s the source of her strange drawings, and at one point (after stealing Jasnah’s Soulcaster), she manages to briefly travel there. In the aftermath of the poisoning incident, Shallan realizes that she never needed a Soulcaster—both hers and Jasnah’s are inoperable, which means she is able to Soulcast inherently. And that means the same is true for Jasnah. First, she tries to prove this to her teacher with drawings of Shadesmar, but when that doesn’t work, she travels to Shadesmar and nearly dies. Jasnah saves her, and in doing so realizes the extent of Shallan’s ability. As such, she decides not to banish the would-be thief.
Shallan’s internal and external conflicts are thus both resolved—she has the power to help her family without the need for a Soulcaster and she is able to stay on as Jasnah’s ward.
The resolution helps set the stage for what will come next in the series. Shallan reviews Jasnah’s research and agrees that the parshmen, a race of docile and mute servants, are in fact the Voidbringers of old.
As brother of assassinated King Gavilar, Highprince Dalinar Kholin is in a period of grief and torment. He feels ashamed for not having saved his sibling, but he’s also haunted by visions that have plagued him ever since. The visions have led him to believe that he must unite the high princes before the Voidbringers, a foe vanished thousands of years earlier, return to bring the next Desolation—a terrible war that will plunge the lands into chaos.
Young King Elhokar isn’t inspiring confidence as the leader of the Alethi, so Dalinar arranges a Chasmfiend hunt to help bolster Elhokar’s reputation. While fighting the dangerous beast, the young king is thrown from his mount, and it turns out his saddle strap may have been cut. This is where Dalinar’s motivation brought about by the visions crystallizes into a narrative goal: he must act to unite the high princes lest Elhokar meet his father’s fate.
Much of Dalinar’s rising action involves his rivalry with Highprince Torol Sadeas. Their dispute stems in part from King Gavilar’s assassination in that they both failed to save their regent. But Sadeas also takes exception to the ways in which Dalinar has changed—he is obsessed with an old book (The Way of Kings), he doesn’t seek out glory in Chasmfiend hunts, and he uses a more conservative attack strategy in the Shattered Plains with slower bridge crews that don’t sacrifice as many men.
Dalinar’s trajectory therefore is structured around this relationship arc. The rivals were once friends, are now antagonistic allies, and—as we soon see—will become enemies.
In his attempts to “unite them” as his visions decree, Dalinar asks the young King Elhokar to designate him the Highprince of War.
King Elhokar names Sadeas the Highprince of Information in a blow to Dalinar. The implication is that Dalinar has failed to protect the king from would-be assassins and maybe even that Dalinar had something to do with the saddle strap being cut. And now Dalinar’s rival is in a position to falsely implicate him.
This qualifies as a midpoint because Dalinar’s quest to unite the Highprinces now seems even more impossible. In his rivalry with Sadeas, Dalinar has lost significant power. In fact, Dalinar starts questioning himself and even considering abdication.
Since he has failed to persuade King Elhokar to attempt a new strategy in the war, Dalinar starts approaching the individual Highprinces, seeking to combine forces in an upcoming assault on the Parshendi. He is rebuffed.
A false victory typically precedes a tragic climax wherein the protagonist fails to achieve the narrative goal. However, as we see here, it can also be helpful in setting up a betrayal.
In his capacity as Highprince of Information, Sadeas declares that the king’s saddle was indeed tampered with, but that Dalinar could not have been involved. The two Highprinces meet to discuss their conflict and plans for the war. It seems like a significant breakthrough in their relationship arc, and by extension, Dalinar is suddenly back on track to achieve his goal. If he can get Sadeas to work with him, he might well be able to convince more Highprinces to join forces.
Dalinar and Sadeas go on to fight a battle together in which the Parshendi surprise them with a second army. Dalinar saves Sadeas’s life, seemingly cementing their renewed friendship.
Dalinar gives up on the idea of abdication, and in his next vision, he speaks some words from the Dawnchant—proof that what’s happening to him is real.
Also, this is the point at which Dalinar finally relents to Navani, the dead king’s widow, and they share a kiss. (I’ve not gone into this romantic subplot as there isn’t much to it—they have feelings for each other, but up until now, Dalinar has been too duty-bound to consider the relationship a good idea.)
All Is Lost
Dalinar and Sadeas team up in what is to be the biggest battle yet with the Parshendi. However, once the fighting gets started, Sadeas retreats and takes his bridges with him, leaving Dalinar’s army surrounded and trapped.
At this point, Dalinar has effectively failed at his quest to unite the Highprinces. Sadeas, the only one willing to work with him, was in fact planning his betrayal the entire time.
Dalinar and his son Adolin make their amends and agree to die fighting with their honor intact.
Dalinar is saved by Kaladin and Bridge Four. After the battle, Dalinar invites Bridge Four to join his army. While he wants revenge against Sadeas, he still holds to his quest to unite the Highprinces.
When Sadeas refuses to release Bridge Four to him, even for a high price, Dalinar instead offers his Shardblade in exchange for the freedom of every bridge crew. It’s an offer Sadeas can’t refuse. Dalinar has lost a crucial and priceless weapon, but he has saved his honor along with 2000 bridgemen.
Afterward, Dalinar seeks out Elhokar and roughs up the young king. Even without his Shardblade, Dalinar is able to defeat the king in combat and crack his Shardplate. He does this to demonstrate that if he had wanted to kill his nephew, he could have done so at any time. This mistrust between them, he realizes, is the biggest threat to the Alethi.
Elhokar finally admits that he cut his own saddle strap to force his uncle to take his fears more seriously. Dalinar explains what that led to—Sadeas’s betrayal. He demands that Elhokar name him the Highprince of War so they can finally end the stalemate with the Parshendi. While this demand is left unanswered, it seems that the young king will comply.
We don’t get much of a resolution for Dalinar. There is still plenty of work ahead—and danger. The story ends with a clear nudge to the sequel. What will happen now that Dalinar and Kaladin are working together? What will Sadeas do to stop them? And what do Dalinar’s dark visions portend for the future?
This is another storyline that begins after the inciting incident, which in this case is indirectly the assassination of King Gavilar, and directly the ways in which his father has changed since the king’s death. As such, Adolin’s stasis is the time before the assassination when his father still lived up to the ideal Adolin had grown up with—a man of perfect honor, integrity, and courage.
Since the king’s death, Adolin’s father Dalinar has been acting strangely, quoting from an ancient text and having visions during highstorms. The disruption posed by this inciting incident is that Adolin’s innocent childhood image of his father has been shattered. Now the young man is questioning his father’s sanity and also his integrity as a Highprince, in part due to the rumors that are circulating.
Adolin’s storyline follows a coming-of-age trajectory in that his quest is to learn and grow. He must assess Dalinar for who he truly is—not merely the glorified version of his father that he grew up with.
As Adolin carries out his duties, he struggles with his internal conflict about his father. He tries to understand and accept the things Dalinar does that Adolin doesn’t agree with or understand—like refusing to hunt Chasmfiends when the opportunity arises. But he also takes direct action by visiting an ardent to ask about his father’s visions. The ardent tells him that his father might be losing his grip on reality and that there is no way the visions could be real.
Dalinar explains that he’s thinking of abdicating and naming Adolin as Highprince. The son implores his father to denounce the visions and move on, but Dalinar refuses. He will not lead while living a lie, as he feels the visions are important. Adolin’s brother Renarin suggest a third option: if they share specific details of what their father has witnessed during the highstorms with Jasnah, she may be able to prove whether Dalinar is peering into the past.
This is a midpoint for Adolin since he has shifted from doubting his father to accepting that his father is acting honorably and may not be losing his sanity after all.
While waiting out another highstorm, Dalinar falls into another trance and speaks in the Dawnchant, which confirms his father’s visions are real.
This is a low-key internal climax, but his narrative goal is achieved: Adolin has come to see that even if his father questions the values of their people and the war they are committed to, he does so out of honor and integrity, not out of some insanity brought about by false visions.
Adolin’s resolution, that he now agrees with his father and empathizes with his choices, is on display during Dalinar’s all-is-lost scene. Sadeas has betrayed them and left them for dead, but Adolin affirms his support and trust in Dalinar—he is ready to die side by side with his father in honor.
Masterful Worldbuilding—How & Why
Some would say the hallmark of good world-building is subtlety. The reader is dropped into a story and must piece together the setting-based context and history as they go. Same goes for a magic system. Jumping into longwinded explanations tends to disrupt a reader’s immersive experience.
However, in Orwell’s 1984 there are many such sections of explanatory world-building. At one point, the main character (Winston) sits down and reads a book that is literally about the world and its history. No subtlety there. Another example is Ready Player One—in fact, I’ve heard from more than one person that they put the book down because the initial info-dumping was too much to bear.
Novels like 1984 and Ready Player One get away with big infodumps of world-building context (if they do) because the world they are explaining is so damn interesting that readers are willing to plow through it (if they are).
But these are exceptions. Most readers come to speculative fiction for the story it promises. The world, the history, the magic systems or tech—these are all a huge draw, but they should supplement the story rather than overshadowing it. And that’s exactly what Sanderson accomplishes in The Way of Kings.
Let’s take a look at three examples.
Through Dalinar’s highstorm visions, readers are presented with several scenes from thousands of years earlier. We learn about the extent to which magic used to exist, as well as the terrible Desolations that plagued the lands. Also, by learning what is unusual about the times depicted in the visions, we learn about what is considered normal in Dalinar’s regular life.
What makes these visions a strong world-building tool is Dalinar’s resistance to them. They are driving him crazy. They make the people around him think he’s going crazy. Even his son starts to doubt his fitness to lead. In other words, our window onto the world’s history AND a foreshadowing of the series conflict takes the form of a significant plot obstacle.
On top of that, note that the story doesn’t open with his visions. We learn first that the visions trouble him and that they create high stakes before we actually get to see one.
In some ways, Szeth seems like he should be listed as one of the main characters, but as an assassin-slave, he has very little narrative agency. His actions start the War of Reckoning, he helps set the stakes for the sequel, and he demonstrates what a warrior skilled in Surgebinding can achieve, but otherwise, he is not (yet) able to engage in causal plot momentum. Despite this, he has a strong internal conflict given that he hates being forced to kill against his will. This makes Szeth’s sections engaging, but Sanderson also keeps his scenes brief. We get a sense of his character, his place in the world, his ability to take on many elite soldiers at once, along with hints about what is to come later in the series. But he is more of a world-building and foreshadowing tool than a co-protagonist.
Another world-building technique Sanderson uses is the inclusion of one-off POV characters. We get several glimpses into characters that aren’t directly involved in the trajectories of the main protagonists. These glimpses help to deepen the scope and fabric of the world without conveniently dumping explanations in the reader’s lap. They are also short and sweet, such that they don’t take us too far away from the action. Each character we meet in the interludes is motivated—actively working toward a goal of some kind. When we see characters struggling or striving toward something they want, we get a clear sense of who they are and what’s important to them.
In this narrative analysis of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, we’ve examined the intricate story structure and pivotal plot points that define the novel. But central to this exploration is the recurring theme of sibling relationships, embedded in the character arcs of Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. Each character is profoundly shaped by their connection to siblings—through loss, duty, and the struggle to protect. This element not only drives the individual journeys of these characters but also serves as a unifying thread across the elaborate world-building of the Stormlight Archive. Sanderson's masterful intertwining of family dynamics with the epic fantasy setting offers a rich, multi-layered narrative experience that showcases his ability to blend personal motivations with grand-scale storytelling.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.