Elantris is the debut novel of good ol’ Brando Sando.* I read it not long after it first came out in 2006,* loved it, and became an instant Sanderson fan. I even used the book as an example of the perfect opening in a 2014 article. Then, years later, I read Warbreaker, and… stopped being a Sanderson fan. Though, to be fair, Warbreaker was probably written by the ghost of Robert Jordan possessing Sanderson’s body.
Now I’ve returned to the opening of Elantris with an additional eight years of writing and editing knowledge. Will it live up to the praise I’ve given it? Let’s find out where it still shines, where it could be better, and the tradeoffs Sanderson made.
Teasers: Not Terrible, But Not Great
I’d completely forgotten that Elantris opens with a single-page teaser. It’s labeled “Prologue,” but that’s a big lie. Prologues aren’t generally this short, and they’re supposed to include at least one scene. This teaser has none.
Like prologues, most teasers offer an additional hook to bolster an opening that isn’t as engaging. A few of them hold framing devices. This one clearly has another purpose: getting exposition out of the way.
Elantris was beautiful, once. It was called the city of the gods: a place of power, radiance, and magic. Visitors say that the very stones glowed with an inner light […]
Yet as magnificent as Elantris was, its inhabitants were more so. Their hair a brilliant white, their skin an almost metallic silver, the Elantrians shone like the city itself. Legends claim that they were immortal, or at least nearly so. […] They could perform magics with a bare wave of the hand […]. They were divinities.
And anyone could become one.
The Shaod, it was called. […] The Shaod could take beggar, craftsman, nobleman, or warrior. When it came, […] he would discard his old, mundane existence and move to Elantris. Elantris, where he could […] be worshipped for eternity.
Eternity ended ten years ago.
As exposition dumps go, this one has a lot to recommend it. People love fallen cities and civilizations, and this succeeds in giving Elantris a wondrous atmosphere, with its glowing stones and silver people. There’s definitely novelty in that. The end of Elantris, with the clever and punchy closing line “Eternity ended ten years ago,” is a nice hook too. What happened?
Yet that doesn’t mean this one-page teaser is called for, because spoiler: the first chapter’s opening hook is better. The main narrative is also capable of describing the wondrous, lost city of Elantris and building that atmosphere as the story moves forward. So, why do it here?
This teaser is only justified if readers need all of this explanation right away, and it’s too much for the opening scene to handle. If the exposition would bog down the narrative and still leave readers confused, then this could be an essential method of last resort.
Is it necessary? Let’s continue and see.
Prioritizing Information Is Critical During an Opening
Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.
A fantastic opening line. We meet the main character, he’s clearly in trouble, and how he could be unaware of being damned arouses curiosity.
While curiosity isn’t a powerful method of holding an entire story together, on a micro level it works quite well. In an opening, when you can’t give readers all the information they need at once, giving them just enough to arouse curiosity is a great tactic. However, mere curiosity should generally be satisfied in the same scene. Some writers keep it going for a chapter or more as the only hook to motivate readers. At that point, it’s just contrived and frustrating. Use tension for that.
I can still nitpick over this line a little. I would have cut out “of Arelon”; readers can learn the name of Raoden’s kingdom later. The prose isn’t particularly creative, and the “little did he know” framing of this opening might be considered a cliche in some quarters. However, I think that last issue is a small price to pay for such a good opener. Without disclosing something Raoden doesn’t know, readers would have to wait until the end of the scene for the big hook.
Altogether, I give this 4.5 / 5 stars.
You might have noticed this opening sentence is in omniscient perspective, as it shares something the featured character doesn’t know. Keep an eye on that.
Still drowsy, Raoden sat up, blinking in the soft morning light. Just outside his open balcony windows he could see the enormous city of Elantris in the distance, its stark walls looming over the smaller city of Kae, where Raoden lived. Elantris’s walls were incredibly high, but Raoden could see the tops of black towers rising behind them, their broken spires a clue to the fallen majesty hidden within.
The abandoned city seemed darker than usual. Raoden stared at it for a moment, then glanced away. The huge Elantrian walls were impossible to ignore, but the people of Kae tried very hard to do just that. It was painful to remember the city’s beauty, to wonder how ten years ago the blessing of the Shaod had become a curse instead.
After his brief opening lines, the first thing Brando Sando does is once again describe Elantris. While I like my description a little denser than this, I’m really fond of these “broken spires” – it’s specific and evocative. But that aside, not much is new. Readers already know that a big wondrous city named Elantris fell ten years ago, because the teaser covered all of that. This makes the teaser look redundant.
However, the Shaod is referenced here without an explanation. Without the teaser, readers would have little context for that. They’re likely to forget the term altogether.
Did you examine the perspective? Notice that when Sanderson exposits about Elantris, he does that by having Raoden look at the city out his window. That’s a convention from limited narration; an omniscient narrator has no need to do that. Sanderson uses omniscient to get in that opening hook and then immediately abandons it.
Believe it or not, this isn’t really an issue. Because omniscient is a more permissive perspective than limited, it’s easier to go from omniscient to limited than vice versa. In fact, it’s fairly conventional to open chapters with omniscient only to transition to limited for the rest.
In this case, since Sanderson already opens by focusing on Raoden, he doesn’t have to go far to transition into Raoden’s viewpoint. And Raoden looking out his window before delivering exposition doesn’t actually violate omniscient perspective as much as it doesn’t make full use of it. That means Sanderson can simply continue in limited until readers forget the narration was ever in omniscient.
However, this doesn’t mean he isn’t losing an opportunity to make his opening better. Having Raoden inexplicably stare out the window for a while thinking about a city he sees every day is a bit awkward. It’s not high on my list of prose crimes, but if Brando Sando just stayed in omniscient a bit longer, he could’ve taken advantage of its flexibility to improve his exposition.
Below is an example of the opening two paragraphs with more omniscient narration. I also played around with the prose a bit to build up the mood.
Prince Raoden awoke early that morning, unaware that he had been damned for all eternity. Still drowsy, he sat up and blinked in the soft morning light. Raoden didn’t look out his balcony windows to view the stark walls of Elantris, looming over the smaller city of Kae. Like most residents of Kae, Raoden politely pretended to ignore the fallen city. Instead he turned away from the window to dress.
Then Raoden felt his back prickle. For a reason he couldn’t bear to consider, his gaze was pulled inexorably around. It fell on distant broken spires, their gaping holes peering at him over the Elantrian walls. The soiled black stones made a mockery of the light and wonder they once shared, before the blessing of the Shaod had become a curse instead.
From there, Raoden could pull his gaze away, and the narration might continue in limited.
Raoden shook his head, climbing out of bed. It was unusually warm for such an early hour; he didn’t feel even a bit chilly as he threw on his robe, then pulled the servants’ cord beside his bed, indicating that he wanted breakfast.
That was another odd thing. He was hungry—very hungry. Almost ravenous. He had never liked large breakfasts, but this morning he found himself waiting impatiently for his meal to arrive. Finally, he decided to send someone to see what was taking so long.
With that exposition over, Sanderson starts moving the story along. In a couple quick paragraphs, Raoden notices a few clues that something has changed. One of the great things about Elantris is that it’s a pretty tight story, staying right on task for most of the book.
However, I think it could be stronger in atmosphere. The opening hook states Raoden is damned, so I would expect the follow-up to be a little more ominous than this. Being warm and hungry is unusual, but Sanderson doesn’t make it sound disquieting. As is, his prose is easy to read and gets the job done, but it’s not a big draw in itself.
“Ien?” he called in the unlit chambers.
There was no response. Raoden frowned at the seon’s absence.
Where could Ien be?
We are now deep in Raoden’s head. In the previous except, Raoden “found himself waiting” and “decided to send someone.” That’s distant limited, which is useful for transitioning away from omniscient. Now that Sanderson is writing in close perspective, we don’t have “Raoden wondered where Ien could be.” The question is simply posed directly in the narration.
Sanderson hasn’t told us what a seon is. Based on this context, we can guess it’s a term for some kind of servant. That’s good enough to get readers by with minimal confusion; they can learn the details later. However, it also doesn’t clarify why Ien’s absence is disturbing. You see, a seon is actually a magical floaty light ball that talks and hangs out by its master unless it’s sent elsewhere. A regular servant might just be busy elsewhere, but a seon doesn’t have a life of its own.
Given that, I would either work in enough context to make Ien’s absence meaningful or just cut this out. While it’s realistic for Raoden to look for Ien, readers won’t notice if he doesn’t. However, I wouldn’t say that this is detracting from the scene; it’s just not adding much.
Raoden stood, and as he did, his eyes fell on Elantris again. Resting in the great city’s shadow, Kae seemed like an insignificant village by comparison. Elantris was an enormous, ebony block—not really a city anymore, just the corpse of one. Raoden shivered.
Maybe Sanderson was trying to express that Raoden keeps looking at Elantris for magical reasons, but if so, that doesn’t come across. So Raoden just randomly looks at Elantris yet again, and we only hear things about it that we already know from the first two paragraphs of the chapter.
The central challenge of this opening is getting the story going as fast as possible while conveying the world information that’s needed to understand the opening hook. Given that, wasting even a short paragraph on repeating yourself is an unfortunate mistake. Instead, this space could have been used to convey why it’s weird that Ien is missing.
Alternately, Sanderson could start an explanation of the Shaod – the one thing from the teaser that hasn’t been covered in chapter one. While saying Elantris is a corpse of a city sounds pretty cool, Raoden might recall that there are basically living corpses locked inside that city. That’s even better, and it’s certainly a more powerful hook than saying Elantris is big and black.
A knock came at his door.
“Finally,” Raoden said, walking over to pull open the door. Old Elao stood outside with a tray of fruit and warm bread.
The tray dropped to the ground with a crash, slipping from the stunned maid’s fingers even as Raoden reached out to accept it. Raoden froze, the tray’s metallic ring echoing through the silent morning hallway.
Raoden’s doom is discovered!
This is a small thing, but it bothers me that the tray drops before any cause for it is mentioned. A simple reordering of that sentence would fix it: “Raoden reached to accept the tray, but it dropped from the maid’s fingers before he could grasp it.” Alternately, Sanderson could describe the stunned look on the maid’s face and then show the tray dropping. As is, the sentence is slightly disorienting, and the passage feels like it’s in the wrong order.
“Merciful Domi!” Elao whispered, her eyes horrified and her hand trembling as she clutched at the Korathi pendant at her neck.
Raoden reached out, but the maid took a quivering step away, stumbling on a small melon in her haste to escape.
Well, she’s an old woman, so of course she has to be frightened. A young man being frightened just wouldn’t do.
Alright, Brando Sando, I see your dramatic buildup. What’s so scary as to make this woman flee?
“What?” Raoden asked. Then he saw his hand. What had been hidden in the shadows of his darkened room was now illuminated by the hallway’s flickering lantern.
Raoden turned, throwing furniture out of his way as he stumbled to the tall mirror at the side of his chambers. The dawn’s light had grown just strong enough for him to see the reflection that stared back at him. A stranger’s reflection.
His blue eyes were the same, though they were wide with terror. His hair, however, had changed from sandy brown to limp grey. The skin was the worst. The mirrored face was covered in sickly black patches, like dark bruises. The splotches could mean only one thing.
The Shaod had come upon him.
Thus ends the scene. Is this enough to make a woman run away in terror? Probably not, especially since she’s old enough to know what the Shaod is and that it’s not contagious. She could be upset, certainly. However, I think Sanderson wants to show that there’s a lot of superstition and stigma over the Elantrians – he needs that to support his premise. In that case, there’s no reason a dude couldn’t do the fleeing; choosing a woman feels a bit sexist. At least she didn’t scream.
That said, this is a wonderful hook. Looking into the mirror to see you’ve turned into something else is always delightfully frightening. It puts Raoden in a sympathetic position and gets readers interested in what he’s turned into. Also, this may seem obvious, but Sanderson told us Raoden was damned, and hey look – he could reasonably be described as damned! I wish we could take that for granted, but as we’ve seen in many of these critiques, authors frequently mislead readers to inflate their hooks.
Sanderson also makes the trickiest part look easy: Raoden can’t look closely at his own body before the reveal. If the scene went on too long, that would feel unbelievable. But Sanderson keeps events brief enough that this works, especially since Raoden just woke up and Sanderson clarifies the room was dark.
Let’s loop back on the teaser. Do readers need to understand what the Shaod is for this to be a powerful hook? Even without knowing, Raoden has still made a creepy transformation. And if the hook is much better with information on the Shaod, did Sanderson need a separate exposition dump to tell readers about it? Even if he doesn’t manage to work any exposition about the Shaod earlier in this scene, a few extra words could help:
The curse of Shaod had come upon him. Now and forever, Raoden belonged to Elantris.
I’m also not convinced that this transformation needed a special name like “Shaod.” Simply telling readers that Raoden has transformed into an Elantrian might make this easier.
Altogether, this would be a great test case for several groups of beta readers with different versions. However, I’d place my bets on working what information is actually necessary into the first chapter. That’s because knowing the Shaod used to be a blessing is much less important than knowing it’s a curse now. While the fall of Elantris sets up an intriguing mystery, Raoden’s own plight is much more immediate. If the narrative focused on Raoden up front, Sanderson would have plenty of time afterward to develop the interesting history of the situation and set up the mystery Raoden must solve to save himself.
However, again, this is Sanderson’s debut novel. Just because there is theoretically an optimal way to do something doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to pull it off. The Sanderson of the time might have struggled with fitting in enough information and finally decided that upfront teaser was for the best. Or, alternately, maybe readers already loved chapter one without the teaser, and then some marketer working for his publisher wrote that anyway and put it there. Who knows.
Let’s move on to the next scene.
Don’t Say the Quiet Part Out Loud
So Raoden has been transformed. What’s next? Gimme.
The Elantris City gate boomed shut behind him with a shocking sound of finality. Raoden slumped against it, thoughts numbed by the day’s events.
It was as if his memories belonged to another person. His father, King Iadon, hadn’t met Raoden’s gaze as he ordered the priests to prepare his son and throw him into Elantris. It had been done swiftly and quietly; Iadon couldn’t afford to let it be known that the crown prince was an Elantrian. Ten years ago, the Shaod would have made Raoden a god. Now, instead of making people into silver-skinned deities, it changed them into sickly monstrosities.
Woah – we just jumped ahead to Raoden being inside Elantris. This is a real interesting choice on Sanderson’s part. Elantris has lots of novelty and this moves the story forward, so this is great for keeping the story’s opening riveting.
However, look at the events Sanderson has backfilled here by expositing. Raoden’s father throws him away like trash! That should be an emotionally powerful moment that makes Raoden even more sympathetic. It’s also an opportunity for character development that further builds attachment. We know nothing about Raoden so far. He’s completely blank, and the way he numbly walks into Elantris only increases the impression that he’s a pile of clay waiting to be shaped.
A scene with his father offers a chance for engaging social conflict and gives Raoden time to respond. Does he struggle to avoid Elantris, or does he sacrifice himself because he feels it’s his duty? The event is also necessary enough that Sanderson felt he had to exposit about it later. Those things suggest that this scene should have been included.
Even if this additional scene were a little less engaging than entering Elantris, I think it would be engaging enough while also investing in attachment to the main character. That would pay off as the story continued.
As a downside, including the scene does risk dwelling on something that Sanderson shouldn’t call attention to.
Really, Sanderson, you shouldn’t.
Don’t do it, Brando Sando.
Raoden shook his head in disbelief. The Shaod was a thing that happened to other people—distant people. People who deserved to be cursed. Not the crown prince of Arelon. Not Raoden.
The city of Elantris stretched out before him. Its high walls were lined with guardhouses and soldiers—men intended not to keep enemies out of the city, but to keep its inhabitants from escaping. Since the Reod, when Elantris fell, every person taken by the Shaod had been thrown in through the gates to rot; the city had become an expansive tomb for those whose bodies had forgotten how to die.
Raoden could remember standing on those walls, looking down on Elantris’s dread inhabitants, just as the guards now looked down on him. The city had seemed far away then, even though he had been standing just outside of it. He had wondered, philosophically, what it would be like to walk those blackened streets.
Now he was going to find out.
So this kingdom throws people in a ghost city to rot. Raoden, the crown prince who naturally has a great deal of power, has visited just to stare at the people who have been discarded. This prompted him to think deep philosophical thoughts about what it would be like to be in their position, instead of, I don’t know… asking them?
Going forward, Raoden’s viewpoint is going to focus on the suffering of the Elantrians. Yet, Raoden was previously okay with their cruel treatment because he wasn’t personally affected – despite being in a position of leadership and responsibility.
Obviously, this cruel practice is needed for the plot to work. So how could Sanderson avoid making Raoden look bad? As I mentioned, simply not calling attention to how Raoden knew about it before would be an improvement. However, I think Sanderson could also have provided a more robust false narrative for Raoden to buy into.
In our world, Qatar tells us that all the migrant workers doing hard labor in extreme heat are totally being treated well – those deaths are just natural heart attacks. And of course they aren’t indentured servants; no need to worry about them. In the United States, all the poor people being held in jail for months or even years before their trial are dangerous criminals who will eat your children. No, they haven’t been proven guilty, but the police arrested them, so they must be guilty, right?
The closest thing Sanderson has to this right now is Raoden’s belief that everyone who is randomly cursed deserves it. But believing misfortune only falls on people who deserve suffering still makes Raoden look like a terrible person. Instead, I would have had the king insist that Elantrians are somehow better off by being locked in Elantris. He could also have claimed the Elantrians are receiving more aid there than they really are.
Even with this justification, Raoden’s previous visit to Elantris should still be cut. With that much exposure, he should have known what was happening. But if Raoden hasn’t visited, he could passively buy into the justifying narrative until his father does it to him. Once Raoden is forced into Elantris and sees the conditions for himself, he could be shocked and disillusioned at his father’s lies.
Zoom In for the Emotional Parts
Let’s look at our last excerpt, which ends this scene.
Raoden pushed against the gate for a moment, as if to force his body through, to cleanse his flesh of its taint. He lowered his head, releasing a quiet moan. He felt like curling into a ball on the grimy stones and waiting until he woke from this dream. Except he knew he would never awaken. The priests said that this nightmare would never end.
But something within him urged Raoden forward. He knew he had to keep moving—for if he stopped, he feared he’d simply give up. The Shaod had taken his body. He couldn’t let it take his mind as well.
So, using his pride like a shield against despair, dejection, and—most important—self-pity, Raoden raised his head to stare damnation in the eyes.
Unfortunately, Sanderson has switched back to distant limited rather than close perspective. That mutes the emotions and leaves whether this narration is coming from Raoden or Sanderson less clear. For instance, apparently it’s more important to stave off self-pity than despair. Is this meant to be a quirk of Raoden’s, stemming from his pride as crown prince? Or is that just an odd thing that Sanderson believes?
Let’s see what this looks like with a distance change and a little more showing. Below, I focused on bringing Raoden’s inner experience onto the page so that we feel with him rather than being told what he feels.
Raoden pushed against the gate, toward the world of the living on the other side, his world. If only he could squeeze his body through, leave Elantris, perhaps the taint in his flesh would be left behind with it.
When his strength flagged, he lowered his head, releasing a quiet moan. He could simply sink down and curl into a ball on the grimy stones, remain there until he woke from this dream. But he would never awaken. The priests said that this nightmare would never end.
Raoden stiffened his spine and turned to face the city. He had to keep moving—for if he stopped, he’d simply give up. The Shaod had taken his body. He couldn’t let it take his mind as well.
Cursed or not, he was the crown prince of Arelon. He wouldn’t give in to despair, dejection, and most certainly not self-pity. Raoden raised his head to stare damnation in the eyes.
I elaborated on his push against the gate to better communicate his mindset when he takes such a futile action. In turn, that makes it easier to understand why he moans afterward. I also added a couple more body signals – his strength flagging and his spine stiffening – to better express internal changes.
Internal actions now come off stronger because they are simply stated as facts. Previously, they were prefaced with “he knew,” etc. Then in the last paragraph, we directly witness Raoden using his pride as a shield when he reminds himself of his title. In close perspective, the distaste for self-pity looks more like a part of his prideful character.
Characterization aside, the opening of this book has so many good hooks that it feels repetitive to point out this one. The scene ends with the doomed prince about to explore a cursed magical city. Yes please.
Boot Up Your Story Fast
The trickiest thing about most openings is trying to put in a good hook while somehow also doing all the setup work to make that hook operate. In some cases, setup might be explanation, like it is here. In other cases, the most essential setup is developing a character so the audience actually cares about their problems.
Many classic and traditional stories feature the setup first without any effort to add hooks. When we didn’t have so many stories, and the ones we had weren’t that great, the audience could be expected to wait for the opening problem to arrive. This is where the whole idea of an “inciting incident” comes from. It’s the actual start of the story once the boring stuff is out of the way.
Today, no one should be following that strategy. The external plot should start as soon as it can be managed. Sometimes it can’t happen immediately as it does in Elantris. You might need a scene or two to set the stage. In that case, your best bet is to focus on a separate conflict to keep readers entertained, perhaps one involving your internal throughline.
But Elantris shows that a story can be booted up fast even when that might seem impossible at first. Another writer would have wasted a chapter explaining Elantris and the Shaod. This is better.
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