Sanderson’s Three P’s of Plot

Sanderson's Three P's of PlotFrom his Free Writing Course online, we bring you Brandon Sanderson’s Three P’s of Plot. Fine advice for the budding author…

A Philosophy of Plot

Recorded at BYU in 2020,  the best selling author of Mistborn and Stormlight series delivered his philosophy on plotting a novel. His memorably alliterative Three P’s of Plot proposal consists of:

  • Promises
  • Progress
  • Payoff

According to Sanderson, your novel has to set out a number of promises at the beginning. What’s the central conflict your characters have to resolve, in what kind of world?

There has to be ongoing progress to the final resolution. The obligatory set-backs and failures along the way have to relate directly to the promises of the plot. The plot has to progress, even if the characters find themselves blocked by trials and tribulations.

The payoff is arriving at that final resolution with a satisfying conclusion. Deus ex machina rescues, unlikely coincidences and other author cheats (“it’s never twins” – Sherlock, Stephen Moffat) are strictly verboten. Payoffs shouldn’t be undermined by such lazy tricks.

Wholly Qualified

In order to better fit the three P’s to the novel in question, Sanderson adds three qualifiers:

  • Tone
  • Genre
  • Character

Tone distinguishes between gushing romance, grim-dark fantasy and hard-boiled crime-noir. The tone of P.G. Woodehouse, Dashiel Hammett or Jane Austen is part and parcel of their delivery. You wouldn’t frame Middle-Grade fiction with nihilistic, profane or pornographic material.

Genre carries certain expectations be it shoot-outs, sword-fights or happy-ever-afters. Authors have to work within the boundaries of the genre they promised at the beginning. Genre-mixing and genre-crossovers are fraught with risk, bewildering or alienating readers.

Character is the vehicle for most genre fiction. Character goals and desires have to be respected. Plot should always serve character, not the other way around. Dramatic shifts and betrayals of character in the service of plot will look like cheating to readers. We expect characters to stay true to a set of traits or values, or at least develop and grow into them.

In one bound…

Of course, for every rule, there’s an exception. Psychological thrillers, mysteries, horror and crime like to do their own thing – readers love or loathe Stephen King’s cavalier approach, for example. But authors have to know the rules in order to break the rules and get away with it.

Meanwhile, Sanderson’s proposed three P’s are about as neat and concise as you’ll find anywhere.

3 thoughts on “Sanderson’s Three P’s of Plot”

  1. Alistair Fall Guy

    I love Sanderson’s lectures. Amazing thing is the (almost) complete lack of ego. The guy knows he’s good based on sales. He doesn’t make it all me, me, me or even say ‘this is the only way to do it.’

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