12 – Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – Controlling Pacing using Chapters

This was the first Brandon Sanderson novel I read, and boy did it get me hooked. This YA Superhero story is a masterclass in pacing, and pulls readers through the novel at a ridiculous speed. Today, I’ll analyse how Sanderson achieved such a fast pace.

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In the episode, I mention a table where I categorise each chapter’s ending. I forgot to include this here, but luckily a wonderful listener emailed me to ask about it. So, here it is! (Thanks Nigel!)

Part Chapter Cliffhanger Rest point Last Line Notes
Prologue 1 I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again. Prologues can run the risk of providing extraneous infodumps that don’t build momentum. This is an exception. You can’t get a more gripping closing line of a prologue than that.
1 1 1 It was time to hand the Reckoners my resume
1 2 1 Curveball reached for his gun
1 3 1 I took a deep breath, concentrated, and squeezed the trigger, fully expecting to be shot in the head from above.
1 4 1 Fortuity’s head exploded
1 5 1 And this deep in the steel catacombs, nobody would notice a scream or a gunshot.
1 6 1 I had failed. Mc’s starting goal (to join the reckoners) is shut down by the reckoners themselves.
1 7 1 This was Jon Phaedrus himself. Their leader and founder.
1 8 1 “We need to talk to Prof,” Megan said, towing me by the arm toward where the others were walking ahead.
1 9 1 “We give them the thing they’re waiting for. Me.”
1 10 1 Another Epic eliminated. Antagonist defeated, but protagonists still inside conflict
1 11 1 I pensively sat down beside the steel table as the others gathered around the pack and began rifling through my life. 24% point
1 12 1 “Persuade her.”
1 13 1 “God help us, we are.” MC accepted into Reckoners. End of part 1 at the 29% point – coninciding with end of act 1
2 14 1 “Go get your gun, then. They’re leaving soon.”
2 15 1 “Here we are,” Abraham announced.
2 16 1 “Neightwielder is here.”
2 17 1 It was time for a little more improvising.
2 18 1 I turned the UV light and shined it on Nightwielder.
2 19 1 I shook my head and jogged after them. Protagonists have accomplished their goal and are safe for now. F
2 20 1 “Yes sir,” I said, leaving with a quick step out the cloth-covered doorway.
2 21 1 Two uniformed guards stepped up to the ledge and peered down into the darkness.
2 22 1 In seconds we were racing down the street in the opposite direction of fire trucks and emergency responders, heading for the rendezvous point with the other Reckoners. End of the midpoint at 55% – heroes have accomplished another goal (which occurred smack back around the 50% mark) and escaped from immediate danger. End of part 2.
3 23 1 On a whim I climbed in and went to see if I could find Megan.
3 24 1 “The bank vault.”
3 25 1 “Let’s get to work; this is going to take a while….”
3 26 1 “It’s time to kill Conflux,” Prof said. “And bring down Enforcement.”
3 27 1 At that moment Nightweilder himself flew through the top of the limo, his arms spread wide, lines of darkness stretching from his fingers out into the night.
3 28 1 Then I fired at the wall.
3 29 1 Right onto the side where the gravatonics were broken.
3 30 1 I followed him through the tunnel, and we made our escape. End of act 2 at 77% mark and end of part 3. Again, heroes have escaped from danger, but this time with big consequences: Megan’s mortally wounded.
4 31 1 Then I finally let the tears come in force. Megan dies at 78% – lowest of lows; dark night of the soul – marks start of act 3. 2 rest endings in a row allow readers to reflect more deeply on the consequences of Megan’s death. Clever slowing of pacing to allow for more reflectiveness. Can’t always do this – here it works because of its contrast to the other faster-paced chapter endings.
4 32 1 And just like that, he all but shut down Newcago.
4 33 1 But I would finally get my chance.
4 34 1 “Let’s do this.” Final confrontation with Steelheart in the stadium begins.
4 35 1 A shot rang in the air.
4 36 1 Eyes I knew. Megan.
4 37 1 A second later, the hallway exploded.
4 38 1 Or in this case, the battlefield.
4 39 1 I fired three shots.
4 40 1 I didn’t really have time to smile in that frozen moment, but I was feeling it nonetheless as the fire came for me. Steelheart – the main antagonist – has been killed.
4 41 1 I turned and ran for the copter. I didn’t know what else to do. Sanderson shows the perfect way to structure the first book in a series: accomplish the main goal, vanquish the main antagonist (Steelheart), but leave the problems created by this accomplishment open-ended (Megan’s apparently evil)
Epilogue 1 I fought because of his dreams

Previous Brandon Sanderson Episode: 10 – Mistborn The Final Empire – by Brandon Sanderson – Mastering the Grand Skill of Worldbuilding

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