A Game of Groans - Harsh Writing Lessons From George R. R. Martin

Howdy gang!  Hope you're all doing well, and not nursing burns from the heat and/or fireworks.  Not much posting for me this week and last week due to the holiday, travel, etc.  I have been reading, though.

Specifically, I've had my nose buried in my eReader devouring George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  The newest book in the notoriously slow-to-birth (A Game of Thrones, the first in the series, was published in 1996, and he's just now to book 5!) set arrives next week, and I want to be all caught up and ready to dive in as soon as the download warms my hard-drive.

The books first grabbed my attention when HBO announced several months ago that a television show based on the novels was forthcoming.  I'm a huge fan of HBO original series.  From Rome to True Blood, they consistently offer some of the best production values, acting and entertainment in all of TV.  Books ALWAYS being better than their visual interpretations--yes, like mountains being tall and heavy, it's a fact--I wanted to be sure to read the stories before I started watching the show.  Nothing worse than a bad show spoiling a good book, right?

These stories came with the reputation of being some of the best in fantasy writing since The Lord of the Rings, so my expectations were sky high.  They didn't disappoint.  Like Tolkien/LOTR, G.R.R. Martin grounds the fantastical elements of the story with richly crafted histories and exceptionally detailed and realistic settings.  So much so that you often forget you're reading fiction.  In many ways the books are more akin to reading political history from a textbook than reading about dragons and such.  Now, that might not sound like a formula for entertainment, but when that political history involves some of the most colorful, deadly and unseemly characters to ever grace fiction--well, let's just say there's never a dull moment.

Warring families, ruthless enemies, dragons, zombie-like creatures, love, friendship and death (LOTS of death ... but I'll get to that) are all commonplace in Ice and Fire.  At times it's like reading a soap opera with swordplay, and other times they read like the classic 'buddy movie' Stand By Me, except there are dragons and giant wolves in place of a dead bodies and town ruffians.  There's plenty to offer for just about every kind of reader, but that isn't to suggest the books are perfect.

Many have taken the author to task for his callus treatment of beloved characters, his penchant for dragging a story out, and for pulling a few punches with chapter transitions.  In fact, I'd suggest a  few rules to keep while reading the Ice and Fire books.

First, never expect to have anything TRULY resolved.  Sure, certain plot points will work themselves out, but it typically just creates ten more.  The books always end with major questions and characters dangling in the wind, and most of the chapters do as well.

Second, never--EVER--get attached to a character.  Nor should you believe conventional storytelling wisdom will prevail as it relates to endearing characters sticking around for the reader's sake.  Martin will focus on a character for three books, making you think the series hinges upon them in the process, and then kill them with the swift swipe of a broadsword as if they weren't there at all.  I can't tell you how many times I've had re-read a few paragraphs at the end of a chapter or scene to actually get my brain to register that a character actually died.  It's that shocking!  Absolutely no one is safe, which is both compelling and utterly frustrating.  Seriously, some of the stuff he pulls would be the story equivalent of killing off Han Solo at the end of the first Star Wars movie.  Martin is that bold, and that cruel, of a storyteller.

Lastly, disregard all that you know about the natural flow of storytelling.  Lots of authors have mined the open-ended chapter/scene closure with varying degrees of success.  If done properly, a cliffhanger can prompt the reader to stay up way past their bedtime to figure out what has happened.  (Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo books come to mind.)  If overused, it can feel like a gimmick or lazy storytelling.  Dan Brown comes to mind as an example of the cliffhanger abuser.   It might read something like this:

James opened the door only to find a gun in his face! -end scene-  
-next chapter- "What a cute water pistol you have there, Billy," James said, opening the door further so the child could scuttle by. 

Not cool, DB.  Not cool at all.  So long as you follow through, I personally feel there's nothing wrong with leaving the reader on the hook.  In fact, it's usually a sign of darn good writing.  I find Martin's storytelling to be a mixed bag on this front.  On the one hand, when he leaves a character in great peril or facing some momentous discovery, the stakes typically stay high when you resume.  A good thing.  On the other, you  might have to read half of the book to find out what happened.  Not always a good thing, because you can sometimes forget why it was important in the first place.

Judging by his fan base and the rate at which I'm devouring his words, it's safe to say that Martin does way more right than wrong.  As such, I think he offers some excellent--if a bit extreme--examples to those of us who study the craft.

First, I'm not sure you can ever be too cruel to your characters.  If the story demands they meet an awful end, have everyone they know die in exceptionally cruel ways, or simply remain oblivious to the freight-train bearing down on them,  it's probably the right thing to do.  You'll just have to figure out how to make it work.  (That's what writers do, right?)  

Second, never be afraid to leave the reader with questions--even at the very end.  I mentioned my preference for words over film earlier, and I think the magic that makes it so is the ability to fill in the gaps a written story leaves with my own images, thoughts, etc.  Due to the compact nature of a film, almost everything has to be expressed overtly.  Books have no such limitations.  In fact, it's often best to leave certain details to a reader's imagination.  It kind of goes against a storyteller's instincts to NOT tell, but the best authors know how to do it, and do it well.

Lastly, never underestimate the reader's patience.  I know I'm personally guilty of trying to guess what a reader will and won't tromp through to get to the good stuff.  Sometimes you just have to tell a story the way a character would live it.  That might not be as expedient as killing them off when they've served their purpose, and you might also risk ticking off a reader who feels they've invested in a character only to have them yanked away.  However, you're the storyteller, and if it makes the story better it's probably worth the risk.

If it is written well and I'm confident that I'll be rewarded with an excellent story, I've learned I'll stick with just about all of the hijinks and devilry an author can unleash.  So I guess more than anything Martin has taught me to be bold with my ideas and words, because in the end the struggle really does make the story.  Even for the reader.

~EJW~
 

19 comments:

  1. I thought that A Feast of Crows was pretty dull and boring However the other three were great. I can't wait for A Dance With Dragons. I'm so excited. I read the free preview at the back of "A Feast of Crows" and it was pretty cool with the dragon Drogon eating people that Dany is trying to rule.

    It'll be interesting when The Winds of Winter rolls around because we aren't going to see any updates on Circe, Arya, or any of the other characters introduced in A Feast of Crows. I certainly want to know who Circe's champion is. I suspect that the Mountain has been turned into some kind of unkillable undead by that maester that treated the stump made of Jaime Lannister's hand.

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  2. OOOh lots of death is not entertainment for me. Sorry. I worked at daily newspapers for 25 years and got my fair share. Nope, give me happy horse feathers and I Dream of Jeannie type nonsense any day.
    Actually, my creative muse prefers America's Funniest Home Videos.

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  3. I haven't read or seen The Game of Thrones, but I think you wrote an excellent post. Smart and accessible to someone unfamiliar with the franchise.

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  4. My husband and daughter are addicted to Game of Thrones...I've been avoiding it...proving once and for all that I'm a conflict avoider, and unless I get over that, the WIP will remain boring. Thank you for a stellar lesson.

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  5. Like Laura, I haven't read any of these books, either. It does sound like I could learn a lot about the craft though! I absolutely love cruelty, I'll definitely have to check out these books. :)

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  6. Another great post, my friend. I'm always surprised by your writings. This was a great book review.

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  7. Another thing that Martin does well in keeping readers reading is giving every character an antagonist. It's the antagonism that gives the story legs, and because Martin gives you every major character's point of view, everyone has an antagonist to deal with, even the characters you might consider evil and wouldn't otherwise call protagonists.

    Building Castles on the Beach

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  8. Ew. I don't like that that's Arya (I haven't seen any of the TV show). That is so not how I imagined her to look............

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  9. I've heard a lot about these books, and even picked up the first one a few months ago, but didn't have time to read it with everything else going on in life. Thanks for sharing the points you've learned from the books and how you find it pertains to writing. It can be a challenge to be really bold and dive in, but it's good to learn. Sometimes we have to stretch beyond what we might have thought we were capable of or what we thought we should do because of all the "rules."

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  10. I hate it when an author kills off my favorite character...James Patterson is notorious for this, although you can kinda see it coming...example being "1st To Die" in his Women's Murder Club series. It always makes me mad. I mean, WHY follow somebody through all that drama, just to have them up and die/get shot on you???

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  11. Sounds intriguing. I love fantasy, but haven't read much of it lately, because there hasn't been anything that really caught my interest. I have a hard time investing in long series. Do you know how many books Martin intends to write? I like it when a writer isn't afraid to kill off my favorite character; that's how I know **** just got real!

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  12. I have these books on my TBR list now, but I hear they are LONG; that frightens me a bit. :) This was a great review, and I love the warnings. Will take note.

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  13. I've been meaning to start these books and you gave me another push (huge LOTR fan here - this is the only series they say can hold a candle to it) I loved your title - Game of Groans! Good writing lessons too.

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  14. Dang! I've been putting off getting into this series but after reading this I'm thinking I'd better start.

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  15. I've been hearing about the HBO series recently and wondered about all the hoopla. You've just about convinced me to give these a whirl.

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  16. ooh. I've been wanting to read this series for awhile but after reading your post, I'm not sure i want to. I'm a sucker for happy endings and characters who make it through alive. I might just weep in frustration if I read his books!
    nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  17. Siiiigh... I REALLY have to read this series.

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  18. On the patience note, I feel like you have to give them something first. Like supporting a sports team. If you didn't grow up as a fan, and the first few games you watch, they lose, then you won't be converted. But if you see them win and win and win, and then they lose a few, then you're willing to hang in, waitign for the good stuff.

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“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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