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.
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.