Authors of genre fiction like George R. R. Martin have a lot to teach me and other aspiring writers, regardless of what genre(s) we find ourselves belonging to.
Here are three brilliant lessons I learned from A Song of Ice and Fire.
1. Keep it simple. Then build.
Martin has a big task with the opening of this series. He must introduce a huge cast of characters while giving readers enough tension to keep them moving forward. The first events in A Game of Thrones accomplish this in a very straightforward manner. We open with a scene that sets up a familiar fantasy world: a spoiled noble doesn’t listen to the experienced veteran. The party meets their untimely end, but the author breaks away from this glimpse of the Others and uses the reader’s wave of interest to introduce the Stark family and Daenerys. We get sketches of the main characters, then some obvious foreshadowing with a direwolf who’s been killed by a stag. Martin builds on our familiarity with the Starks and uses it to give context to the next big event: a visit from the entire royal entourage. Martin has introduced a source of tension (Others) and 20 or so main characters within the first five chapters. Soon after he gives us the next sources of tension (Bran’s fall, Khal Drogo) which carry us through more world-building and character development.
Compare this with a more traditionally literary work, like Nabokov’s Pnin. While Nabokov’s cast is significantly smaller, he uses a similar technique of providing multiple small sources of tension to introduce us to the world and the character. Professor Timofey Pnin deals with a number of problems in the opening pages. He’s on the wrong train, he’s missing an important paper, he misses a bus, he’s lost his bag. Each problem is solved and then the next is introduced, one right after another. These problems propel the reader forward, but they also allow Nabokov to provide significant background information. The important paper is Pnin’s notes for the lecture he’s on the way to. His luggage contains his belongings, a description of which gives us insight into his character and where he’s come from. Pnin’s difficulties navigating the transit system set up his overall difficulties in America as a Russian refugee.
In both cases, the plot points allow for exposition to happen seamlessly, without losing the reader’s interest. Since Martin has a large cast, he has to use additional tools, such as his emphasis on the importance of names and his extreme (over)use of meaningful nicknames. But Martin and Nabokov are solving the exact same problem. By pairing the exposition with the dramatic, you reduce the chances of losing the reader.
2. Pair the alien, separate the familiar.
George R. R. Martin follows Nietzsche’s exhortation to use forbidden metaphors, “pairing the most alien things and separating the closest” (from On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense). Martin seeks quite deliberately—to the point of sometimes beating the reader over the head—to muddle our expectations of good versus bad and idealism versus pragmatism. In doing so he stands in opposition to traditional sci-fi or fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. He uses fantastic elements sparingly, which is no surprise when you consider that he initially conceived of the books as historical fiction.
Likewise, if you had to predict who would be dead and who would be alive at the end of the series within the first few chapters, those predictions are almost guaranteed to change at regular intervals throughout your reading. This is partly Martin’s doing and partly ours, since as readers we bring expectations based on stories we’ve read in the past that we assume are similar. After all, Ned Stark is well on his way to being a traditional hero: he follows Joseph Campbell’s path of being shown in an ordinary world, then being called to adventure, nearly refusing the call, and finally crossing the threshold out of his ordinary world. He is so clearly set up as a protagonist that when his head rolled on the television show, my wife spent the next half-season expecting him to somehow show back up. Martin places these surprises alongside extremely traditional plot structures. Consider pretty much every character who plays a mentoring role: Jon Arryn, Maester Aemon, Syrio Forel, Jeor Mormont, Qhorin Halfhand, etc. All of them follow in the fatal footsteps of archetypal mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima, Naruto’s Third Hokage, and even John the Baptist.
It’s not just fantasy archetypes that Martin is playing with here. His great emphasis on bastards and orphans is a literary tradition that goes back to mythology (King Arthur was a bastard; Zeus fathered many, many bastards), up through Shakespeare and Tom Jones, and was especially prominent during the Victorian era (think Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy). Daenerys shares her orphanhood with Beowulf, Heathcliff, Saint Nicholas, Harry Potter, Huck Finn, and Batman. But while illegitimate and parentless origins often add to a character’s humble beginnings and thus their heroism (Caserio writes “In its classical tradition the novel has always made fathers, mothers, and heroes out of orphans and bastards”), Martin keeps that particular notion off-balance with Joffrey and Ramsay.
This oscillation between the expected and the unexpected achieves a literary effect similar to beautiful language for language’s sake. There’s an interview with T.S. Eliot where he asserts that the “decadent athleticism” of American universities is on the decline, and Burke uses this phrase as an example of the Nietzschean strange metaphor. We don’t expect athleticism to be described as being decadent—the atmosphere around athleticism, but not the athleticism itself—so by presenting us with this unusual word combination, Eliot has provided a depth of meaning not possible otherwise in a two word phrase and pleasantly surprised his audience in the process. Likewise, when Martin upsets conventions and expectations, his audience has a similar moment of “I didn’t know you could do that!” followed by a deeper understanding of the narrative that Martin is weaving. Additionally, this allows him to make later moments where he does adhere to conventions to be unexpected.
3. Don’t rely on surprises.
I know, I know, this might seem like odd advice given the plot-twist-laden, kill-everyone-you-love nature of ASOIAF. But think on this: How many people are still gripped by the television show despite having read the books? How many people reread the books, or hash out endless conspiracy theories on the unwritten remainder of the series (for instance, the elaborate multi-part “Grand Northern Conspiracy”)? Just as we don’t reread The Great Gatsby to find out whether or not Jay is going to shoot himself at the end, neither do we reread ASOIAF just for the Red Wedding, nor Harry Potter for Dumbledore’s demise. Rowling’s readers still went to theaters, as did (more recently) Gillian Flynn’s. For some people it’s the other way around: spoilers learned from the adaptations didn’t keep viewers from seeking out the literary basis.
That’s why the aforementioned obvious foreshadowing of the direwolf killed by a stag doesn’t matter. Yes, it’s titillating when Chekov’s proverbial gun fires, especially since Martin throws in the occasional red herring (and there are hints that haven’t been followed up yet, which adds to our engagement with the remaining unwritten work), but even when they aren’t surprises the other aspects of the work still hold us captivated.
Martin’s plot twists fulfill one of the most commonly observed rules of writing: the ending should inform the beginning and middle. A good ending does not just close a plotline; instead it changes our understanding of everything that came before it. Knowing a plotline’s conclusion does not diminish the events that come before that conclusion; in fact, the opposite is true: knowing the destination gives more depth to the moments leading up to it. In Martin’s writing, events retroactively reshape characters, they contextualize miniscule asides, and they illuminate the reader’s understanding of ASOIAF’s world. Martin’s conclusions almost always raise more questions than they answer. When Ned Stark dies, his absence is filled by the question of what happens to every member of his family as well as what happens to the power vacuum in the capital, so that a significant plot climax becomes another peripety in the grand scheme of things.
By including George R. R. Martin in the canon of great literary role models, we expand not only our available tools for the job, but also our notion of what constitutes great literature.
– Graham Oliver is a graduate student in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared, or is slated to appear in, the Harvard Educational Review, Ploughshares’ blog, the Front Porch Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about family, legacy, and genealogy.