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.