7 Writing Lessons from George R. R. Martin

Like many people, I’ve gotten hooked on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire (adapted for television as Game of Thrones ). I’m reading it not only as a fan of epic fantasy, but also as a fantasy writer. Whether you like the books or not, there’s a lot to learn from them.

For example…

(NOTE: This post contains spoilers through A Storm of Swords, which is the third book of the five that are currently out. If you’re watching the TV series and haven’t read the books, you probably won’t want to read further — the current season will end halfway through the events of A Storm of Swords. I haven’t read the last two books yet, so if you have, please don’t post spoilers for the last two books.)

1. Some readers will follow you anywhere…if they trust you. Martin is infamous for killing off characters you thought were safe by the rules (or tropes) of fantasy writing. Granted, he’s lost readers because of it — dark, gritty fantasy isn’t for everyone. But he still has huge numbers of readers clamoring for more. Why? Because they’ve grown to trust his storytelling skills. He’s shown that he’s in control, that his plotting is well thought out, that he doesn’t kill characters without a good reason. More than that, he tells a story that people want to hear, despite the risks.

2. Juggling many points of view (POVs) is hard, even for experts. Epic fantasy is known for its multiple-POV storytelling style, and Martin is no exception. But it’s difficult to keep up the pacing on that many plotlines at once. Even Martin has a couple of POVs per book where not much is happening for most of the book. He’ll never scale back the complexity, but for the rest of us, maybe less is better.

3. Don’t be afraid to go dark. You’ve heard the writing advice — figure out what your character most fears and then make it happen, or figure out what s/he most values and then take it away. Martin does this to (among others) Jaime Lannister in A Storm of Swords, to brutal effect on Jaime’s state of mind. What is a knight without a sword hand? Where is his place in this world? What does this world really look like, anyway? Now that’s how to strip down a character to his core. Being that brutal wouldn’t work for every story, but it’s a reminder to dig deep and not let your characters off too lightly.

4. The twistier the better. By the end of the first half of A Storm of Swords, I thought I had the series figured out. I knew who the major players were, and the major puppeteers — we saw most of them slot into place in A Clash of Kings — so I knew the direction things were going. And then they didn’t. By the time the carnage (and the book) ended, several of the most central people were dead, others had removed themselves from the playing field, and I had no idea at all what was going to happen next. And I still trusted Martin to be in control.

5. Play with expectations. This ties in with #1 and #4 above. Martin knows what you, the epic fantasy reader, are thinking. He knows where you expect the story to go — and he tempts you with it, and then pulls the football away like Lucy in Peanuts, over and over again. Again, this is a fine line — you don’t want to frustrate the reader too much, and for some readers, he’s already crossed the line. But, as with stories involving sexual tension, the fun is in keeping the tension going.

6. Give the readers what they want…sort of. To continue on from #5, A Storm of Swords features several scenes where readers’ desires come true…in the worst possible way. Everyone loves to hate Joffrey, right? Everyone wants him dead, right? Even if he dies in a way that makes Tyrion look guilty of regicide, right? Wait…this is the only possible way that Joffrey’s death could make things worse instead of better! Yep. That’s how Martin rolls.

7. Good writing is important at all levels. So far I’ve been talking a lot about the broad strokes of plot and character. But Martin is also good at the details. He’ll give us a host of minor characters, each so vivid that we remember them all later (Varys the eunuch and Dolorous Edd are just two). He’ll give us a fight scene, for example the Mountain That Rides vs. the Red Viper (nicknames are another thing he’s good at!) and it’s a miniature story in itself — it looks like one side is winning, the other makes a valiant effort and is subdued, the final stroke is about to be delivered, and the underdog comes back after all. He’ll balance grimdark with banter or outright humour (think of the scarecrows on the Wall).

What do you think of A Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire? If you’re a writer, what storytelling lessons have you learned?

If you liked this post, you might also like Women in A Game of Thrones and If You Liked… A Game of Thrones, or maybe 7 Writing Lessons from Scott Westerfeld.

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9 responses to “7 Writing Lessons from George R. R. Martin

  1. Nice post, Siri!
    I’m hung up on #1, though. How does a writer establish trust if he/she abuses it from the start? I wonder if it has to do with what the reader wants out of a book – or what they don’t want. Like, I don’t want to be hurt, so if a character I care about dies, I’m probably going to give up on the book. I can think of a couple exceptions, Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, for instance. Maybe someone who is reading to be moved, to feel something deeply, wouldn’t be put off by the death of a character, and would be better able to keep the bigger picture in mind. It’s hard for me to see the bigger picture when I’ve put the book back in the bookcase.
    😉
    And #7 reminds me of my favorite Joss Whedon quote: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

  2. Liv, reader preference has a lot to do with it, for sure. Martin is careful to establish up front what kind of series this is going to be — in the first book he starts with a prologue, kills off that POV character, then gravely injures another character not too far in. If that doesn’t make you put the book down (and I know other people who did!), he knows he’s got you. I think when I picked up the series, I was craving darker epic fantasy with a political bent, and he delivered.

    And that Joss Whedon quote is brilliant, as always.

  3. My problem with the first book was that I couldn’t identify with any of the characters — or at least not enough of them, given the multi POVs. So if I don’t care about them, I don’t care what happens to them (including death). The TV series moves faster and so I’ve enjoyed that more. I am SO GLAD to hear Joffrey is getting killed… I haven’t seen any of season 3 yet… But will no doubt feel a little sorry for Tyrion.

    Great analysis!

  4. Ellen, that’s another disadvantage of multi-POV writing! Interesting how the TV series seems to be picking up (some) people who couldn’t get into the books — as you say, the shift in format changes the experience and maybe minimizes some issues (though not the killing off that Liv dislikes). Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  8. I need to come back and read this one then. The first one I didn’t mind so much; character analysis is hardly spoilery in some cases.

  9. Would love to hear what you think if you do end up reading them!

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