Another guest blog, this time written by two of the brightest new voices in speculative fiction today, Bradley P. Beaulieu and Ian Tregillis. They wanted to elaborate on certain things that GRRM does particularly well, but that are not necessarily obvious. Given how much of a fan I am of the author, I was only too happy to let them have their fun!
Beaulieu is the author of the excellent The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh. For more information about him and his body of work, check out his official website.
And Tregillis is the author of the excellent Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. You can find all sorts of information on his official website.
A few months back, Pat kindly sent me a note inviting me by the Hotlist for a guest post. I quickly jotted down a few ideas and ran them past him. He ended up liking them all, and I’ll write those others in the weeks ahead, but the one I wanted to tackle first was a post about George R.R. Martin and the things he does well as a writer. I’d been reading A Dance With Dragons, and it seemed like a good opportunity to crystallize some of my thoughts. But before I got into it, I thought it would be fun to invite another author to join me. Writing is a lonely profession, so I try to make excuses to work with others when I can.
The first person that jumped to mind was Ian Tregillis. Why Ian? Well, first and foremost because he’s a great writer, and great writers tend to have great insights. Second, Ian has been in a writing group with Mr. Martin and has written two stories for his Wildcards anthologies. And thirdly, I sort of “came up” with Ian. We were both in the Online Writing Workshop together, we both joined a small writing group after that, and we both sold our first novels around the same time. It’s been great seeing the reception to Ian’s wonderful Milkweed Triptych books, and I’m very excited to see his next project.
That’s a somewhat longwinded way of saying I’m glad Ian decided to join me. Not only was this a really fun post, and not only did I get to formalize some of my own thoughts on Martin’s writing, but I learned a thing or three from Ian’s excellent observations.
Bradley P. Beaulieu
I think we've all heard the things that George Martin does best. The uber-epic scope of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, compelling characters, his penchant for putting character after character to the sword, which only serves to heighten our sympathy for those who remain, and so on.
And yet, there are many things that Martin does well that aren't immediately obvious. These things affect us as we read, but they often don't rise to the surface. It's like mood music in movies. The best kinds are the ones you don't notice, that ones that enhance mood without calling attention to themselves. Martin is not just a master storyteller, he's a consummate craftsman, and in this article, we hope to illuminate some of those things he does so well.
Beaulieu: I've always been impressed with the way Martin’s chapters are constructed. Sometimes they're composed of a single scene; sometimes they're multiple scenes; but almost always they leave me with the same satisfaction I get after I've read a particularly effective short story. I wonder if it has to do with his time in Hollywood writing scripts for episodic television. Or perhaps it's a skill that comes with careful practice and attention to craft. Whatever the reason, his chapters feel like discrete stories while simultaneously adding not only to the contiguous thread of that particular character but also the tapestry of the novel as a whole.
Let's break things down a bit.
There's a term fiction writers use called the hook, which is used to describe a compelling start to a story or a scene. I wouldn't say that Martin uses overtly strong hooks, but they’re certainly compelling. He very consciously immerses us in the scene, and does so in evocative ways. First of all, he uses the convention of "naming" his chapters with the name of the point-of-view character, so we're fairly immersed in who we're reading about early on, but beyond this we're quickly placed in the story, and by that I mean we’re grounded in the world and we know what the characters are doing.
Here's one of many examples from A Dance With Dragons, this one the opening three paragraphs from an early Jon Snow chapter:
The white wolf raced through a black wood, beneath a pale cliff as tall as the sky. The moon ran with him, slipping through a tangle of bare branches overhead, across the starry sky.
“Snow,” the moon murmured. The wolf made no answer. Snow crunched beneath his paws. The wind sighed through the trees.
Far off, he could hear his packmates calling to him, like to like. They were hunting too. A wild rain lashed down upon his black brother as he tore at the flesh of an enormous goat, washing the blood from his side where the goat’s long horn had raked him. In another place, his little sister lifted her head to sing to the moon, and a hundred small grey cousins broke off their hunt to sing with her. The hills were warmer where they were, and full of food. Many a night his sister’s pack gorged on the flesh of sheep and cows and horses, the prey of men, and sometimes even on the flesh of man himself.
We know that this is Jon's chapter, but we also know that he's inhabiting Ghost as the wolf ranges over the northern landscape of Westeros. We are very effectively and economically reminded of who Jon is, who Ghost is, and their abilities.
It isn't merely that we are embedded effectively with Martin's openings; it's that it is almost always done so in medias res. The characters are in motion when the chapter opens, even if it's from a point of view like Dany's and she's merely sitting and listening to petitioners in her audience chamber. If it isn't physical action we're shown at first, it's emotional or political or tactical.
The point is that we feel direction early on, and that initial surge of movement plays out over the course of the chapter. Now, I find most of the pages of his chapters to be fairly low tension, but one thing that stands out to me is the supreme confidence that Martin has in his prose and pacing. We know something is going to happen. We know that there will be a strong, emotionally driven ending that will have impact, an ending that will affect this character, his thread, and the story at large. We know so because Martin has been doing it over and over since the beginning of this epic series. Even early in Book 1, A Game of Thrones, when I wasn't familiar with his style, his mastery over story was so apparent that I was willing to give him a lot of leeway to see what was going to happen, and he always rewarded me for that investment.
So, we have a strong opening, and we have a build in the middle, and as the chapter wears on, our anticipation heightens. Our expectations, driven by the clues sprinkled throughout the chapter, create a sort of tension: it makes us wonder how the chapter is going to close. And when it comes at last, we feel excited, or angry, or like vengeance has been served or needs to be served. Whatever the case, the chapter feels fulfilling. Sometimes the emotional twist at the end—referred to by some as the "button"—lasts a few pages; sometimes it's only a line or two. Either way, I've been carried from the start of the scene in such a way that I feel like the story has advanced or shifted in some significant way, and that just makes me want to get back to that character all the more. Of all Martin’s skills, this one is standing out to me the most as I read the latest installment of his series.
Tregillis: I notice that the word "compelling" keeps popping up. And that seems entirely to be expected, because to my point of view the thing that Martin does extremely well, better than anything else, is the construction of incredibly immersive scenes. So while you're studying the way he does what I'll call "meso-scale" story construction, I'm paying attention to how he does things at a more "micro" level—the scene level.
As you point out, sometimes his chapters comprise just one scene. But sometimes they contain multiple scenes. The thing that strikes me over and over again as I read his work is the way each individual scene—even if stripped of its context, and read solely as a standalone piece—is remarkably immersive. And when I'm immersed so deeply in my reading experience, it automatically becomes compelling. I'd argue that the compulsion to keep reading stems in large part from the sense of immersion. At least, it does for me.
For me as a reader, this ability to construct incredibly immersive scenes is Martin's greatest talent. It's present in much of Martin's work, not only the Ice and Fire books. (Although it's there, I'd suggest, that it's used to its fullest and most powerful extent.) Going further, I'd even venture that it's the foundation for many of the other things for which he's noted. It's the immersion that makes us care about the characters by placing us inside their skin, inhabiting not just their environments but also their wants and needs. The immersion makes A Song of Ice and Fire truly epic by building an entire world that we can see, smell, feel, hear, and even (famously) taste. It's like the difference between glancing at a cheap matte painting of a castle and actually walking the high battlements and feeling the sting of a cold wind in your eyes.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. What about the immersion? How does he do it? I'm still struggling to figure out how all the pieces work, but perhaps the key to what Martin does is his use of a staggering abundance of detail. Martin rarely introduces a new character—even a relatively minor one—without giving the reader a firm grounding in that character's background. There's a mastery to the way he uses just a few brush strokes to fill in a rather complete picture of a spear carrier. Even characters who, shall we say, aren't long for the world get their fair share of description. Take a look at the very first scene of A Game of Thrones, for instance, and note how everybody present is described. The world is rich and populated with living people.
But Martin's fluency with detail isn't confined to characters' wardrobes and familial histories. He's famous for the description of food in his books, to the extent that there's even a companion cookbook to the Song of Ice and Fire. It's hard not to yearn for some lemon cakes and honeyfingers, and to wash them down with some mulled wine, after taking a turn through Martin's saga.
It's the same when it comes to scene setting. Martin's locales are evoked with such detail that I'd be hard pressed to believe he couldn't envision every single stone of Winterfell as though he'd carved them himself. (Which in a way, of course, he did.)
The immersive writing is a prime example of that hoary old writers' dictum "Show, Don't Tell." (I call it hoary because I believe there are times when it is absolutely essential, not to mention acceptable, to relate something in passing. There are no hard-and-fast rules to writing. But, like everything else, it's important to learn why the rules of thumb are there, and then learn how and when to break them. But that's neither here nor there.) In fact, this is a common refrain in Martin's editorial work on the Wild Cards series. One of the most common pieces of feedback I receive on my Wild Cards work is frequently an appeal for more details, and to flesh out scenes that I had originally abbreviated out of concern for length. Striking that balance is still something I struggle with from time to time in my own writing.
I find quite a lot to admire in Martin's work, but his attention to detail is the thing that most impresses me.
Beaulieu: My urge now, of course, is to go back and scrub all occurrences of “compelling” from my opening salvo. And the cookbook! Yes, I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed of The Inn at the Crossroads, the site run by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer, the two lovely ladies who created the Feast of Ice and Fire Cookbook. In a word: yum!
But I digress... I’m glad you mentioned immersion, because I want to touch on something that, for me, adds to it. It’s a small thing, but I think it helps settle us into the mindset of the characters subtly and effectively. It’s the ways in which Martin delivers interior monologue. He does so in two ways. The first is through the narration itself. The narrator is third person point of view, and we get most of the story delivered to us in this way. Martin is very good at not only keeping the viewpoint limited, but keeping it very tight to the character so that we understand their mood, their intent, their background, and so on, through small asides in telling of the tale.
Here’s a short example from A Dance With Dragons, a later part of the same chapter referenced above:
Jon’s cloak hung on a peg by the door, his sword belt on another. He donned them both and made his way to the armory. The rug where Ghost slept was empty, he saw. Two guardsmen stood inside the doors, clad in black cloaks and iron halfhelms, spears in their hands. “Will m’lord be wanting a tail?” asked Garse.
“I think I can find the King’s Tower by myself.” Jon hated having guards trailing after him everywhere he went. It made him feel like a mother duck leading a procession of ducklings.
The simple act of telling us that Jon hates having guards trail after him, along with an elaboration of feeling like a mother duck, does several things at once. It shows what life is like now in Castle Black, not just for Jon, but for the men as well. These are the small brush strokes that Martin uses to paint his world. But they also paint Jon himself. By constantly giving us insight with these small asides, we slowly build Jon’s character in our mind.
The second way that Martin shares the inner workings of his characters is through small bits of true monologue, set aside with italics. A simple example from the very next paragraph (note that I’m trying very hard to avoid spoilers):
Iron Emmett’s lads were well at it in the yard, blunted swords slamming into shields and ringing against one another. Jon stopped to watch a moment as Horse pressed Hop-Robin back toward the well. Horse had the makings of a good fighter, he decided. He was strong and getting stronger, and his instincts were sound. Hop-Robin was another tale. His clubfoot was bad enough, but he was afraid of getting hit as well. Perhaps we can make a steward of him. The fight ended abruptly, with Hop-Robin on the ground.
The thought, Perhaps we can make a steward of him, is a simple aside, but we’re hearing Jon’s thoughts directly now. For just one moment we are Jon. We’re not seeing his thoughts through the lens of the narrator. Through persistent yet judicious use of this technique, we’re brought one level deeper than typical interior monologue. Note also that Martin doesn’t tag this with some sort of attribution. He doesn’t say “Jon thought,” as a less confident writer might. We’re simply presented the thoughts and we absorb them that much more easily.
To be clear, this isn’t some groundbreaking technique—the use of italics for internal monologue has been around for some time—but Martin uses them consistently and effectively to bring me tight to the point-of-view character, and that just helps the level of immersion you talked about so well above.
Tregillis: You raise a very good point about the use of interior monologue. In fact, I'd like to elaborate on this a little bit more. We might go even further when exploring the various ways it can pull us into a character's head so effectively.
Brad is absolutely right that Martin's use of a very tight third-person narration paired with judiciously chosen pieces of true interior monologue ground us very solidly in his characters' points of view. There are subtleties to this technique that I, for one, still must pay conscious attention to when I try to apply it in my own writing. In particular, when we're in a character's head—when we're riding around inside their skull, seeing the world through their eyes, hearing it through their ears—the world takes a different form than it does from any other person's point of view. It looks differently, smells differently, even tastes differently.
A character's experiences, beliefs, hopes, fears, knowledge of the world, even their secret desires and suspicions: all of these things color how they experience the world around them. These are the filters through which they evaluate their environment, including the people around them. What might be innocent or unthreatening to one person, coming from one background and set of experiences, might very well be deadly ominous to somebody else. The same situation, the same environment, even the same dialog can have radically different meanings to different characters. All because of the personal emotional landscape they bring to the interaction.
Consider this excerpt from early in A Feast for Crows. Here, Queen Cersei has just awaken from a very disturbing dream involving her brother Tyrion:
Her bedchamber was dark, but for the lantern one of the intruders held on high. I must show no fear. Cersei pushed back sleep-tousled hair, and said, "What do you want of me?" A man stepped into the lantern light, and she saw his cloak was white. "Jaime?" I dreamt of one brother, but the other has come to wake me.
"Your Grace." The voice was not her brother's. "The Lord Commander said come get you."
See how Martin displays her vulnerability? Cersei is a strong and formidable character throughout the series. But in those first moments of confused and drowsy wakefulness, when the frightening sensations of her nightmare haven't yet receded, she tips her emotional hand to herself, to the reader, and even to the strangers standing alongside her bed. Because in that unguarded moment she reaches out for Jaime. More than that, just for a moment she believes she sees him standing there—even though he isn't—because that's who she secretly wants to see there, far more than anybody else. Her fears and her desires together conspired to shape the way she saw the world.
I doubt a different character would have mistakenly seen Jamie standing there. (Indeed, I question whether any other characters in the series would consider it comforting to find Jamie Lannister looming over their bed!) But when we're there in Cersei's head, it's entirely sensible. And it conveys volumes about her state of mind and her relationship with her brothers. Reaching out for comfort in a vulnerable, unguarded moment is a very human reaction, and one that we readers understand instinctively. To me, the most effective piece of this vignette is the way her subconscious desire to be comforted, and by whom, is conveyed to the reader. It isn't examined or remarked upon; it simply is. It's part of the bedrock of her being, the foundation of Cersei's character, and it draws no more scrutiny from her any more than we examine our own subconscious reactions to the world around us from moment to moment.
Notice, too, how that little snippet seamlessly slides back and forth between external narration (albeit in a very tight third-person point of view, as Brad pointed out) and true internal monologue. They aren't set apart from one another. Instead, they're mingled together, just as the flow of sensory impressions (a dark bedchamber; the presence of intruders) and Cersei's own uncensored interpretations of those impressions (I must show no fear) occur to her. Very much like the way we experience the world.
Beaulieu: Nicely done, Ian, and a very good example of how a deep level of immersion can be achieved by showing such intimate thoughts, and I love the note about not commenting on it. Simply presenting it to the reader. And it’s us, the readers, who make judgments, not the narrator. Powerful stuff, indeed.
The last thing I wanted to mention was something pointed out to me by Brent Weeks. I was interviewing Brent on Speculate, a podcast I run with fellow author Gregory Wilson, and we got to discussing Martin’s work (as epic fantasists will tend to do). And he said something that I thought was brilliant. I had an “ah ha” moment in my writing, right there during that interview. We were talking about exposition, and Brent said that Martin makes it more palatable to the reader by bringing it out when it has an affect on the present. In other words, Martin makes the exposition relevant by giving it weight or importance in the here and now.
I was practically buzzing with excitement after Brent said that, because I’d never really put that together, and I’ve always struggled with when and how to bring in exposition. I’d heard the old chestnut: you make the reader want to know about the exposition before you reveal it. But that sort of implies that you reveal some behavior on the part of the characters that the reader wants to understand and then you talk about the past in order to clear it up. That’s all well and good, but this isn’t what Brent was saying. He was saying that when Martin does it, the past matters. It becomes part of the plot instead of simply supporting it.
That is a bloody brilliant observation, and even more brilliant for Martin to have mastered it and employed it so effectively throughout his series. Because let’s face it, Martin has a lot of backstory. I feel foolish using only italics to set that off. He has a metric ton, a gigaton, of backstory. More than any other writer I can think of (or you, dear reader, can name) because his cast is so wide and each character is so fully formed.
The earliest example I can think of is when King Robert Baratheon rides to Winterfell to ask Ned Stark to be his Hand. Ned was a close ally of Robert when they overthrew the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen. But Martin didn’t bother to stop the story and tell us about the Battle of the Trident and the Mad King’s death at the hands of Jaime Lannister. No, he waited until King Robert came to Winterfell to tell us some small piece of it. Or, to put it another way, history came calling on poor Ned Stark.
Martin does this over and over again, making the past come back to haunt the present in new and interesting ways. Take any one event. The overthrow of the Mad King is one example, but there are others like the history of House Frey and the power it has long commanded, the legend of the Mountain That Rides and his brother, the Hound. The machinations of Littlefinger or Varys. The list goes on an on, and all the while Martin is slowly painting his picture, bringing that past forward to affect the future.
I’ll admit this isn’t something I fully grok yet, but I’ll be paying close attention to it as I plot my next novel and begin revealing backstory.
Tregillis: Brent's observation, and your elaboration of it, strikes a chord with me, too. It's reminiscent of something that another New Mexico writer has pointed out to me. Daniel Abraham posits—and the more I think about this, the more convinced I am that he's on to something—that an essential component of good storytelling boils down to effective "information control." Now that I hear what you and Brent are saying, it sounds to me as though you've all hit upon the same insight. (And I'm glad I have the chance to eavesdrop on the conversation and steal a chunk of that wisdom for myself.) These strike me as different ways of saying the same thing.
Backstory threatens to become the dreaded indigestible expository lump when it's laid down too thickly, or too extensively, or too intrusively. Avoiding all of those pitfalls boils down to finding just the right balance between moving the story forward and telling the readers things they need to know. That's information control. And ideally, the things the reader needs to know will also be things she or he wants to know at that point in the story. Again, that's a form of information control. And a fairly subtle one.
Of course, information control can also mean deliberately not conveying information at a particular point in the story. Strategically withholding information from the reader is one of the oldest techniques in the book for generating tension—after all, that's essentially the basis of the cliffhanger. And Martin's Ice and Fire books certainly make use of that technique from time to time.
But even that isn't quite as straightforward as it sounds. I think a successful cliffhanger works because it hits us just when we're dying to know what happens next. When we're deeply invested in the adventures of a particular character, or emotionally invested in a character's own wants and needs, or their wellbeing. (Or, in the case of a hated character, their comeuppance!) And then a sudden reversal or revelation kicks the story spinning in a new direction—but into uncharted territory, because we can't see (yet) where it goes next. For me, a particularly effective cliffhanger in Martin's series (and here I'm tap-dancing to avoid spoilers) pertained to Arya Stark in A Feast for Crows, for all the reasons I just listed. She suffers a rather surprising reversal just at the very end of the last scene in her point of view in that book. (It certainly took me by surprise.)
But if it's not done well, the withholding of information tends to generate confusion rather than tension. The former is sometimes confused with the latter, especially in the works of beginning writers. I, for one, frequently made that mistake in my early writing. A deliberately vague context rarely makes a good "hook" (though beginning writers often try to use it that way, as I certainly did). It doesn't cause the reader to ask, "Why is this happening?" Rather, it stimulates the reader to wonder, "What is happening, and why should I care?" The cliffhanger is used at the opposite end of a piece of story—it makes the reader desperate to know, "But what happens next?"
The cliffhanger is only one effective technique for withholding information, though, and it's certainly not the only one that Martin uses in his series. He's also very good at dangling an enticing piece of worldbuilding before the reader, and then doling out intriguing hints about it in agonizingly slow fashion. And again, that's terrific information control. I, for one, would love to know as much about the Wall as possible, especially the logistics of its construction. Granted, that's all beside the point of the story, and Martin is writing epic fantasy rather than an engineering-heavy hard SF tale. So it's not surprising that the story doesn't veer into such a discussion. Still, though, there's a part of me that perks up every time some previously unknown detail about the Wall, or its history, pops up in the narrative.
Intriguing questions like these pervade the series. Some are directly relevant to the characters we're following, while some are of a more general nature. Who was Jon Snow's mother? What exactly was the Doom of Valyria? When I'm reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I occasionally find myself wishing the author weren't quite so parsimonious with certain pieces of information...