Tuesday 9 July 2013

Game of Thrones Storytelling Tips

by Caroline Lawrence

somewhere in the middle of the series
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Jojen Reed (via G.R.R. Martin)

Generally, I don't like fantasy.

Until recently, the only fantasy novel I ever loved was T.H. White's The Once and Future King, mainly for its amazing scenes written from the point of view of fish, birds and animals after young Arthur is wizarded into their bodies by Merlin.

But in the past week I have become squealing fangirl. Along with bazillions of others, including historian Tom Holland and politico journalist Toby Young, I'm in awe of George R.R. Martin, creator of Game of Thrones TV show, based on his fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

I've enjoyed watching all three seasons on TV, and had been giving all the credit to HBO, which had produced some impressive drama series, including my favourite historical drama: Deadwood.

Then last week I downloaded one of the Game of Thrones audiobooks – A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold – to see what the underlying books were like. As a result, I am now a total convert to the brilliance of George R.R. Martin, or GRRM, as his fans call him.

Listening to this audiobook, I have been struck again and again by his storytelling skill. He uses tricks I know well, but that I often forget to employ. GRRM inspires my own writing even as I listen.

Here are a dozen great techniques of the craft that this master storyteller employs.

1. No good scenes, only great ones.
The American film director Howard Hawkes once famously said that a good movie 'has three great scenes and no bad ones.' But Martin raises the bar. Every single scene of the audiobook I'm listening to at the moment is great. The following points all help to achieve this.

2. multiple personalities.
By switching from one character's POV to another's, GRRM keeps the story racing along. It also keeps the action from becoming monotonous as we go from the head of a 9-year-old girl assassin to a middle-aged dwarf. Also, by putting us right in the heads of his characters, Martin makes us care about them, even the misfits.

3. Unpredictable storylines.
My husband says of Patrick O'Brian's books: ‘A storm is more exciting than a battle and a dinner-party can be more entertaining than either of those.’ Martin has the gift of making you feel exactly this. We read an account of a wedding, ferry ride or council-meeting knowing that anything can happen.

4. Torture and kill your darlings.
Martin’s willingness to torment, maim and kill off major characters enrages some fans. But without this ruthlessness we wouldn't find his stories half as compelling. The mortality looming over each character gives us a queasy sense that anything can happen.

5. Seeding in description.
A masterful storyteller sprinkles sensory detail in every chapter and doesn't shovel a great load of description into the middle of action. Notice how often descriptions of characters eating occur in Martin’s scenes. Eating is good because it involves all five senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. I think that's also why he uses so much sex. It's sensory as well as sensual.

6. Scene deepening
I've just listened to a scene where a couple make love in a basement room full of dragon skulls. By placing your characters in an exotic or compelling setting – created by seeded description (No. 5) – every scene becomes enthralling. The setting can be ironic or symbolic to contrast or underline what is happening in the scene. Hollywood screenwriters often call this 'scene deepening'.

7. Sexposition.
The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder coined the phrase 'Pope in the Pool' after watching a movie in which a planned heist was being described as the pope paddled in his Vatican swimming pool. Make exposition painless by having something interesting happening at the same time. But GRRM has discovered something better than the pope in his pool. SEX! He uses sex so much to keep us interested during information dumps that television critic Myles McNutt coined the term 'sexposition'.

8. Original characters.
A teenage bride is brutalised by the hulking groom who has been foisted upon her by an arranged marriage. What does she do? She goes to the local prostitute for advice on how to win his heart. Horribly sexist? Maybe. But show me another character in contemporary pop media like her. GRRM didn't even have to add Tyrian. Or Arya. Or Jaime. He had me at Daenerys.

9. Odi et amo.
Speaking of Jaime. Get your readers to really detest a character. Then refine them through suffering and get their detractors rooting for them. Odi et amo, said the Latin poet Catullus.  'I love you and I hate you'. Joss Whedon did this with Spike. Do we love him or hate him? Stop messing with our emotions. No, wait! Don't stop!

10. No clichés
They say avoid clichés in your writing, but how many of us succeed? The only time I've caught GRRM using a cliché is when he puts it in the mouth of a character. Otherwise he's sublimely original, with analogies that make me want to grab strangers on the tube and share what I’ve just heard.

Gemma Whelan in Game of Thrones
11. No capped teeth
One of the biggest criticisms levelled against The White Queen is the Timotei hair, posh southern accents and eyeshadow. (Read Sarah Gristwood's great review HERE) What detractors rarely mention is the overall beauty of the actors in these period dramas. GRRM's heroes are not all square-jawed alpha-males or blonde beauties. There are cripples, misfits and children. HBO has done well by casting actors who are not conventionally attractive (or wearing makeup) but who win us over by force of personality.

12. Make it REAL.
In GRRM’s books, things feel real. A warrior who loses his right hand does not instantly learn to fight just as well with his left. Arrows don't always find their mark. Characters get hungry, sleepy, sick and use the latrine. Even the 'fantasy' elements ring true. His ice-wall mammoths remind me of Hannibal's elephants in the Alps. And his dragons feel more real that any horse I've ever written.

And that's why I think Game of Thrones is the best historical fiction being written at the moment. 


Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. Like you, I am not usually a fan of fantasy but Game of Thrones feels like history in all it's realism and brutality, down to the finest detail.

I like your analysis too: what separates Martin from the run of the mill fantasy authors. Great post.

adele said...

Brilliant post! I am like you an fantasy no goer but am almost persuaded. The only thing keeping me from it is the numbers of beheadings, cuttings off etc to which I'm a tad allergic. I can't even watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Maybe reading is the way to go and not watching. I love what you say about method of writing and will take that to heart!

Juliette said...

Dany, Tyrion and Jon were always my favourite characters before Jaime eclipsed them all - he IS Spike! (right down to the murdering people, losing his fighting ability and blond hair...). I sort of missed Dany and Drogo's much nicer wedding night from the book when the TV made it so much more obviously a rape scene, but it was great to see her take control in the next episode!

Essie Fox said...

I am obsessed - as those who follow me on Twitter will know, and are probably tired of hearing. Adele - treat yourself! You will not be sorry. This is story telling at its very best.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Caroline - you've just helped me decide which audiobook to buy next!

C.J.Busby said...

I haven't seen the TV series, and almost can't bear to because the books are so magnificent! But I've heard good things, so might give it a try. I agree with all you've said, the writing is gripping and very clever. My husband is definitely not a fantasy fan, but I persuaded him to try the first book and was hugely amused to watch the process whereby he got hooked (a complete fan by a third of the way through...)

Annis said...

Indeed, and this, as well as Tolkien and many others icluding the pulp fiction greats, are the reason why you'll find a large percentage of historical fiction fans are also fans of the fantasy/swords and sorcery genres.

Jill Berry said...

Really enjoyed your post which helped me to think about why this writing is so successful. I actually do enjoy fantasy (fiction and televised) but hadn't seen any GoT on TV as I don't have satellite - just heard about its popularity. So I downloaded the first book onto my Kindle as I set off to France on holiday.

I loved it - found it so gripping and involving. I'm fascinated to reflect on how certain writers manage to generate so much emotional involvement on the part of the reader so that you care about what happens to the characters (especially those which are deeply flawed) - and often, as you say, what happens to them here is brutal. But I found an internal consistency in the novel that meant you accepted the writer's choices - it all makes sense within the world he creates.

So am very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and have already asked my husband to buy me the boxed set of DVDs for Christmas!

Katherine Roberts said...

I'm a fantasy fan! I love LOTR, David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, etc.... but I got a bit fed up of huge long series so haven't got around to reading this one yet. Must give the TV adaptation a try, though - sounds good. (Is it on Freeview yet?)

Caroline, have you read ASH by Mary Gentle? From what you say here, I think you might like that book, too.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for your comments, everybody! I've enjoyed reading them.