Sunday, March 10, 2013

How Game of Thrones Improved My Writing Game: What a Literary Author Can Learn from a Bestseller


As a literary fiction reader and writer, I’ve always eschewed the bestseller.  For one thing, I always felt that bestsellers didn’t need my attention (and plenty of other wonderful books did), and for another, I was under the impression that the ‘bestseller’ had a tendency to be more plot than character driven, with racy stories that wouldn’t sustain my love of language or desire to read about characters I cared deeply about.  More fool me.

Though I would never have read Game of Thrones if my son hadn't insisted, not only am I enjoying it as a reader, I'm finding plenty of lessons for me as an author.  Here are some of the key ones:

The art of building suspense

Martin has perfected the art of building suspense, particularly through the use of the cliffhanger. This is critical in Game of Thrones since there are so many plot twists and multiple points of view (POV) that without intense suspense, it wouldn’t be possible to maintain the momentum. Each chapter ends with a mini-cliffhanger, building up suspense throughout the chapter through foreshadowing and the use of symbolism. Each book ends with major plot threads dangling deliciously, bringing the reader anxiously back, in some cases many years later (there were five and six years respectively between the last two novels in the series). Noting the way Martin uses POV and characterization to create these cliffhangers, how often he does it and how natural it seems in the context of the books, is hugely instructive.

The art of world building

Though I never thought I liked Fantasy, Martin has created a world so engrossing, so naturalistic, and so oddly familiar (reminiscent of Medieval Europe), that it’s not hard to believe it. There are no ‘silly’ characters – no mercurial elves or big dumb orks, however, there is magic, and it’s introduced so slowly and subtly over the course of the books, that never once does Martin strain a reader’s credulity. This is world building at its most subtle and sophisticated, and for a writer, like me, who is drawn to verisimilitude, but who wants to explore the strange and often magical world of synchronicity, dreams, psychological drama, and possibly a world where Newtonian physics are bent, it's very helpful to read a book where dragons, magicians, zombies, and trees with faces seem utterly naturalistic.

The art of changing character POV

Every chapter in Game of Thrones takes a different POV and there are dozens of POV characters. In the hands of a lesser author, this would be a hard trick to manage. Indeed I’ve read books where this kind of view switch is irritating, especially when you are engrossed in a situation, however, Martin does this masterfully, partly because his characters are so richly drawn, that even though you regret moving off one POV, you’re pleased to be back into another.

One of the biggest lessons for me as an author was not to judge a book by its sales, or by its genre classification. Game of Thrones is not the only bestselling book series that is far better than the hype around it (or the movie made of it) would suggest. Quite frankly, the way in which George R R Martin has written these novels is as literary as any literary fiction. I’m finding that Game of Thrones is not only pure (slightly guilty) pleasure to read, but slowing myself down to admire the beautiful use of language, the deep, intense characterization, and the rich, subtle textures of the work is more powerful a tool for me as a writer than attending a workshop or reading a ‘how-to’ book. I often find myself putting the book down and rushing over to my own WIP to rework something or incorporate a technique that Martin has made obvious to me. I’m now officially shelving my literary pomposity and opening my mind to a broad spectrum of genres, including, where appropriate, the ‘bestseller’.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com

14 comments:

  1. I understand exactly! Too much Tolkien-lite ruins the depth and richness of good fantasy, which should be about real people--regardless of species. Martin is amazing.

    KG McAbee

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    1. The world of a book has to make sense to me. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy great sci fi or fantasy, but just that characterisation always has to be deep enough for me to understand and accept the action.

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  2. I don't read a lot of fantasy, but think I'm going to read Games of Thrones. Thanks

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    1. Mary Jo and D. Jean, the book isn't for the fainthearted! It's pretty intense with a fair dose of violence and overt sexual themes. Nothing is gratuitous, but there is plenty that is disturbing, so please don't read it if that bothers you in a book. From what I've heard, the HBO miniseries is far worse (though I haven't seen it).

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  3. Great insights. I might pick it up myself.

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  4. As a writer GoT is most definitely worth reading for all the reasons you mentioned . . . and as a reader? Because it's good!

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    1. Agree Widdershins - above all, it's a good read, as all books should be.

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  5. Maggie, great description of Games of Thrones. I read and write fantasy, but have been shying away from deeply involved reads. It's something I wouldn't ordinarily read of late, but your post peaked my interest.

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    1. The books are surprisingly quick reads, despite the number of pages and small text.

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  6. What a delightful discovery for you. I felt the same way when I read Water for Elephants. The writing inspired me. Thanks for sharing

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  7. Maggie, I've been much on the same page as you. I'm not sure I can turn that page in spite of the cogent argument you make. I'll try.

    BTW, our new book of poetry is now up on Kindle--all ready to celebrate Earth Day when it arrives. http://bitly.com/EarthDayKind.

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  8. Hmm. Interesting. Maybe I'll have to give it a try too. I do think we, as writers, can learn something from almost everything we read--even if it's how NOT to do it. Thanks for this enlightening post, Magdalena.

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  9. So intriguing, I'll have to find and read it--guess I must have been snuggled in my igloo--had never heard of it...

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  10. Thanks Magdalena for the way you have used these books to draw out writing lessons which we can benefit from, whether or not we read the books.

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