A Game of Thrones Trailer to See Us On Our Way

Unfortunately, my friends, today is our last day with George R.R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire series.

But don’t worry. If you need your fix…the HBO series kicks off this Sunday at 9:00. To whet your appetite, here’s one of the trailers (I picked this one because I love the song in the back ground – that’s Florence and the Machine if you wann hunt it down….)

Themes of Strength and Weakness

Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark, Jamie Lannister, Tywin Lannister… What do all of these characters have in common? Power and strength. These are the guys who have the guts, the glory, and/or the gold.

Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen… Here are the underdogs. They don’t have the strength, they don’t have the political clout, and most of them have been pretty poorly treated by those who are supposed to support them – like Daenerys being sold off by her brother for the promise of an army.

I love the way Martin draws these characters because they’re both extreme, and balanced, which is no small feat. Robert Baratheon, the conquering hero, has everything. He’s got the gorgeous wife, a whole kingdom, a life of luxury, and Eddard Stark, the strong and loyal friend. The only problem is that for every strength, he’s got a matched weakness. His gorgeous wife hates his guts and is having an affair, the kingdom sits on the brink of unrest, and Robert’s love of the physical pleasures of life prove his undoing.

Eddard, well, Eddard was doomed from the start. He was too honest, too just, too fair to survive in the cuthroat world he got tossed into. A little more political savvy, a little bit of manipulation, and maybe he would have gotten out alive. But, if he had done those things, he wouldn’t be Ned Stark. His best qualities proved to be his doom.

On the underdog side, let’s talk about Arya. Arya was instantly one of my favorite characters. The little girl with a little sword. Hardly anyone takes her seriously. She doesn’t have much physical strength, she’s a young girl, she’s very much her father’s daughter, and once Ned is executed, she’s in an incredibly vulnerable position. And yet… Arya is a scrapper. What she lacks in other areas, she makes up for in pure force of will. This is one determined gal and those who cross her better watch their backs.

Tyrion, portrayed excellently by Peter Dinklage, has an obvious physical disadvantage. His father, as a result, treats him with disdain. Everywhere he turns, Tyrion is underestimated, mocked, and ignored. People are constantly blowing him off. The only thing he really has on his side is the family money. Oh, and his razor sharp mind. By turns callous and compassionate, Tyrion pays attention to what others miss and those who underestimate him pay the price, including his father.

In Martin’s world, the characters with the most obvious strength often have the biggest vulnerabilities and those with the most obvious disadvantages turn out to be the characters whose good side I’d most definitely want to be on. This balance means that although the world is larger than life and run through with magic, the characters stay real. Like real life, nothing, and no one, is black and white. So, we can’t help it if, every now and then, we root for the “bad” guy or find ourselves apalled by the “good” guy. We also can’t help it if, as we read, who we consider to be the “good guys” vs. the “bad guys” changes.

It keeps things interesting. It keeps us turning pages (or watching episodes).

When the Learning Curve is Steep – Sometimes HBO Can Help

Confession time: I watched the entire first season of the Game of Thrones HBO series before I read the books.

I know. I know. It was very Impure Reader of me. I should be thrown on the hellfire that awaits those who use CliffsNotes to write research papers. (Yeah, I know! There are people out there that do that! Not readers of this blog, of course….But they are rumored to exist.)

My friend John will not be meeting me in that .5 level of hell. Because he decided to read the books before seeing the series – if he ever, in fact, watches the series.

For the readers who are pure of heart and pure of intent…I give one warning whilst pursuing A Game of Thrones as a reading adventure: it might take a bit to get into the story. George R.R. Martin has this uncanny ability to write about a whole new world. Perhaps that should be Whole New World. Operative word: Whole.

He has a cast the size of four or five armies. He has the lineages of those characters stretching back five generations. He has two continents worth of weather, culture, clothing, courting, and infighting to tell you about. And all of this stuff is richly imagined and well-executed.

But it is a lot.

Once upon a time, while taking Shakespeare, my professor told my class that utilizing CliffsNotes, watching the Bard’s plays – or the movie versions of the plays – and using Wikipedia to help us gather the plot details was not a cheat. His argument was that Shakespeare’s language wasn’t familiar to most people and that as soon as you got past “What the hell is going on?” you could get to the meat of the matter. He told us to utilize whatever was at our disposal in order to facilitate understanding. Then the discussions could really get going.

While I won’t go so far as to say Martin is Shakespeare – after all, he’s writin’ in easily understood English – it might speed the process of getting into the first book if you have witnessed the relationships between the characters with your eyes. Martin does a great job of creating these characters but sometimes the names are tricky: relatives are named after one another, just like in real life; some character names are spelled very similarly (i.e. Tywin and Tyrion); and there’s always a House of ________ surname to try and keep track of. Plus, if you watch the show, you have the added bonus of knowing how to pronounce all the names.

The important thing to know: once you’re in the story, you’re in the story. It’s a rare book/series that makes you blink when you turn the last page, surprised to see the real world staring back at you. (“Hello, children. Where did you come from?”)

I might have considered this steep learning curve a negative for the book series, except there’s such a work ethic embedded into the text – you just know Martin did a crap-ton of work and that should be respected…and you just know deep down in your readerly soul that it’ll pay off.

So have you guys ever ‘cheated’ and watched the movie version before the book? Have you ever read a story where the details were increadibly focused? Where the world seems like it could exist right now, just on a different planet?  That’s some imagination right there! 

Westeros The Super Map!!!

Oh, this is good, people. For those of you who love Game of Thrones you must go check out this kickass map of George R.R. Martin’s fictional world!

You may now go about your business.

Scene Breaks: Martin Doesn’t Do ’em

Recently, in the critiques I’ve been giving for my writers group, I’ve taken to pointing out that we, as a group, don’t generally use scene breaks. (Have you ever noticed you start pointing out bits and pieces in other people’s writing that you think you might need in your own? I do that. A lot.) This strikes me as problematic because a story without scene breaks gets bogged down in the minutiae. You start to show the characters going through every single door, you show the characters as they dress, as they change television channels, as they do all the boring things that have nothing to do with the story.

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the idea that shorter chapters = faster reads? I believe the same kinda deal goes on with scene breaks. You leave the reader hanging; you leave the reader wanting more. That way they turn the page and Voila! they get to your satisfying end. Seems to be a way to go.

And yet, here is George R.R. Martin. Bestseller.

He doesn’t use scene breaks. At all.

Turn to any chapter in the Song of Fire and Ice series. At this exact moment I have A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings sitting right beside me. I’ve read both. Just this past minute I flipped through several chapters, just looking for the little gap of white space that indicates a scene break. I was to be thwarted in my search. Except for the chapter breaks, it’s one long narrative. No scene breaks.

The question is: Is this a problem?

Well, I’d say yes and no. Yes, because the books do go for a long, long, long time. Both of the books are over 700 pages. Part of this might be that Martin – to this reader at least – gets bogged down in minutiae. I love that his world is so developed…but do I really need to know the details of every single outfit? For example, from a “Bran” chapter in A Clash of Kings:

The sight of Bran in his basket drew stares from those who had not see it before, but he had learned to ignore stares. At least he had a good view; on Hodor’s back, he towered over everyone. The Walders were mounting up, he saw. They’d brough fine armor up from the Twins, shining silver plate with enameled blue chasings. Big Walder’s crest was shaped like a castle, while Little Walder favored streamers of blue and grey silk. Their shields and surcoats also set them apart from each other. Little Walder quartered the twin towers of Frey with the brindled boar of his grandmother’s House and plowman of his mother’s: Crakehall and Darry, respectively. Big Walder’s quarterings were the tree-and-ravens of House Blackwood and the twining snakes of the Paeges.”

And there are quite a few passages like this in both books. Again, great world-building detail, but I think it mostly unecessary.

That being said, I think Martin -in general – gets away with a lack of scene breaks because his chapters are very focused on single characters, and watching the interplay between the characters – understanding their maneuverings – creates tension in his story.

Martin’s chapters, as focused as they are, aren’t long either. (They’re not short, but they’re not long.) He keeps the scenes tight – so there’s really not a great need for scene breaks. There’s action in his scenes. The characters don’t just sit there, so whenever a new character pops up, the reader is interested in what this guy is gonna do this time…and how will it effect the efforts of the other characters you just read about?

He creates movement. This is a skill that writers must develop, regardless of whether they use scene breaks or not. For as many words, as many pages, and as many characters as Martin has created, there’s actually a surprising lack of superfluous information. (Like clothes.) Flipping through the pages, it was kinda hard to find the passage above as a useless piece. Every time I thought I’d found a piece that could be cut I found a reason it should be left in: this passage is all character development, that passage paints the scene – the fighting will be confused if the reader doesn’t understand where that tree is. A led to Z almost every time.

Do you guys embrace scene breaks? How do you decide to structure your scenes?

Giving Characters Their Arc

I’m always hesitant when it comes to a Dramatis Personae list anywhere in a book. What it means to me is this: there are too many characters to handle. It means there are too many threads to follow through to a full conclusion. It means that there is so much information gathered in the text of a novel that you need notes in order to understand it.

Generally, this turns me off.

And George RR Martin has a loooooong cast list at the back of his books.

When I picked up A Game of Thrones, I was very nervous about it. My brain didn’t seem up to the task of handling such a large group of people. And, honestly, if I hadn’t seen and fallen in love with the HBO series, I would have been beyond lost. It took a while to put the names with the characters for me – even with the visuals provided by the television series.

However, I was greatly, greatly impressed with how Martin handled his characters. After a little effort, they were easy to track and follow.

I think the ease of adjustment came from how Martin created complete arcs for each of his characters – especially in A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series. And the best example is of  Daenerys, the exiled heir to the Iron Throne, in this case. She goes from a child, with a child’s sensibilities at the beginning of the book, to a believable leader of nations by the end.

This arc for Daenerys is so complete that Martin lifted her sections bodily out of A Game of Thrones and created a whole novella: “The Blood of the Dragon.” It proceeded to win a Hugo award.

Daenerys’s story can be marked Point A to Point Z in A Game of Thrones.

SPOILERS!:
She is an innocent married into a barbarian horde, she learns to fight and love within that horde, she faces down her bullying brother, is faced with the death of her child and husband, confronts and kills the person who murders her child and husband, and then hatches dragons…earning her heir-to-the-throne rank rather than just having it handed to her. Pretty badass.
END SPOILERS!

I’ve never tried to lift a whole storyline based on one character before, but that’s probably a good exercise for revision –

Here’s what I’ve come up with…

Pick a character, any main or semi-main character in your story. Find all of his/her scenes. Pull them out (i.e. copy and paste them into a new document). Read it through. Does it read as a whole story? Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end? Is there some kind of growth cycle or does he/she remain painfully unchanged all the way through? Adjust accordingly.This also strikes me as a useful revision technique because it forces you into some distance from the main plotline sometimes. And in order to revise gracefully, we all need some space from the original story.

What do you guys think? Have you allowed your characters their full development? Have you decided that not all characters will get a full development? (Because that’s totally legit too.)