George RR Martin, the master

I started reading George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire reluctantly. My expectations were low. The book didn’t start well, with a confusing jumble of voices, and an omniscient point of view that added to the sense of dislocation. But by the end of the first chapter, Martin’s hook had caught me. It wasn’t the action that drew me in, although the first chapter does contain a dramatic sword fight. It wasn’t the characters, who were not particularly well drawn, nor long lived. It was the prose. The words were magical, delicate, full of mystery and power. They conveyed much more than the literal flow of events.

“Who goes there?”

The woods gave answer: the rustle of leaves, the icy rush of the stream, a distant hoot of a snow owl.

He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Branches stirred gently in the wind, scratching at one another with wooden fingers.

One of the mysterious and terrifying Others is coming to attack the men of the Night’s Watch in the frozen forest, north of the Wall.

Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold.

All of Martin’s writing is rich with description. His settings, characters and battles are painted so vividly the book almost reads itself.

Description as action

Description for its own sake slows a story and can weaken its punch. Martin does sometimes give a little too much detail for my taste, but the power of his writing is that he uses description as action.

The visitors poured through the castle gates in a river of gold and silver and polished steel, three hundred strong, a pride of bannermen and knights, of sworn swords and freeriders. Over their heads a dozen golden banners whipped back and forth in the northern wind, emblazoned with the crowned stag of Baratheon.

Look at those verbs – poured and whipped. As much happens in Martin’s descriptions as in his battles.

Characters brought to life

Even minor characters in A Game of Thrones are painted with a vivid brush.

Janos Slynt was a butcher’s son, and he laughed like a man chopping meat.

When brought together, they spark off each other, often explosively.

Viserys came upon her as sudden as a summer storm, his horse rearing beneath him as he reined up too hard. “You dare!” he screamed at her. “You give commands to me? To me?”

Repetition

Martin defines his characters through motifs and tropes, and, like Stephen King, demonstrates that it is impossible to repeat them too often.

There were times – not many, but a few – when Jon Snow was glad that he was a bastard.

“A bastard can have honor too,” Jon said.

“Let me give you some counsel, bastard,” Lannister said. “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not.”

He favored Jon with a rueful grin. “Remember this, boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs.”

A reproducible formula

Reading Martin can strike despair into the heart of an aspiring author. His prose is so rich, his stories so gripping, his characters so well drawn. Yet it ought to be clear from what I’ve written that Martin’s writing is formulaic too – not in a bad way – and his formula can be used as a model by other writers.

  • Point of view is critical, and is the reason why the very first chapter of the first book is weaker than the others. It uses an omniscient point of view, moving from character to character, giving a diffused effect, and failing to engage us fully with any of the three characters. Every other chapter in his books is written from a definite point of view, and Martin gives us plenty of characters to let us see his vast world.
  • His characters are very clearly drawn. Each has one or several motifs that are mentioned again and again and again.
  • Description is rich and detailed, but always appears as action.
  • Action, description and dialogue are combined in each paragraph. A paragraph continues for as long as one character is moving, or seeing, or thinking, or speaking. That can make for long paragraphs, yet it gives a consistent approach that helps readers to follow the prose, and also serves as a formula for Martin himself to write.
  • Martin’s sentences are usually active in style, so instead of writing, “There was a sound of swords in the courtyard,” he writes, “The courtyard rang to the song of swords.” Choosing the subject and object of each sentence is key to opening up this style of writing.
  • Martin is a man of few words. You may laugh at this, as his books are vast, his writing detailed, and his pacing measured and never rushed. Yet study his sentences. You will rarely find one that could have been compressed into fewer words without changing its meaning.

Martin the master

Within a few pages of reading I was hooked. Instead of derivative writing, I found masterful prose that made me gasp. A Game of Thrones will not be to everyone’s taste. Sex and violence abound – although not quite as much as in the TV version. There’s magic and misogyny too, although Martin is not misogynistic, merely some of his characters, and the world they inhabit.

Anyone who enjoys fantasy or is willing to try the genre will find a modern classic. And budding authors can take inspiration from Martin’s writing, and perhaps learn some lessons. Some come away disheartened, despairing that they could ever write something in the same league. They should bear in mind that George RR Martin had five novels and many short stories published before A Game of Thrones, and that the series has so far taken him more than twenty years of work and is not yet done.

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7 responses to “George RR Martin, the master

  1. I’ve read the series so far, and there’s a lot to like about it, and a lot not to like. I found the number of different plotlines to be excessive, especially since he keeps adding new ones in later books, and very few of them ever intersect. It makes it hard for me to care very much about his characters when there are just so many of them to keep track of. And the misogyny did bother me, especially the way that female characters are often simultaneously vulnerable and naked, but he doesn’t do the same to his male characters. That being said, there are a couple of characters that he’d better not kill off before the last book, or I’m going to be very angry at him!

    There’s a great video from Paul and Storm dedicated to GoT, called “Write Like the Wind” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7lp3RhzfgI

  2. Martin’s writing has frequently made me wonder if I had what it takes to be a writer. But he admitted in an interview years ago that he sometimes reworks chapters extensively to get the right effect. It helps to remember that we’re seeing the final product, not the first draft, or all the revisions that took place to get that polished effect.

    And I actually find Martin’s strength to be his characters. Many authors struggle to give each of their characters a unique voice, but Martin seems to be a master at it. What hooked me with his work was a desire to see what happened to Jon, Tyrion, Arya, Sam, and others.

    That said, while I agree he definitely knows how to write beautiful passages, I often found the pacing of his books maddeningly tedious at times. Some of my friends, big fans of the show, have found the books unreadable, largely due to the pacing. I know I came away from the third book (the last I read) feeling that it was bloated, and resolved not to read any more until the series was finished. (I think that was c. 2004.)

    • Yes, those words didn’t fall out of his head and onto the page. They were crafted, worked and re-worked, then edited, critiqued and re-worked again. I wonder how much he throws away – loads, I suspect. Book one is actually very tightly constructed, while the later books do become more bloated.
      I agree with the pacing of book 3. In the UK, this book is published as two separate volumes, which makes for absurd numbering (book 3, part 2). A brave publisher would have edited this book ruthlessly and published it as a single, smaller volume.

      • Actually, now that you mention it, I don’t recall being put out by the pacing in the first two books. I probably wouldn’t have made it to the third book if I had. My memory of it probably comes largely from that third book, reinforced somewhat by the later reports I got about the fourth and fifth books.

        I think I was also spooked by the fact that, at the time, the number of books in the series seemed to be climbing precipitously. The cover of the first book said it was the first of a trilogy, the second that it was the second of four, and the third that it was the third of five. And after finishing the third, I found Martin’s site where he admitted it might be six. I smelled a repeat of the Wheel of Time bloat. Martin’s recent teasing that it might be even more than seven made me wonder if, like WoT, the series will inevitably have to be wrapped up posthumously.

        Totally agreed that the editors should have pushed back. I give the TV show producers a lot of kudos for cutting most of the bloat from the later books.

  3. I haven’t read the books, only seen part of the show. I’d be tempted to read them based on your post, but I really do like endings. Series tend to get on my nerves, mainly because either I don’t get to the end (the story peters out) or the ending is disappointing. After following for that long, the ending had better be worth it!

    On starting with omniscient, I think I see what you mean even without reading it myself. Since there are so many characters, it makes sense to set the tone of the story with a wide-scope, but omniscient is hard to pull off for an attention-getting first chapter unless it’s basically 3rd person with a hint of omniscient (For instance, “She didn’t know that…blah blah blah…” then onto 3rd person by another name.) I need to get into the head of a character, usually, right off the bat.

    • If you like closure, GoT probably isn’t ready for you until Martin completes the series.
      And yes, agreed on omniscient openings. I always find the first chapter of a new book a struggle. Everything is unfamiliar. Getting into the head of one character and seeing some small part of the world up close gets me interested more quickly.

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