The other day when I was playing with my new Kindle, I was checking out George R.R. Martin’s latest book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons. I’ve been reading the series for a couple years now, and I immensely enjoyed the first three. Lately, I have been plodding through the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, wondering if I was just getting lazy or if something was truly wrong with the book. After reading the reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, I realised that it wasn’t me; it was Martin.
According to the reviews, most people agree that the first three books are excellent, and I concur, but around the fourth installment, it appears that George began stalling. I have read countless tips on writing that speak of including conflict or tension or something that advances the plot in every scene, yet throughout A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, we are treated to endless scenes where nothing happens.
People complained that Martin filled up hundreds of pages with descriptions of food and locales, letting his characters ruminate instead of take action to resolve their dilemmas, and maddening repetitions of certain phrases such as “You know nothing, Jon Snow” and “CORN! CORN! CORN!
This intrigued me because the contrast between the first three books and their successors is striking; I actually revisited my copy of A Game of Thrones just last night to study the first couple of scenes and to try to figure out why it worked so well.
I was surprised to find that Martin’s first scenes actually rely quite a bit on inserting backstory and references to the world of Westeros amidst the characters’ interactions. The key difference between these descirptive passages and the ones in later books is that they actually mattered: When Lady Catelyn visits Ned in the godswood, we get glimpses into her past in the Riverlands, and similarly, when King Robert and Ned go into the crypts of Winterfell to pay respects to Lyanna, we are fed bits of the backstory of the Battle of the Trident, vital to our understanding of future events and Robert and Ned’s characters.
As I have been working on my own opening scenes, I have been overly concerned with delving right into the action as so many writers suggest; but something still does not feel right about them. Although it should be remembered that they are only first drafts, after examining them a bit more, I realised that the reader does not have much reason to care about my characters yet. My scenes have felt a bit… sparse, and I can now see that they’re in need of some beefing up.
On the other hand, once you have established a certain amount of rapport between your reader and your world, there is no need to continue long-winded descriptions of every dress worn by your antagonist or every building in your hero’s town. I know that, when I saw the prolific output of writers like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and even Tolkien, I was impressed by the sheer volume of writing they produced. Yet bigger is most certainly not always better, and it is clear– through my own experience and the opinions of other readers– that it becomes burdensome and more work than leisure to wade through volume after volume with countless characters and little plot progression.
I consider myself a solid representative for fantasy fans, and as such, I ought to have more patience than the average reader to stick with epic-length series. But you know the author has done something wrong when even his most loyal fans lose interest in the story.
Achieving that balance between just enough detail and just enough plot progression is no easy task. On the one hand, we need enough description to allow the readers to immerse themselves in our world and empathise with our characters, but on the other hand, the reader also yearns for resolution, and if the plot does not maintain a steady pace, he can feel trapped in the details. A story does not have to be of epic length in order to be epic.
How do you balance interjecting worldbuilding and backstory while making sure your plot progresses in a logical and timely manner? Some people say that you shouldn’t do too much preparation beforehand, else the writing feels “canned” or goes stale for you, while others would advocate knowing as much as you can to ensure you have a steady supply of content to drip in to the narrative. What do you think?