George R.R. Martin: A Lesson and a Warning

English: George R.R. Martin signing books in a...

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?

13 thoughts on “George R.R. Martin: A Lesson and a Warning”

  1. I have to agree. Bigger is most definitely not better, unless you’re Tolkien; but then he took 14 years or more to write Lord of the Rings, quite apart from all the ‘worldbuilding’ that preceded it. What actually counts is the quality – and I often get the impression that modern fantasy falls foul of commercial need, including the requests by publishers to provide enough text for a ‘good read’ to a length largely defined by Tolkien. Fair enough, but it’s hard to actually get there without the colossal amount of creation, re-creation and re-re-creation that actually went into what Tolkien he did. Another author who I think flagged, quite badly, was J K Rowling. Hmmn… am I being heretical? I think not.

    Thanks for posting & all the best for your own writing!

    Matthew Wright

    1. I have to agree about J.K. Rowling; when it was clear that she was trying to surpass the page number of her previous book, all I could ask was, “Why?” I understand that as a story becomes more complex, it may take more space to iron things out, but surely if the first couple of installments could be as riveting as they were to hook the readers, it is possible to maintain that level of interest without padding the length of the book just to awe readers.

      While I enjoyed the second half of Deathly Hallows, I walked away from it wondering if it had ever passed under the eyes of an editor.

      Thanks for reading and posting! Best wishes for all of your writing endeavors, as well!

  2. I’m currently reading A Feast for Crows. I am very frustrated with it, and you explained very succinctly why! And now I’m sad to know A Dance with Dragons isn’t going to help with that either.

    1. I might still check it out from a library when I finally finish Feast for Crows, but I’m disappointed, too. It will take nothing short of a miracle to wrap up the series in a satisfactory way. But the second season of the HBO show is coming in April, so I’m excited about that.

      Honestly, as much of a stickler as I am for faithful page-to-screen adaptations, I wouldn’t mind if HBO just ran with it and did their own thing after season three.

    2. Okay- I’ve finished the 4th and almost done with A Dance with Dragons and have since changed my mind about the books. I do agree still that there is a lot of descriptive ruminating in AFFC. But now I’m thinking I’ll re-read AFFC because of all that I brushed over in my hurry to get to the action.

      If GRRM had started the 4th book with a character known to us (not counting the prologue), then I think he’d have had less frustrated fans and more appreciation for this book. After all the drama in A Storm of Swords, my favorite and most treacherous story, starting the next book with a stranger hurt a little. I came to love A Feast for Crows by the time I finished, and love (so far, 80% complete) A Dance with Dragons. Am not loving that we have such a long wait for the next book!

  3. Haven’t read Martin’s work yet—and don’t know if I ever will—but this post makes me think of other writers I’ve read who’ve made the same types of mistakes. Good post. I’m now following your blog, so write on!

  4. In general and not referinf to Martin or Rowling but certainly Tolkien writing a series from front to back is the backwards way to do it. Only a good end will justify the means. I would bet that Tolkien new the whole story before he wrote the parts. He did not write sequels that needed to be introduced to new readers who may have missed parts one and two. The ending was not negotiable right from the start. Many have borrowed quite liberally from Tolkien’s creative score since but none the concept of telling only one story in digestible proportion.

  5. I haven’t read George Martins books beyond the first two, but I agree with what you’re saying about Tolkien. He does get carried away a little with description sometimes, and sometimes I’m not sure if it is all necessary.

    The way I see it is story first, world building second. You should only implement descriptions as and when it helps to bring the world, story, characters to life and only in such a way that it moves the plot forward.

    Two entirely different examples of writers that do this very well; Victor Hugo “Les Miserables” and Margaret Mitchell “Gone with the Wind”. Both are of a length equivalent to Tolkien, both include extensive descriptive passages bringing to life resp the French Revolution and its time and the Civil War and how that changed the South. But both writers (in my humble opinion) managed to maintain my absolute attention.

    (note; I did find Victor Hugo “The HUnchback of the Notre Dame” a lot harder to read, probably for the simple reason that he begins with a whole chapter of description without introducing a character you can identify with)

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