My son found the third season of the HBO series, Game of Thrones, on a spectacular deal at a local big box store and bought it. I’ve long been a science fiction and fantasy reader, and he joined me as soon as he could read. We’re both fans of George R. R. Martin’s series of books from which the TV show is made, and we have watched the first two seasons (on DVD). Heck, even my husband is hooked on Game of Thrones—he who hates fantasy of any kind. The books have been very successful, and the TV series is a spectacular hit. Ben, my husband, is not the only one who scoffs at books with dragons and magic who’s caught up in this particular story. So I thought I’d pick up some tips on storytelling from someone who’s been so successful.
The first lesson is—and this is no spoiler because complaints about it are all over Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs online—every character you come to care about dies. Well, not every single one. At least, not yet. But Martin lets the reader know he’s playing for keeps and that no character, however good, however noble, however much he may seem to be a protagonist, is safe. Ed McBain did this back in the 1960s when he killed off one of his beloved major characters in his popular 87th Precinct police procedural series. He did it as a signal that the usual rules of genre fiction were not applying, and anyone in his books was vulnerable. It shook up his readers, caused a storm of controversy, and enlivened a long-running series.
Other crime fiction writers do this on occasion today. One major writer killed off a pregnant character who’d been a major fixture in her series since the beginning and touched off rage in a number of her readers who swore never to read another of her books. (Her several books since then have been even bigger bestsellers than ever.) Fans of the Game of Thrones TV series have cursed and screamed imprecations all over the internet and sworn to stop watching, but Game of Thrones is a bigger hit than ever. So, lesson one has to do with suspense—if everyone is vulnerable, the reader truly cares and worries about whether those characters she’s come to love will survive.
The next lesson has to do with character. The characters Martin makes us care about most are characters with flaws and weaknesses.
Tyrion Lannister, the misshapen, brilliant, sarcastic dwarf whose own wealthy, powerful father hates him.
Arya Stark, the tomboy, unladylike, wild, and reckless, whose own family doesn’t seem to value her as much as her perfect, beautiful sister.
Jon Snow, Arya’s bastard older brother (the only one who really seems to see her true worth) who’s exiled to the Night’s Watch, a band of outcasts who live in the wilds and guard the fragile borders of the civilized kingdoms.
Danaerys Stormborn Targaryen, last of her royal line, only survivor of the massacre of her family when she was a babe (except her tyrannical older brother who terrorized her before his own death), penniless, with the powerful usurper of her family’s throne sending assassins to kill her, her husband and child killed by black magic.
Samwell Tarly, loyal, self-deprecating, and overweight, scholarly heir to a lord who gave him the choice of giving up his inheritance and joining the Night’s Watch or a grisly death.
We watch these people make their mistakes while trying to do the right thing and fight against overwhelming odds in whatever ways they can. And we root wildly for them and fear for them because (see lesson one) we know any of them could die tomorrow.
The antagonists of Game of Thrones are also more fully limned than usual villains. Some that people love to hate, such as Jaime Lannister and his incestuous sister Cersei, are so fully developed with backgrounds that explain their evil behavior and often leave the reader/viewer almost sympathetic as he comes to understand what drives them. This is a strategy that strengthens a book or film and makes the whole plot more realistic and more suspenseful, as opposed to the two-dimensional melodramatic villains that are often used by writers.
The third lesson is another aspect of suspense--foreshadowing. From the beginning of the books and the series, the ominous repetition of a phrase that is both the motto of a major noble house and a warning embedded in the entire culture—“Winter Is Coming”--in this world where winter may last a decade or longer and bring with it horrible monsters to devastate the world. The reader and viewer know that a larger danger lies over the entire story-world while the violent battles between royal contenders, individual crimes, and intricate conspiracies and betrayals hijack the attention and focus of everyone. The characters are like ants fighting a war while a giant shoe is poised to stamp them out of existence.
Are you a Game of Thrones fan? Do you read or watch in a genre outside of mystery/thriller and do you find lessons in those genres that can be applied in the realm of crime and suspense?