A few weeks ago, we discussed the problems with tone in A Song of Ice and Fire; then I went out of town for a family wedding, launched a book and had my wisdom teeth removed. So please forgive my tardiness with this follow-up. It’s time I took you back to school. You need to learn the golden rule. (Will someone queue up the Moody Blues?)There are three major problems with this series: tone, predictability and pacing. We discussed tone last time; so let’s look at predictability. I’ll be discussing pacing next week, but I won’t be delving any further into A Song of Ice and Fire.
You’re probably wondering how I can call the series predictable when George R.R. Martin goes to such lengths to defy his readers’ expectations. Well the answer to that question is that trying to construct a story that consistently defies your readers’ expectations is a little like trying to convince someone to believe you when you say “I always lie.” If you always lie, then you were lying when you told me that you always lie. Similarly, if you’re constantly trying to defy my expectations, then all I have to do to predict your next move is figure out what I’m least likely to expect.
Anyone who has read enough fiction will eventually get a feel for how a typical story in any given genre will play out. In epic fantasy – the genre that A Song of Ice and Fire calls home – that story structure typically looks like this. A protagonist reluctantly leaves home in the service of some greater good. Along the way, she encounters some evil and then challenges it. She emerges triumphant; every last person in the kingdom cheers her name. The end.
Ned Stark left home in the service of his king. After taking his new job in the Capitol, he discovers a plot to kill the rightful king and put a bastard on the throne. Ned opposes the conspirators and lo and behold he…dies a gruesome death after being convicted of treason. The plot is successful, and now a psychopathic child born of incest sits on the throne.
That twist took many people by surprise. (including myself) I really enjoyed seeing a subversion of the standard hero story.
The problem is that a tactic like that is only unexpected the first time you use it. If you keep relying on that same plot device – the hero fails, and things get worse – it becomes just as predictable as the traditional story structure. The formula for A Song of Ice and Fire is actually pretty simple: figure out which characters are fan favourites and then expect something gruesome to happen to them.
A lot of people find Star Trek and its various spin-offs boring because no matter what happens in any given episode, everything will be wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end. The heroes are victorious 99% of the time. It’s predictable. But simply turning that formula on its head doesn’t make it any less predictable. If our heroes are always losing, that’s still pretty boring.
If you want to create suspense that keeps your reader on the edge of her seat, you need to create a mix of victories and defeats. Sometimes the heroes need to come out of a tense fight unscathed; sometimes they need to suffer a costly victory, and sometimes they need to lose. Badly. Your reader needs to know that this latest conflict can go either way.
So that’s it for discussions of A Song of Ice and Fire; I don’t like to spend too much time discussing other people’s writing. However, writing school will resume next week with a lesson on pacing. Stick around. It’ll be fun.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
And Kobo http://bit.ly/1Jb7NAo
It’s had some great reviews!