George R.R. Martin really puts a whole new spin on Stephen King’s quote, “Kill your darlings.”
Call me naive, but while reading the third book, A Storm of Swords, the Red and Purple Weddings caught me off guard, and I didn’t see any of that coming. Reading the book late into the night, I caught my partner’s attention each time gasped at a plot twist.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Martin comments on the intention behinds his plot twists:
You have very strong reversals and you keep the reader off balance. You might think you’re in Sword in the Stone territory early on — you can see the book it might become, with Bran as the hero, but then it’s like a con game between you and the reader.
I think you write what you want to read. I’ve been a reader, a voracious reader, since I was a kid in Bayonne. “George with his nose in a book,” they always called me. So I’ve read a lot of stories in my life, and some have affected me very deeply; others I forget five minutes after I put ‘em down. One of the things I’ve come to really appreciate is a kind of unpredictability in my fiction. There’s nothing that bores me quicker than a book that just seems, I know exactly where this book is going. You’ve read them, too. You open a new book and you read the first chapter, maybe the first two chapters, and you don’t even have to read the rest of it. You can see exactly where it’s going. I think I got some of that when I was growing up and we were watching TV. My mother would always predict where the plots were going, whether it was I Love Lucy or something like that. “Well, this is going to happen,” she would say. And, sure enough, it would happen! And nothing was more delightful, when something different happened, when it suddenly took a twist. As long as the twist was justified. You can’t just arbitrarily throw in twists and turns that make no sense. Things have to follow. You want the thing in the end where you say, “Oh my God, I didn’t see that coming, but there was foreshadowing; there was a hint of it here, there was a hint of it there. I should have seen it coming.” And that, to me, is very satisfying. I look for that in the fiction that I read and I try to put it into my own fiction.
I loved his answer to this question. I read it over and over, because I realized that in his answer Martin gives away some of the most important secrets in writing.
1. You got to have cojones. It took some brass balls on Martin’s part to stray from traditional plot structures. At this point in the story it’s a little hard to tell who is still going to be alive in the end, much less sitting on the Iron Throne.
Writing is a little like riding the most confusing roller coaster of your life: fantastic, thrilling highs one minute and terrifying drops the next. One minute I think, I’m a genius!, and another minute I think, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. Just writing without wanting to break your own fingers is hard. But to do that and also say, I’m going to do something challenging, that takes cojones.
Martin was willing to do something different. He was willing to let go of his reader’s desire for predictability and harmony for the sake of something different and a little risky.
2. You have to make it work. I recently read a discussion thread on Goodreads, a question from a reader turned writer looking for advice. This writer started writing the stories that they wanted to read but were finding that they were a little out of the ordinary and maybe not the kind of stuff that large audiences enjoy. I’ve asked myself this question and have found the “out of the ordinary” to be the very best path.
If your work is weird, then let it be weird. It’s not your job to make people happy. People like the things that they like. But it is your job to pull off the weirdness. Like Martin says, you can arbitrarily throw in this and that. It has to make sense.
3. You don’t know what it’s going to be until you get working on it. In this same interview, Martin explains that his epic series began as a short story where Bran finds the direwolf. Only when Martin developed the story further did it become part of a larger story.
Most of the time when you’re writing, you don’t know whether or not something is going to be great. About 80-90% of the time it will be average, and you’re only writing the great stuff the other 10%. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a fantastic writer and published some excellent work. But I bet he had drawers full of stories that weren’t quite right.
If you want to write the Great American novel, then tell people that you’re going to write the Great American novel. I guarantee that every time you try to write it, you’ll worry about how it isn’t good enough. You’ll compare it to other amazing novelists, and then you’ll get discouraged. You’ll try again and get discouraged and feel like a failure, all because of grandiose expectations of that piece of writing.
4. You have to read. A lot. Seriously. That is the only way to learn about great storytelling.
Taking risks, seeing what stuff you’re made of, pushing yourself one step further – you can learn a lot from a guy who writes about dragons, frozen zombies, incest, a freaky shadow assassin, a freaky face-changing assassin, bad guys who become good guys, and an 8-year-old killing full-grown men.