Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Breaking the Rules: Game of Thrones

By Deb McLeod

So I’m reading A Game of Thrones.

I'm behind, I know. And I'll get to the TV series but not before I read all the books. Kudos to George R.R. Martin; it’s a rare book that sweeps me up and lets me forget I’m a writer. I swear I’m reading this book like I read books when I was nine or ten and was truly transported into another place and time.

When I put Thrones down for a breather, Writer-Me has to look at how he did it. How did he write such a good book, with characters I care about and in a structure that delightfully goes against the rules?

I’m reading the book twice as I go. Once to gobble it up and then back to analyze. I wanted to know how he hooked me so quickly with his characters and story. So I’ll share some observations about the first eleven pages, the prologue, which is another no-no we writers all hear about.

When we’re all famous we can write prologues but until then, it's the fastest way to say amateur. Well, I say, when we write them as well as this one is written, that’s when we get to write prologues.

****SPOILER ALERT – first eleven pages!****

What follows is an analysis of the eleven pages of prologue. I’ll break it down into its three scenes and look at the events and how he made me care about these characters.

The Scenes of the Prologue

Scene One: I’ll call it Dead Wildings. It’s roughly 1500 words long (four pages at approximately 375 words per page).

The characters: Three men of the Night’s Watch are outside the wall looking for a group of people called the Wildings. Ser Widmar Royce, the young leader of the group (the lordling) is on his first mission with something to prove. Will, the point of view character, who is known for his stealth and shows his common sense and Gared, the old soldier, forty years on the Night’s Watch.

What happens? Will has seen the dead bodies of the Wildings, but Ser Widmar needs proof. Gared thinks they should go back without proof but when Ser Widmar questions Will, it’s obvious they need to see the bodies rather than go back.

How does he make me care? The scene is in Will’s point of view. Will is the neutral party in the struggle between Ser Widmar and Gared. Ser Widmar is not someone the men respect or want to follow. It’s hard to take orders from a lordling you secretly laugh at. Gared claims the voice of experience when he gives his opinion that the Wildings froze to death. So we start out identifying with the common man against the boss.

But then Ser Widmar questions Will about what he saw and Will realizes he can’t say how the Wildings died. Gared insists they froze, but Ser Widmar’s questions force Will to see they couldn’t have frozen. And since he didn’t see any blood and it didn’t look like their weapons were used, maybe something else happened.

If you look where Martin places the reader here and how he shifts loyalty with the character dynamic in the first four pages you can see how he makes the reader care.

We’ve all had fools for bosses with something to prove, haven’t we? (It can’t just be me!) Ser Widmar is young, dressed in finery the soldiers laugh at. They call him the lordling. We identify with these men who are really cold and who feel they’ve completed their mission and only want to go home. They have a long journey ahead. Eight or nine days ride in the winter.

We have been Will in situations before. He doesn’t really want to get involved in the quarrel but when Ser Widmar questions him, as Will’s opinion of the man giving orders changes, so does ours. We see that, young as he is, the lordling is right and we respect Will for having enough of a mind of his own that he can change his opinion about someone.

And so the order is given to press on.

Props and devices:
  • Description of Ser Widmar’s clothes, especially his “crowning glory”, a cloak of “sable, thick and black and soft as sin".
  • The title Lordling
  • “Hard to take orders from a man you laughed at in your cups.” Will’s thoughts about Ser Widmar. 
  • Gared’s warning that an ice storm might be coming so they should go back.
  • Ser Widmar contradicting Will that dead men tell no tales. He needs to see the dead and know how they died.
  • The knowledge that Will had been a poacher before he was drafted into the Night’s Watch. It was either that or lose a hand.
  • Will has a talent for sneaking.
  • The twist that Ser Widmar turns out to be right.
Scene Two: See for Myself. This scene is three pages at about 1125 words.

What happens? Ser Widmar says he needs to see the dead for himself, so the three characters head towards where Will found their bodies. When they have to go on foot, Ser Widmar leaves Gared with the horses and orders that he light no fire. Gared almost argues but acquiesces. When Ser Widmar and Will get to the scene, the dead bodies are gone.

How does he make me care? The scene is set up so that Gared and Will know something is wrong. They can feel it in the night. Will says he’d never been so afraid. But Ser Widmar laughs at them. Then he orders Gared not to build a fire and in Gared’s frustration, he almost argues, but he acquiesces instead.

Ser Widmar’s horse is exactly wrong for the job and when the lordling complains that they should be going faster, Will grumps at him and asks him if he’d like to lead. Will’s common sense and worth to the mission come through here. Tensions are high between the men and the lordling’s inexperience is showing. Will dares to say that the longsword Ser Widmar carries might get tangled in the trees but Ser Widmar snaps at him. So they keep going.

When Will and Ser Widmar are on foot, Will sneaks silently toward the bodies, but Ser Widmar makes noise with “the soft metallic slither of the lordling’s ringmail” and his curses as the branches tangle with his longsword and cloak. Then comes the twist that when they get to the camp the bodies are gone.

We are immersed in the dynamic between the men and surprised when the bodies are gone. And we know that both Will and Gared sense something is off.

Props and devices:
  • Again Martin uses the wardrobe and Ser Widmar’s inexperience. The longsword with jewels at its hilt, shining steel and brand new. Both his horse and his blade are ill-suited to what they have to do.
  • But the brilliance of this scene is in the suspense.
    • Gared insists there’s something wrong here and Ser Widmar scoffs.
    • Will admits to the reader that he’s never felt so afraid.
    • A wolf howls.
    • The trees press close.
    • When Ser Widmar orders no fire, Gared complains about all the things you want to keep at bay, though he acquiesces and we leave him behind in the darkness.
    • Will sneaks toward the scene and Ser Gared makes enough noise to wake the dead.
Then, of course, the bodies are gone.  

Scene Three: Duel with The Others. This scene is also about three pages long at approximately 1125 words.

What happens? When Will sees the bodies are gone, he says to get down. But Ser Widmar laughs and orders him to get out from hiding, though Will can see the weapons haven’t been taken. Now there's really something wrong. Ser Widmar orders Will up a tree to look for the Wildings fire. Will climbs the tree and someone comes. Will watches Sir Widmar fight one of The Others, a ghost-like creature and Will doesn’t call out when he should. Ser Widmar is killed and after a long time Will comes down from the tree but Ser Widmar rises from the dead and wraps his dead hands around Will’s throat.

How does it make me care? We see the wisdom Will has to be afraid, and feel his frustration of having to obey Ser Widmar again. Will admits his fear and his hesitation to warn Ser Widmar when he thinks he sees something but isn’t sure. He doesn’t want to be laughed at again and the reader can sympathize with that. It’s getting colder and shadows begin to emerge. Ser Widmar puts up a valiant fight that is doomed from the start. Will fights with himself but chooses to stay silent and we might wonder what we would do in a situation like that. We watch as Ser Widmar is overwhelmed by The Others and killed. We wait with Will and creep back down the tree, only to have Ser Widmar rise from the dead. We care about Will by this point and at the end of the prologue he dies.

Props and devices:
  • Ser Widmar laughs at Will so Will is hesitant to call out when he thinks he sees something.
  • Will’s fear.
  • The silence of first Other when he comes
  • Ser Widmar’s bravery when he says, “Dance with me then.” And lifts his sword to fight the apparition.
  • More Others come out to surround Ser Widmar and Will never calls out to him.
  • When Will picks up Ser Widmar’s shattered sword, he will finish the mission and bring back proof.
  • The last reference to Ser Widmar’s wardrobe in the final sentence of the prologue after his long, elegant hands brushed Will’s check, “then tightened around his throat.” “They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.”
Martin has made the reader care about these characters and killed them off in the first eleven pages. Why read any further?

Because it's brilliant writing, that's why!
We read to know what happens to Gared and what The Others will do. In the opening sentences, Ser Widmar asks Gared and Will if they’re frightened of the dead and Gared says “Dead is dead… We have no business with the dead.” And Ser Widmar says “There are things to be learned from the dead.”

The reader can only assume that the thousands of pages that come after the prologue show just what business we do have with the dead, along with the intrigues of the living, in A Game of Thrones.

Of course the obvious reason to read on is the writing. Notice how each scene ends with a twist. How the suspense builds to the shock of identifying with a character only to have him die. Clearly, this is a fearless writer and we read to see what else he will do in a story that’s already caught the imagination and emotion of the reader.

In the next blog I’ll trace the prologue with a technique I just read about this morning (thank you Facebook) from Charlie Jane Anders: One Weird Trick for Cutting Down Your Novel where she suggests you take a scene and outline it backwards to check cause and effect by connecting each event in the scene with the word ‘because’. I thought that an interesting process for the revision place I’m in with The Julia Set, but decided to try it on an expert first. Stay tuned for that. 

About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.  


  1. Excellent analysis! My brother presented me with Season 1 of Games of Thrones for Christmas and my daughter and I just finished it. Yes, I do plan to read the books too!

  2. Hey Kim! I'm reading the books first, then we plan to watch the series. I'm very interested to see how the two compare. Let me know what you think when you read the first book!


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