Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Backwards Outlining - A Game of Thrones Part 2

by Deb McLeod

Deb McLeod's Dissecting A Game of Thrones
I don’t know about you, but for me there’s nothing worse than when I know I've missed the mark but haven’t clue one how to fix it. Some people turn to critique groups for that. Some turn to coaches like me. I turn to model books and the multitude of tricks I've learned about analysis and revision so I can discover not only what isn't working but how to fix it.

Last month, I did an analysis of the prologue of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin to see how he achieves the affect he does. I have to say, I’m enthralled with these books. There’s nothing more exciting to me than to find an excellent writer so I not only enjoy the books, but analyze how that writer did what he did.

This month I wanted to try some techniques to see what they could tell me about his scenes. In this article, I’m working with the prologue from A Game of Thrones. If you haven’t read the prologue, you can get the gist of it in the previous blog post. But read the books, even if you don’t like the genre. His structure challenges the rules and he pulls it off. We can learn a lot from him, I think.

Again ****SPOILER ALERT – prologue and first chapter!****

I found a technique from a post on Facebook, by writer Charlie Jane Anders:  One Weird Trick for Cutting Down Your Novel. 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 turned to A Game of Thrones to see how this technique fared. I love using model books to educate myself on my own work.

The prologue is divided into three scenes. Here is the backward outline of the last scene of the prologue after Ser Waymar Royce has sent Will up a tree to look for fires and the missing bodies of the dead Wildings. The Others come and murder Ser Waymar and Will does nothing. When he finally comes down from the tree and tries to take Ser Waymar’s sword for proof, Ser Waymar rises from the dead and attacks him. This is a great action scene to use this technique on. Here’s the backwards outline:

Will closed his eyes to pray because the icy cold fingers, gloved in finest moleskin and sticky with blood, closed around his throat. Because the dead Ser Waymar Royce now stood over him after Will found Royce’s body and took his shattered sword for evidence. Because Royce, who was really just a boy, lay face down in the snow with even his thick sable cloak slashed in a dozen places. Because Will had finally dared to climb out of the tree where he’d been hiding after seeing the cold butchery of the pale blades that sliced through Royce’s ringmail as if it were silk. Because Royce had attacked The Others though his longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces when it touched The Other’s sword after The Other said something to him in his own language and Ser Royce’s first parry was a beat too late and he’d been wounded. Because he was worn from the fight while the other, faceless watchers stood silent. They’d overtaken Royce when they emerged silently from the shadows and it was Will’s duty to call out, but his death if he did, so he stayed silent. Because the first one to come forward held a blade that was alive with moonlight and sharper than any razor and Ser Royce stood ready for battle. Because a shadow with flesh pale as milk emerged from the wood and its armor seemed to change color as it moved. Because Will hadn’t answered Ser Royce’s call asking why it was suddenly so cold. Because Will had seen movement and shadows, though he heard no sound, after the lordling had called out “Who goes there?” after Will had climbed the tree to see if he could find a fire at Ser Royce’s order. Because Royce had to find the bodies that had disappeared….
Of course the scene hangs together beautifully.

My turn

When I’m writing I find that some scenes flow easily and some take crafting. I have a process I use to craft a scene (which will be a future blog post) and if I’m lucky and the scene “catches”, all is well in Debland. But more times than not, I craft the thing and it lies there; dead as Ser Waymar Royce and equally as spooky.

So I took one of those cold dead things that lives in my manuscript and tried this technique. Lo and behold, I found that the backwards outline revealed holes in the cause and effect and showed me where great gobs of extraneous information sucked all the energy right off the page.

No forward movement = glazed eyes and the dreaded reader response... The Skim.  Or even dreader... The Close.

Now, my clients are checking their problem scenes backwards for cause and effect. It’s proving to be a really great technique. Check it out.

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.  

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