The George R.R. Martin Approach to Writing
Every year for the past decade fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series have been asking impatiently, “When is the next book coming out?” In 2012 the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, was released.
I read the book when it came out, as I read the previous four books when I discovered their appeal. Book 3, A Storm of Swords, had some incredible storytelling elements (reading the interweaving plots that culminate in the red wedding is far better than watching it). Books 4 and 5 fell flat however. Why?
What is it about George R.R. Martin’s writing that just doesn’t hold up after 5,000 pages of reading?
The Answer is George’s Style
George tells stories from the third person. When he writes a character he writes from the perspective of an omniscient being that knows everything that is happening. George lets the third person go in to his characters heads. We, the readers, always know what the character is thinking and feeling. This internal monologue is what Marting loves writing.
He has said on more than one occasion that he writes from the William Faulkner perspective. Faulkner is famous for saying “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Martin writes to show us interesting character’s internal conflicts. There are good and bad results of this.
It is good because he makes the characters more real. By making the characters more real his fantasy universe becomes more real. We the readers are better able to imagine this world because the characters might as well be real people. Fantasy, like all forms of fiction, must be grounded in reality to be believable.
As a result, the actions the characters take seem equally believable. We know why they do what they do and it is all consistent with the histories of those characters. The plot flows believably because of this.
The Problem With George’s Style
George has said on many occasions that authors usually fall in to one of two camps predominantly. The first camp is the architects. They like to plot and outline a story, then they outline the scenes of the story, then they fill in the words. The story is written at the outline, only the words need to be written to fill the pages.
The second camp is the gardeners. Gardeners plant the seeds (their characters) water them (with conflict) and see what sprouts naturally from the type of seed they have planted. They don’t know the plot or the ending because at each stage they ask, “What would this character think and do and react to others?”
George is of the second camp.
Is it any wonder Martin takes years to write stories? He doesn’t know what he is going to write when he sits down to work.
But the length between books isn’t the only problem with his style by a long shot.
He has characters that go nowhere. The best example of this in A Dance with Dragons is the character Quentyn Martell. He wasn’t in any of the previous four books. In this book he is introduced as a prince seeking to marry one of the most prominent characters, Daenarys.
Martin introduces the character, spends four chapters writing his brief journey, and ultimately has a pair of dragons burn him alive. His was a boring tale that took up 80 or so pages in a 1,200 page book. The only interesting thing about him was how he died. We could’ve read only his ending and been better for it.
By writing in this style Martin has no clear end in sight. No climax, no denouement, no epilogue, no nothing. He has written from the perspectives of every warring group on a continent locked in war. Even when the war ends it won’t be over. Then there will be the revenge tales, the loose ends, the gilded lovers, etc… Martin could jump his story ahead five years (something he planned to do but abandoned) and he wouldn’t be any closer to finishing the story.
A Dance with Dragons and its predecessor A Feast for Crows were major flops in the critical sense. Many characters were introduced. No characters stories were any closer to a conclusion. And that’s after a combined 2,000 pages.
George’s Style is Feminine
Martin writes of the internal conflict raging in his character’s hearts. He writes their fears, insecurities, griefs, determination, inspiration,…so many emotions. So many words, yet nothing happens. It’s like he is writing a teenage girls diary, only the girl was married to an abusive king of a fantasy kingdom.
Masculine writing doesn’t bother with so many emotions. Men are judged and defined by their actions. We, the readers, don’t need to know their fear of failure and their determination to succeed which ultimately wins out. We just want to know what they do, how they do it, and why they did it. Save the conflicting emotions for Oprah’s book club.
Martin has said that he takes as inspiration J.R.R. Tolkien. Can you imagine reading of Sam’s internal conflicts? “He wanted to save Mr. Frodo, but he also wanted to give up. Also he was worried about getting caught. But he was determined because he loved his friend.” Tolkien would never write something this horrible.
Tolkien has his characters do things. We don’t need to hear every emotion that goes through his character’s heads. When the time comes Sam kills the orcs, saves his friend, and they continue their mission. We can imagine their emotions through their actions.
So much of the best fiction has very little internal dialog for men. It is nearly void in the Conan stories, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms just to name a few.
By contrast internal dialog is frequent in most anime, which is not a good place to look for masculine characters as we will later see..
Martin’s writing is more suited to women, who want to know the internal struggle. Men want to know the eternal actions. Actions make the man. We know this in reality, and the best fiction is always grounded in reality.