Building the Tension Around a HookWhenever a novel or series becomes hugely successful, I like to break down an opening page to convey how the writing and story hooked readers. I teach that some struggling writers are what I call blind imitators. They think they are doing and achieving what a master storytelling like Martin is doing, but when I offer this kind of breakdown and compare it to their opening pages, I'm trying to convey the real differences in the writing.
Notes on Page 2 of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones
My goal here will be to break down the 13 pages of the prologue, one page at a time.
The second page of the prologue begins...
Will could see the tightness around Gared's mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of the cloak.
This again raises the question, how far will Gared go in his defiance? Will this 'barely suppressed anger' emerge? In what way?
Gared had spent 40 years in the Night's Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of. First Martin sets in motion these characters on this dangerous quest, then he begins to weave in back story in the context of the moment. Some writers struggle because they start with a static introduction of characters that immediately crashes in to dull back story that simply conveys information. What George offers here adds to the sense of urgency around how Gared might react to this kind of taunt. His not reacting would also convey something about this world.
Yet it was more than that. Under the wounded pride, Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came periously close to fear.
Anything that would create a sense of fear in a hardened warrior can not be good. George is building the tension.
Will shared his unease. He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterwards. He was a veteran of a hundred rangings by now, and the endless dark wilderness that the southron called the haunted forest held no terrors for him.
Again, the quick back story that conveys information not just about Will, but this world he's grown up in, a place where he no longer fears a place known as the haunted forest, but something about this time and place is making him uneasy. This passage also conveys that this kingdom has been defending itself against an as yet unseen menace for many years. Even the Wall here has a formal name.
Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to the darkness that made his hackles rise. Nine days they had been riding, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of wilding raiders. Each day had been worse then the day before it. Today was the worst of all. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as if something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. Gared had felt it too. Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with the commander.
The tension continues to build, something in the darkness watching these men, looming over them, while an answer has been given to what they have been doing in this wild land.
Especially not a commander like this one.
Which raises the stark question, what is it about this one?
And the answer is...
Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.
Question, answer, ending with a question (the comment about the wardrobe). Why this young knight is cocky is now clear. He needs to prove himself. And in the world he's in, not proving himself sounds like a quick jaunt down a short, brutish road. He has no choice.
Many struggling writers start a story in a passive situation (these three men meeting on the Wall), followed by a quick seque into back story, followed by details that have no context. By starting this story at this time and place, Martin has set in motion a complex story world.
This ends the second page of the prologue of Game of Thrones.
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