? A Story is a Promise: Notes on George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, by Bill Johnson
A Story is a Promise


Book cover of Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise
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Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author


Writing the Fantasy Hook

Notes on Page 1 of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones


by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.
Whenever 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.

My goal here will be to break down the 13 pages of the prologue, one page at a time.

In the beginning...

Game of Thrones opens with a map of this world, which is a quick way to orient readers to a new and different world.

Then...

Prologue

And...

     "We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. "The wildings are dead."

The unusual name, Gared, is a quick way to suggest this is not contemporary world. The image of the woods growing dark also works as a metaphor to suggest darkness is coming upon this world. Details of a time and place ring true when they convey a subtext.

The line 'The wildings are dead' convey both mystery and questions. What are wildings? How did they die? Why does Gared feel this urgency to turn back?

      "Do the dead frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

The mocking smile here suggests that Royce is in command of Gared, and also that Royce is arrogant.

     Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

That a man is old at fifty suggests the violence of this world. This passage also conveys something about the relationship of Gared to Royce (soldier loyal to a royal lineage), and that Gared is a no nonsense man. Martin has moved from a mysterious opening to specific details about the characters that provide one answer, what is Gared to Royce, but also raises more questions, what is this royal family Gared has been in service to? Are they part of this Game of Thrones?

This question, answer, question process demonstrates Martin's ability to both raise questions to draw readers in, and to provide answers that raise more questions that continue that process of engaging, holding, and rewarding the attention of an audience. At some workshops, I'll have new authors read from the first page of a manuscript one sentence at a time to show the lack of questions.

Continuing...

     "Are they dead?" Royce asked softly. "What proof have we?"

This acts out that Royce is more thoughtful than Gared, and also suggests that Gared and Royce probably have differing goals.

Continuing...

     "Will saw them," Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that's proof enough for me.”

     Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

This brings in the third character in the scene at a dramatic moment, and someplace he'd rather not be, in the middle of this argument.

     "My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman's tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilight forest.

A wet nurse is someone brought in to suckle the young of nobility, again conveying Royce's status. The line about learning from the dead also suggests the difference between Royce and Gared, a thoughtful young leader and a hardened warrior.

The note about his voice being too loud again conveys the menace of the situation. What or whom could be listening?

     "We have a long ride before us," Gared pointed out. "Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling."

What Gared conveys here is that he is willing to argue a point, even with a superior. This also raises the question, what is the destination of their journey?

     Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. “It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”

Royce openly taunts Gared now. The argument is escalating and raises a question: what will be the outcome of this taunt? How will Gared respond? Can he, if Royce is his lordling?

I'm ending the review here and will continue with the next page.

One feels reading this opening page that it is a step into and deeper into this world. Often when I read manuscripts and ask inexperienced writers why they are making banal choices, I often hear a word I dread. They are 'introducing' their characters. George R. R. Martin is doing something altogether different here. He has set his story into motion with these three men who are being swallowed by an ominous darkness.

One page, one step into this mysterious world.

Novels that lack that clearly defined, carefully crafted forward movement from their opening lines are often static and dramatically inert, no matter how nicely detailed the people and places. That's why most agents don't need to read more than a first paragraph to realize they aren't reading the next George R. R. Martin.

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