Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the Hidden Genius of George R. R. Martin’s Storytelling


GameofthronesWith the first episode of season two of Game of Thrones premiering on HBO last Sunday, the world of Westeros has been pretty hot recently. Water coolers across the US were overwhelmed with talk of dragons, Craster’s Keep, and how big Rob’s direwolf has gotten.

Beyond that, talk also strayed to the book series the show is based on—A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. I’ve noticed two camps, those who have read the books and watch the series, and those who have only done the latter. Both seem to enjoy the series in different ways, but comments like “Oh, but you have to read the books,” inevitably slip into conversation when the two groups cross paths. And inevitably, you hear the sales pitches for why the books are so good:

“He just fleshes out so many more characters in the books.”

“It’s fantasy, but it’s so realistic.”

“The perspective changes are amazing.”

“He’s not afraid to kill off characters. Nobody is safe.”

These are all great reasons to read the books (and in some cases, also to watch the series) but there’s one element of GRRM’s storytelling I’ve noticed usually gets left out of these “water-cooler” conversations:

Blending back story with action.

Anyone’s who’s ever tried to write something has struggled with back story. It’s a pain. You need the reader to know information that’s happened in the past—people who have been in love, wars that have been fought, feuds burning below the surface—but you don’t want to slow down the present action.

A Song of Ice and Fire has more back story in twenty pages than some novels have in their entirety, and GRRM juggles this information like the master storyteller he is. He melds back story with action through a variety of means. Characters remember scenes and moments that are similar or related to the situation they’re currently in, other times two characters talk about a third character candidly, and some characters even relive past events in their dreams.

But George’s most effective strategy—his bread-and-butter of back story, if you will—is tucked between lines of dialogue and small mannerisms. It’s the events characters allude to but don’t ever state outright, the tensions between them that they dance around, and the veiled insults that mean more to them than they do to the reader. For now.

To me, this is one of my favorite parts of reading A Song of Ice and Fire—experiencing a story that’s evolving from two directions and getting richer and more interesting with every page. I can’t wait for the next episode (or the next book!).  

But what about you? What’s your favorite part of A Song of Ice and Fire?

And just as a not so subtle heads-up, there might be a back-story element to the next WEbook writing contest coming on April 15th.

If you can’t wait that long, the All Aboard Writing Contest is still sailing strong!

Have a great weekend!


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  1. Few of your winners had any backstory. Backstory is when two characters share their past, or the narrator explains the past. I saw none in the Pliny tale or the boys yammering like douches.... Nothing was revealed about their 'past.' Pliny was just about the past.... We are not filled with wanting to know more of any of these characters.... Please tell me have not joined a group that favors cute for well-written prose...

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