Recipe for a Page-Turner: George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (Part II)

Chapter One of A Game of Thrones begins with a grim and bloody incident: the beheading of a deserter. It’s seen through the eyes of Bran, one of the half a dozen rotating close-third POV characters that carry the book.

When I went through this chapter looking for the ingredients Martin used to create a compulsively readable story, I was a bit surprised. I expected to see more of the ingredients we identified in the prologue (see previous post), but that wasn’t the case. Most of the prologue ingredients were present: there was some mystery, a bit of low-grade conflict between characters, a few mild shivers of dread. In descriptions, The Shadow was definitely present, though not nearly as dire or intense as it had been in the prologue. But the first chapter was qualitatively different. The ingredients carried over from the prologue were minor, like seasonings or a light sauce for Chapter One’s main dish.

And what was that main dish, you might well ask?

It had three principal ingredients:

1) character creation

2) world-building

3) a framework of fascinating incident providing a basis for #s 1 and 2.

We already know about the first incident: the beheading. The second incident occurs when the party, returning to their castle, finds a dead wolf, a surprisingly big wolf in fact, with six nursing puppies. It’s worth noting that both incidents are related to the unfolding of the plot, but not at all central to it. They’re so minor, for example, that they probably wouldn’t appear in a three-page synopsis of the novel. 

So why are these incidents featured in the all-important first chapter? Well, we learn some important details about the compelling imagined world we’ll be spending so much time in. We learn that we’re in the ninth year of summer, and that summer is now coming to an end. We learn that in this world there are frightening creatures called wildlings, and giant wolves, or direwolves. 

More importantly, we learn a great deal about some of the main characters. We are shown that they are not only interesting, but sympathetic. The successful introduction of this ingredient, above all, is what “hooks” us, and what, in combination with the simmering sauce we’ve already identified, drives us to read on.

Let’s look a bit more closely at how character is introduced and developed in Chapter 1. The first thing we learn about Bran, the POV character for this chapter, is that he’s nervous and excited. We see him trying to act older than his seven years, and pretending not to be phased by the fact that his father is about to slice someone’s head off. Can you relate? Does this make you like the character less or more?

Martin wastes little time in establishing character sympathy, and Bran becomes even more sympathetic as the chapter goes on: he intervenes to save the wolf pups, simultaneously demonstrating willfulness, compassion, and courage. We can totally relate to his desire to save the fluffy wolf pups. We can’t help rooting for him to succeed.

Also, we see the action through Bran’s eyes. Note that Martin doesn’t rush the execution scene – quite the contrary. Time slows down. There’s an abundance of detail, from a close, loving description of the sword that will be used in the execution, to the prisoner’s head being forced down onto the hard black wood, to the blood spattering and soaking into the snow, to a minor character kicking the head away in disdain. Most of the students I’ve worked with will recognize the term “crowding” – this term was coined by the great Ursula K. Leguin, and refers to the wealth of specific, concrete detail that all of us should be putting into our important scenes.

But the key point here, in terms of character, is that we’re seeing all this through Bran’s eyes. Not only do the descriptions reflect and refract his psychology and state of mind (”Bran could not take his eyes off the blood’), but its clarity and acuity give him authority as an observer.

One of the keys to a compelling point of view character, besides “sympathy,” is the quality of that author’s vision, which becomes, in close POV narration, very much associated with the protagonist in the reader’s mind.

Let’s turn to the important non-POV characters. Martin wastes no time in describing them either, using a comparative version of the familiar “three stroke” rule of character creation:

“Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.”

This gives us a pretty good initial sense of these two key characters, in a remarkably economical way.

Notice the way sympathy is established for the other characters as well. The Stark family, though brutal, lives by a noble code of honor: “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Jon takes Bran’s side on saving the wolf pups, and their father shows his own generosity of spirit by agreeing to let it happen, and so on. This turns out to be a group of very likable people – the kind of people a reader can imagine spending a lot of time with. This in itself is quite an achievement, given the brutal piece of vigilante justice that forms the chapter’s main action.