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

Whatever you think of the TV series, A Game of Thrones is a compulsively readable book. This is a rare thing. The ability to keep the pages turning is a kind of secret magic, in fact. A heady power for which most writers of narrative – fiction or nonfiction – would trade everything but their souls. How does one write a sustained narrative that can’t be put down? Is there a recipe for Martin’s success?

If a novel is a multi-course meal, a prologue is the appetizer. This is where the guests decide whether they want to get up and leave the restaurant, or stay for the rest of dinner. Let’s take a look at Martin's prologue. Can we identify some of the ingredients he uses to make A Game of Thrones such an irresistible read?

Before we dive in to the recipe, here’s a quick set-up: We’re in the forest, in a northern place, with a group of armed men looking for something.

Ingredient # 1: Direct POV character experience of dread and fear:

“Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.”
“Fear filled his gut like a meal he could not digest.”

Ingredient #2: Slanted descriptions capturing dread and fear:

“There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise . . . A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.”

I like to call this “Shadow Description.” If you want to hearken back to High School English, you could also call it foreshadowing. Whatever you call it, it’s hugely important in gripping fiction.

A few more examples:

“A cold wind whispered through the trees. His great sable cloak stirred behind him like something half-alive.”
 “. . . the rustle of leaves, and muttered curses as reaching branches grabbed at his longsword and tugged on his splendid sable coat.”

Notice this theme of the landscape seeming half-alive. Not only is it creepy; it’s also a direct hint about what is to come. (Half-alive = half-dead.)

Ingredient # 3: Conflict between characters:

The men don’t like their commander, who is a spoiled young “lordling.” As the prologue goes on, this conflict goes from being an undercurrent to flashing out into the open. In other words, the conflict in the prologue has an arc.

Ingredient #4: Mystery to be solved:

One of the men is out scouting and comes upon a group of eight strangers that look like they froze to death. But the weather hasn’t been all that cold. Hmm. Raises a question in our minds.

Ingredient #5: Action:

Note that Game of Thrones doesn’t start with action. The action comes at the very end of the prologue; everything leading up to it is set-up. Pale shapes come gliding through the forest. It gets really cold all of a sudden. Strange creatures, the Others, come streaming out of the forest. There is a sword fight; the lordling is killed. Then it gets worse.

One thing to note about this action: it’s not boring and predictable, like so much action you read in second-rate fiction. Why is that? Well, for one thing, it’s defamiliarized. Are you familiar with this term? Let me give you two examples:

“When the blades met, there was no ring of metal on metal; only a high, thin sound at the edge of hearing, like an animal screaming in pain.”
“The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake . . .”

These images are defamiliarized because they take things we’re familiar with – the ring of clashing swords, an attacker’s voice – and make them seem strange or slanted. Martin accomplishes this in both cases by comparing them to easily imagined sounds that are themselves charged with dread – in other words, sounds that are deeply imbued with Ingredient #2: “Shadow description.” It’s good to keep in mind that none of this is simple.

The ingredients are stacked on top of each other and mixed together, resulting in a recipe for the writer’s holy grail, compulsive readability.

Appropriately, the prologue ends with a shock, and another mystery: how is it possible that the lordling has come back to life? We won’t find out about this for quite some time. It will recede from the forefront of our consciousness, but unconsciously it will still be lodged there, giving us yet another reason to read on.

Okay, so much for the prologue. Our fictional dinner guest likes the appetizer and decides to stay for the first course.

Click here for Part II, where we sample the ingredients Martin has cooked into Chapter One. It’s worth paying attention to, because it’s a recipe that has kept millions reading for thousands of additional pages.