I’m not finished with book five of A Song of Ice and Fire yet, but I felt it timely to point out some of the great literary lessons I have learned from this series.
First of all, there was the lesson I wrote a whole post on at some point about how the best way to break a reader’s heart is to make them care about characters and then have terrible things happen to them. Death is a good option, but sometimes just making their life hard can be sufficient. Those lovely cliffhangers at the end of chapters are pretty good, too. He’s great about those.
There’s something else I’ve noticed, though. There’s a long line of suspense going through the story lines and even the most careful of readers have a hard time putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together. Yes, there are a lot of pieces, but I think I’ve discovered a secret that can make this even more effective.
There are a lot of characters. Some of the characters have viewpoints, and every viewpoint is a bit different, but one thing I’ve noticed is that the people who really know what’s happening, the people who are pulling the strings of everyone else DO NOT HAVE VIEWPOINT CHAPTERS. We only get the knowledge of the pawns as they gather it or remember it. Tywin Lannister, Petyr Baelish, Illyrio, Varys, the Prince of Dorne…. We get the viewpoints of people close to them, perhaps, even their pawns, but none of the people we read the minds of actually have ANY clue of what’s going on, as we see very clearly and even shockingly of Ned Stark in the first book.
The closest thing we have to a knowing viewpoint at this point is Jon Snow, and even he really doesn’t know. We get the prophecies of Melisandre and the thoughts of the skin-changer in the wildling camp at the beginning of book five to remind us that even though Jon knows some stuff and he’s wise, he’s a fair amount like Ned. There’s a lot about him that the reader can guess at but we still really don’t know. Jon has no idea that he’s got the ability to be a skin-changer. He’s got no clue what Melisandre’s seeing in her fires, which is probably misinterpreted truths at the very least, and he’s got NO CLUE who he is, whoever Martin ends up making him (cough, Lyanna and Rhaegar’s child, cough). There’s something interesting about that, BUT it also makes even the most clever of characters seem human and reminds us that WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS HAPPENING.
Which is good. This is why I fell in love with Steven Moffat’s work, although now I’m getting to the point where I can predict him. George R. R. Martin has found a way to make about seventy percent of his reveals a delicious surprise for me, and I think the way he allots viewpoints is the key to it.
So if you’re thinking of writing an epic fantasy series, that’s my advice. Make people care about characters before you inflict trauma upon them, and then if you want surprises, NEVER give your knowing characters a view point chapter EVER.