11 Writing Lessons From George R.R. Martin, Because There's A Lot To Learn From 'Game Of Thrones'
We can whine all we want about George R.R. Martin's writing speed, or about how he kills all our faves, or about how he insists on naming every one of his 2,302 characters, but at the end of the day we have to accept one simple truth: dude can write. Martin took a few plot-lines from English history and a few overused fantasy tropes and created an epic that has captivated millions. Whether you're a fan of the TV show or a die-hard book fanatic, Martin's writing has affected you (and probably made you hurl your book at the wall in frustration at least once). Here are a few writing lessons we can learn from George R.R. Martin, no matter what genre you want to write.
The complexity of Martin's work may be intimidating to the writer who's just starting out, but that's a lesson in and of itself: don't limit your own imagination. Don't sell yourself short. Maybe don't tackle a seven book fantasy epic as your first ever writing project, either, but one of the things Martin loves the most about fiction is its lack of limitation. As he puts it, "When I went back to prose, there were suddenly no limits: I could write something huge with all the characters I wanted, with battles, dragons and immense settings. Of course, I thought this will be unfilmable and that I'd never have to worry about Hollywood again. But that's David Benioff's and Dan Weiss' problem now."
Here are a few more writing tips from GRRM himself:
1. Everything has consequences
In Martin's writing, every action has consequences. Sometimes fatal consequences. "Good" actions don't necessarily lead to rewards, and "bad" actions aren't always brought to justice, but every choice a character makes has huge ramifications. Dany trying to free the slaves wrecks the global economy. Sansa's crush on Joffrey leads to her father's beheading. Jaime's attempt to save King's Landing gets him branded as the untrustworthy "Kingslayer" forever. Very few good deeds go unpunished.
As Martin says, "I could have written a story about a well-adjusted family. Ned Stark comes down to King's Landing and takes over and solves all their problems. Would that have been as exciting?"
2. Write in your own universe
If you haven't guessed it by now, Martin is all about world-building. He believes that every writer should build their own fictional world in order to hone their craft, rather than borrowing someone else's world. (There's definitely arguments to be made on the opposite end of this; many people believe fanfiction is a wonderful entry point for beginning writers.)
“Write every day, even if it is only a page or two," Martin says. "The more you write, the better you’ll get. But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those 'literary muscles,' you’ll never develop them.”
3. Write from a place of truth
That doesn't mean that you can only write about things that have literally happened to you. But you should write from a place of emotional truth, no matter how many of your characters are dragons.
Martin says: "In creative writing classes in college, the professors will say, 'Write what you know.' And that's often misinterpreted to mean you should write a thinly veiled autobiography. [Like] a graduate student in English Literature at University, writing a story in which the hero is a graduate student in English Literature at University... But I think you have to interpret 'Write what you know' much more broadly than that. We're talking about emotional truth here. We're talking about reaching inside here to make your characters real. If you're going to write about a character witnessing a loved one die, you have to dig into yourself, and say, 'Did you ever remember losing a loved one?' Even if it's only a dog that you loved as a child or something. Tap that vein of emotional energy. In some ways, it's not terribly different from what method actors do.... We observe other people from the outside. The only person we ever really know inside and out is ourselves, and we have to reach into ourselves to find the power that makes great fiction real."
4. Accept that there will be good writing days and bad writing days
Writing a little something every day is a great goal to have. But if you can't force yourself to be ultra-productive every single day, don't beat yourself up about it. There's always tomorrow.
“I get up every day and work in the morning. I have my coffee and get to work. On good days I look up and it’s dark outside and the whole day has gone by and I don’t know where it’s gone," he says. "But there’s bad days, too. Where I struggle and sweat and a half hour creeps by and I’ve written three words. And half a day creeps by and I’ve written a sentence and a half and then I quit for the day and play computer games. You know, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you."
5. Avoid genre cliches like the plague
George R.R. Martin may have penned a fantasy world full of dragons and ice zombies and sword-wielding knights, but he actually subverts a lot of the usual fantasy tropes. He tries to avoid over-simplified fights between good and evil, and to show the human cost of even the most "noble" of wars.
“In simplistic fantasy, the wars are always fully justified — you have the forces of light fighting a dark horde who want to spread evil over the earth. But real history is more complex. There's a great scene in William Shakespeare's Henry V where he goes walking among his men in disguise on the eve of the battle of Agincourt and some of them are questioning whether the king's cause is just or not and lamenting all the people who are going to die to support his claim. That's a valid question. Then you have the Hundred Year War, which was basically a family quarrel that caused entire generations to be slaughtered. So I try to show that in my writing.”
6. ...but you can still love the genre you’re writing
Martin is critical of the black and white morality of the fantasy genre, but that doesn't mean that he dislikes fantasy. It's always a balance between adding emotional truth and spotting the flaws in the genres you love, and celebrating what makes those genres so lovable in the first place. Literature can be complex and escapist at the same time.
“Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true? We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.”
7. Find the humanity in every character
Martin has a lot of characters in his books. A. Lot. Of. Characters. And many of them seem to be straight up evil. But, whether he's writing an innocent child or a Ramsay Bolton, Martin tries to find the humanity in every single character.
“In order to get inside their skin, I have to identify with them. That includes even the ones who are complete bastards, nasty, twisted, deeply flawed human beings with serious psychological problems. Even them. When I get inside their skin and look out through their eyes, I have to feel a certain — if not sympathy, certainly empathy for them. I have to try to perceive the world as they do, and that creates a certain amount of affection.”
8. You have to trim the fat
Yes, believe or not Martin does cut a lot from his books. His lesson for self-editing is to go through every single word and cut anything that feels the least bit extraneous.
“I hated to lose any good stuff — scenes, dialogue exchanges, bits of action — so instead I would go through the script trimming and tightening line by line and word by word, cutting out the fat and leaving the muscle. I found the process so valuable that I've done the same with all my books since leaving LA. It's the last stage of the process. Finish the book, then go through it, cutting, cutting, cutting. It produces a tighter, stronger text, I feel.”
9. Write from specific points of view
Even if you want to write a sprawling epic with hundreds of characters and locations, make sure to ground your story in a few specific characters with clear points of view. We'll only follow a complicated plot if we care enough about the individual lives of the people in the story. We're far more interested in Arya's character arc than we are in getting a general history of the Faceless Men.
“I'm a strong believer in telling stories through a limited but very tight third person point of view. I have used other techniques during my career, like the first person or the omniscient view point, but I actually hate the omniscient viewpoint. None of us have an omniscient viewpoint; we are alone in the universe. We hear what we can hear… we are very limited. If a plane crashes behind you I would see it but you wouldn't. That's the way we perceive the world and I want to put my readers in the head of my characters.”
10. Only write outlines if you find outlines helpful
According to Martin, there's no wrong way to write. You can be a writer who needs an outline, or you can be a writer who just likes to start and see what grows out of the chaos. Figure out where your strengths lie, and make that your official writing practice.
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”
11. Learn from everything you read
And lastly but most importantly, read. Read all genres, no matter what it is you want to write.
“The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read! And not just the sort of thing you're trying to write, be that fantasy, SF, comic books, whatever. You need to read everything. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. Read history, historical fiction, biography. Read mystery novels, fantasy, SF, horror, mainstream, literary classics, erotica, adventure, satire. Every writer has something to teach you, for good or ill. (And yes, you can learn from bad books as well as good ones — what not to do)”