(IN CASE YOU’RE WORRIED: THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE POST)
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of critiques. Some of these are for my internship. Some of them are for friends. Some of them are for random people I met on the internet. That said, I’ve been noticing a common thread in my comments to these fellow writers, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about with my own writing as well. I figured a blog post was in order.
I can hear the questions already. “Okay, but what does that have to do with Game of Thrones?” you ask. Patience, grasshoppers.
All right, so the title of this post may be exaggerating a wee bit. I don’t pretend to know everything that makes Game of Thrones such a gripping read, and likewise, what I’m about to discuss isn’t sadism in the technical sense. But I do want to point out one thing that George R. R. Martin does really, really, REALLY well:
He makes likable, interesting, flawed, human characters. And then he makes their lives suck.
Moreover, note that not only does he make problems for them right at the beginning of the story, but he makes things get worse all the time. Rarely, if ever, do things get better. Plans go awry. People turn traitor. People get angry and say things they shouldn’t. People get killed. In general, more problems crop up. The result? A 800+ page book that flies by. (Or an addictive TV show—I’m waiting to finish the book before watching it, but I hear it’s awesome.)
A similar lesson was presented to me at the Writer’s Digest Conference I attended back in January. Author and writing coach James Scott Bell explained that the best way to create conflict and suspense in fiction is this:
Give your character a goal in every scene, and then give the scene one of two outcomes. Either the character fails to achieve his/her goal, or s/he achieves it…and it makes things worse.
As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about this because it’s an issue I’ve been seeing in the stories I’ve been critiquing. There’s just not enough bad stuff happening. Things aren’t getting worse, or they’re getting worse only occasionally, or only by slight degrees. And I understand how this happens—honestly, I do. When you spend so much time with a group of characters, you become very fond of them. Unsurprisingly, being fond of someone has a way of making you averse to hurting that person.
This is where the sadism comes in.
It’s not pure sadism. You don’t have to enjoy causing your characters pain and suffering. But regardless of whether you’re writing a high-tech thriller or a quiet work of nuanced literary fiction, the same basic idea applies: make life suck. Because (let’s be honest here) peace and contentment are boring. They just are. Much as we may want them in our own lives, in fiction, we don’t want to read about them. So throw a monkey wrench in your character’s plans. Let someone flunk a test. Have someone get stood up by a date. Make someone fall unexpectedly ill. Cause a car accident. Kill off a character or two. Even small things add up if you do it right. Force your characters to cope and/or to actively pursue solutions to their problems.
“But what about romance and fun times with friends and awesome days?” you ask. “Do the characters have to be unhappy all the time and forever?”
To which the answer is: of course not. You can’t have nonstop bad stuff happening—you have to give your characters breathing time, even if those breathing moments aren’t exactly happy. But if you’re going to have happy moments, I think it’s important to be aware of where you place them. Imagine your story as a piece of music. Moments of high tension and stress are fortes. Moments of low tension and stress are pianos. I’m all for crescendos and decrescendos between highs and lows, but there’s also something to be gained from a sudden change in dynamics (i.e. fortepiano and pianoforte). If you put a happy/peaceful/chilled-out moment right before a stressful one, the stress is going to come across just that much more strongly because we’ll see it contrasted with the happiness of the previous scene. Many great writers do this masterfully, and while it’s not something you have to do, it’s certainly something to keep in mind. (Also, check out this awesome video on structure!)
The final part of this is something I mentioned back at the beginning. It’s so obvious that I’m not sure it needs saying, but I figure it can’t hurt: the more interesting your characters are, the more we’re going to care when bad things happen to them. One of the things that I think is brilliant about Game of Thrones so far is that none of the characters are heroes. They’re just not. Oh, there are certainly likable characters—but the fact that they’re likable does not mean they’re lucky. They have flaws. They make mistakes, and those mistakes have big consequences. These people are not special snowflakes. There is no promise that the bad stuff that happens to them will all work out in the end. Things that get broken stay broken. People that die stay dead.*
So, in summary:
1. Write interesting characters.
2. Make their lives suck.
3. Give them goals.
4. Thwart them as they try to achieve said goals.
5. When they do have moments of success or peace or happiness, contrast those with stressful events.
I’m going back to reading Game of Thrones now. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for my first-ever book review here on the blog. I’ll be reviewing Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys (Scholastic, September 2012). I just finished it tonight on the subway home, and wow…it was awesome.
Until then, toodles!
* Moreover, as far as I can tell, there is no authorial morality at work in Game of Thrones. Compare and contrast this with a story like Harry Potter. In the Harry Potter series, there is a clear hero. No matter how many bad things happen to him, we know this hero’s suffering will not be in vain, because Harry has J.K. Rowling’s morality on his side. We know he’s the good guy. We know he’s supposed to win. Eddard Stark, on the other hand, is also a morally-upstanding person—and that does not make him in any way immune to the problems of the world. His virtue is a personal brand of morality unique to him (and his family to some extent). It is not guaranteed to triumph in the end. His suffering may well be in vain. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Harry Potter! I just think it’s interesting to note this distinction; it’s a bit like the difference between Plot Armor and Anyone Can Die.