How to Write a Chapter of “A Song of Ice and Fire”

Note: Due to copyright concerns and George R. R. Martin’s stance on fan fiction, no one under any circumstances is to actually use this guide to write anything resembling a chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire. If you even think of doing so, then the legal team of Bantam Spectra will almost certainly descend from the heavens and eviscerate you with the more boring, legal version of a magical flaming holy sword. The only person who is actually allowed to follow these instructions is GRRM himself, should he suddenly wake up in a  Memento-like situation and need to re-learn his writing process from the text of this blog post tattooed on his body. DON’T LISTEN TO TEDDY, GEORGE! THE KILLER IS STILL OUT THERE!

Ahem. And now, the post itself.

The A Song of Ice and Fire series of books (or Game of Thrones as they are, let’s face it, more often referred to in conversations) have become favorites for trafficking firmly within the fantasy genre while still providing enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes. This, combined with the author George R.R. Martin’s magical-bus-driver sense of fashion might lead the average simpleton to believe that there is simply no way whatsoever to predict what will happen in any given installment.

True, but not true! For you see, even the weirdest and most gargantuan of homes must be built on solid bedrock, and any work of fiction needs to obey simple rules to function as a story. The following is a look at all of the elements that go into a typical chapter in the series, whether it’s about one of the characters from Dorne or someone we actually care about. The specifics may change, but these handy tips will help anyone who happens to be George R. R. Martin craft another installment in the bestselling fantasy saga with ease:

 

Step 1: The Chapter Title

Before A Feast for Crows, titling a chapter in this series was a cinch: take the name of the POV character, put it in some fancy bold font, and voila. But since the fourth novel, Martin has taken to diluting this process with chapters that have such descriptive names as “The Iron Captain,” “The Princess in the Tower” or “Yet Another Grizzled White Guy Whose Name You Will Pretend to Recognize Next Time It Comes Up in Conversation.” Whether this is a tactic to keep readers on their toes or just a side effect of increasing authorial boredom is up to debate. Either way, it’s another choice that can set the tone for your chapter right from the beginning. Just because this section of the story won’t be about anyone we know doesn’t mean you have to tell us who it is!

Step 2: Start In The Middle of the Action, Especially If That Action Involves Bodily Functions

Pictured: ice.  Not Pictured: fire.

Pictured: ice. Not Pictured: fire.


If this is the first time we’re meeting a certain character, then within two pages they will almost certainly be a) eating b) excreting c) fucking d) fighting or e) in the middle of a conversation, often one that has something to do with a-d. Whatever is being described, there needs to be a lot of sensory language, and if the subject is food the reader will have to practically be able to see the fried Cornish game hen stains through your prose. There is an entire cottage industry built on replicating recipes from Westeros (even elk meatballs), so don’t skimp on those details!

Once you’ve hooked (or potentially grossed out) the reader, you should probably dial back on the earthiness, but you’ve planted the seeds to bring it back throughout the chapter whenever you start nodding off at the keyboard. You never know when you’ll need to make a sellsword start taking a leak or lighting some pungent incense or something.

Step 3: Italics, Italics, Italics!

At some point, your principal character will have thoughts: that’s the “OV” part of the “POV” (unless you’ve always thought that acronym meant “Piece of Venison,” which is a fair mistake to make in a series saddled with food references). So you need to give them plenty of interior dialogue and identify it as such through the use of italic font. Example: someone gets stabbed through the leg and then they think “That’s extremely painful.” This is to show that all of us have the same basic fears and wants no matter what our station in life, except Joffery because fuck him.

Another use of this technique is to give your characters recurring ideas or phrases they can’t get out of their head, simultaneously illustrating inner torment and smashing through that word count like a battering ram through a wall of butterscotch. Side note to self: go eat some butterscotch.

Step 4: Choose Your Words Carefully

Wikipediatells us that an “aurochs” is just a big, old timey kind of cow: it’s not mystical and it doesn’t even have two heads like the cows from the Fallout universe or anything. But they at least sound magical, and that’s because it derives from an actual word that was used long ago. You know what else sounds magical? Mashing up unlikely but related English words together to form exotic-sounding combinations. That way the reader can have the experience of saying “Huh. I know what a sun is and I know what a spear is, but Sunspear? How fantastical!”

Here are just a few words you can sandwich together to make completely seamless new linguistic constructions:

Prefix                                                                          Suffix

Butter                                                                           -stone

Mist                                                                               -berry

Wheel                                                                           -woods

Raven                                                                          -fields

Bollocks                                                                     -keep

Pox                                                                              -water

Salt                                                                              -lance

 

Incidentally, poxwater is a serious medical condition that should only be treated by a licensed professional. Certainly not by a monk that used to be the bad guy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

A few other notes about language: it should be accessible, but not Maggie Smith saying “put that in your pipe and smoke it” accessible. And someone in every chapter should find a way to exclaim that something “isn’t worth a mummer’s fart” because Mummer’s Fart is actually the name of GRRM’s secret death metal side project and he’s been working on an extremely subtle form of viral promotion for it since 1996.

Step 5: Get the Ratio of Sex, Violence and Long Boring Historical Passages Exactly Right

Do you enjoy reading the sections of ASOIAF where the narrator or some character decides to reel off about Tharwyn of House Tharn who served as bannermen for house Arryn at the Battle of Bollockslance before Aegon’s Landing? No! Of course not! But nobody would buy these books if they were 300 pages long, so all of that shit needs to stay in: it’s the really gross but meaty stuff that fills out the fantasy novel sausage. The key is to balance historical lecture with something the average schmo can really sink their teeth into, like child brides or descriptions of feudal relationships.

The HBO adaptation has famously been able to solve this by simply dumping brothel-loads of naked people in the background of every scene that doesn’t have someone getting killed (and some that do), but unfortunately we can’t embed a tiny porno popup ad into every page just yet.

FINAL AND MOST IMPORTANT STEP: Big Cliffhanger Ending!

Even the most meandering chapter can still leave the reader addicted if the author employs a well-placed plot twist. These are great for convincing the audience that you have some kind of master plan in store when in fact you’re still spending long, sweaty hours every night trying to think of yet more reasons why Daenerys doesn’t just get her ass over to King’s Landing already.

In a way, this is the most critical part of the chapter, as it can get the reader so eager to find out what happens to this particular character next that they will be willing to sit through whatever shit gets thrown at them. Combine this with the obfuscating chapter titles from Step 1 and you have a situation where the reader doesn’t know if their favorite character comes back and is forced to stick with your narrative to find out. In literary terms, that’s a bingo!

And with this simple template, you should have everything you need to write your own damn novel understand the workings of Martin’s text more fully. Be sure to discuss these points loudly when you’re on the subway or hanging out in bars right behind me, and before long you too may be wearing a cute little black sailor’s cap and suspenders: the true sign of literary genius.

The Art of the Comedic Scream

I saw A Fish Called Wanda for the first time recently, and while the film is famously awash in  quotable lines, I think my favorite consists of no recognizable words at all: it’s a noise John Cleese makes a little more than 45 minutes into the movie. His character, a repressed English barrister named Archie Leach, is entertaining Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda in his home while his wife and daughter are away at the opera. For reasons as complicated and silly as they always are in this kind of movie, Curtis needs something from Cleese and is trying to seduce him. He has gone to fetch champagne, and while he’s out his wife (Maria Aitkin) has come back unexpectedly and taken Curtis’ place on the couch as she and Porn Stache Kevin Kline scurry around the room to hide.

Cleese hurries in, unaware at first that anything’s changed, makes a flourish, then has the heart-attack-level realization that the one person who must absolutely not be here under any circumstances is sitting in front of him. Cue scream. Netflix subtitles it as “AAH!”

This movie is more than a quarter of a century old, and yet I’m certain moviegoers in the 80’s had seen this kind of thing before in a zillion screwball movies and Three’s Company episodes. As an actor, Cleese had a bottomless list of different ways he could have approached this moment based on all the examples that came before him: he could have given an “unexpectedly” high-pitched shriek.  He could have done a double or even a triple take (though only a master should ever dare to attempt a quadruple take). He could have even done the hokey old “AHHHHHHEEELLlllo darling” scream-to-conversation thing that turns up a lot in these kinds of farces. Despite our familiarity with them, any of these tactics might have worked.

Here’s what he does instead: he just yells. It’s a short one, but long enough to be impossible to fully ignore and totally socially inappropriate. There’s nothing self-consciously comedic about it. It sounds like his character is genuinely horrified, which of course he is, and the scream serves the story rather than trying hard to get laughs just on its own. Of course, Cleese is kind of like the Eric Clapton of spazzing out and built his career around yelling horrifically, so it’s no surprise that he’s got the pitch and duration absolutely right.

So many comedians seem to rely on screaming that’s just screaming, as if that’s all you need to do to be funny. It’s not just the scream, it’s the character of it and what it says about the screamer. Hank Hill’s infamous “bwah!” noise is funny because of just how sheepish and pathetic it makes him sound while still communicating terror. Plus, have you said it aloud? It’s hours of fun, although not in the literal YouTube sense, at least for me.

Anyway, I’ve heard people (I’ll say it: older people) say they didn’t like certain comedians because they are “too loud” or they “shout too much,” and that’s probably just one of those preferences you get when you grow and decay and need something gentle and slow-moving to keep a fix on. But my belief is that anyone can make sudden alarming exclamations work if they know what they’re doing and put their gut into it.

This is normally where I’d ask any theoretical readers out there to leave comments about any memorable comedic screams they find interesting, but that’s just begging for an avalanche of goat videos in this day and age, isn’t it? Ah, well, I guess it’s better than those damn flash animations with the screaming ghosts that used to pop up halfway through.