On episodic storytelling – A Game Of Thrones

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about different styles of storytelling. This was triggered mostly by watching the incredible TV adaptation of George R R Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. The TV show is named after the first volume in Martin’s masterful epic, A Game Of Thrones. When it comes to epic fantasy, nothing comes close to A Song Of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF). There are many reasons for that. Mainly it’s Martin’s superb ability as a writer, but it’s his ideas and characters as well. Of course, any good story can be spoiled by a bad writer and any good writer can make a decent job of a bad story. All the really good books out there are the ones that combine great writing with original ideas and well realised characters. By those criteria, ASOIAF stands head and shoulders above so much other epic fantasy storytelling.

A Game Of ThronesOf course, your mileage may vary. I’ve even come across people that don’t like ASOIAF at all. I can only imagine they also hate puppies. There are some very weird folk out there. Others may think that ASOIAF is good, but they have other favourites. Regardless, the majority view is that it’s brilliant. The majority are right.

The HBO television adaptation is a no-expense-spared homage to the books. After three episodes it’s clear they’re not cutting corners and I’m enjoying seeing a visual interpretation of the books more than I thought I might. They’ve got some details wrong, they’re missing stuff here and there, but it’s an adaptation, not a facsimile. But it’s not a patch on the books.

Rarely is the TV or film version of a story better than the written one. You can draw some examples where the film is better, the most obvious to me being Blade Runner, the greatest film of all time. It’s based on the Philip K Dick novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. I prefer the movie to the book, but they’re actually vastly different things. The influence and inspiration is obvious, but Ridley Scott did very different things with the film than PKD did with the book.

Even so, to return to ASOIAF, a ten episode television adaptation of an 800 page novel should move at a pace and be enthralling and intense. It should grip the viewer, make us desperate to see the next part. Certainly it should have a faster pace than a novel that could prop up a table with three legs. Now while the television series is brilliant, it’s not as compelling as the book for me. And I couldn’t figure out why.

I know the story, so reading the book was new while watching the show isn’t. That’s certainly part of it. No matter how detailed and carefully made the television show is, it can’t possibly contain the detail and characterisation of the book. And here we start to see the issue at hand. Martin’s massive story – and it does almost redefine the term epic – is not one of those long, meandering big fat fantasies. It’s a fast, powerful big fat fantasy. And it’s like that because of the method Martin employs in his storytelling.

It’s episodic, just like a ten part television series. Except each part is very short. In ASOIAF every chapter is titled with a character name. We know immediately that the chapter in question is going to be told from the point of view (POV) of that character. By doing this Martin manages to tell his story with a huge cast of characters. Every POV chapter contains numerous other players, all important to the plot. But Martin is able to focus each of those sections through the eyes of the chapter character in question. We then quickly develop favourites – Tyrion, Jaime, Brienne, Arya to name a few of mine – and we desperately want to get to the next chapter told through their eyes.

This turns an 800 page novel into a huge collection of 10 page (or so) interlinked short stories. And Martin writes them that way. Each chapter is almost self-contained, like a good short story, while being an integral part of the whole.

A Game Of ThronesI love short stories. I love reading them and I love writing them. I particularly like selling them. And most other people like short stories too. Even people that don’t really think they like short stories, because they want a bigger narrative with less left untold, can still appreciate a good short yarn. Just some people read very few of them and prefer to immerse themselves in a novel with their reading time. George R R Martin makes ASOIAF so compelling because he gives us that massive, epic story, told in hundreds of short stories. Faster and more intense than episodes of a television show. Deeper and more detailed than a television show could ever be. He tells stories within stories and takes us on a journey of intrigue and politics that would bore us silly in an historical textbook. And he does it with tight, episodic storytelling.

Because we switch POV with every chapter, the story never slows down. We know that once this chapter ends, we’re going somewhere else. Sometimes Martin cheats – for example, he’ll have a Jaime chapter and Cersei will be involved. Then he’ll immediately follow it with a Cersei chapter, then maybe another Jaime one. He’s just managed to stay in one place for three chapters with only two POV changes between two characters. Clever stuff. But he very rarely does that.

By having a key character POV in each of his theatres of action, we keep track of what’s going on. We might not remember all the names of all the players, especially when there’s a long gap between visits to certain characters or scenarios, but that lynchpin character holds us in place and we can follow along. And each of those chapters is a little self-contained slice of a far, far bigger tale. You can tell by the way the chapters start. I’ll give a few random examples from the first book in the series:

“It’s the Hand’s tourney that’s they cause of all the trouble, my lords,” the Commander of the City Watch complained to the king’s council.

Through the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes upon the walls where the heads of dragons had once hung.

The Karstarks came in on a cold windy morning, bringing three hundred horsemen and near two thousand foot from their castle at Karhold.

Each of those is quite random – I just leafed through A Game Of Thrones and picked the opening line of three different chapters. Two of them are even the same character POV. But any one of those sentences could be the start of a novel or a short story. There’s no reference to the previous chapter because we’ve shifted from those events to somewhere new. There’s no presupposition of place or situation until we’re several paragraphs in and discover where we are and what thread we’re picking up. And even then, it could be hours, days or weeks since we were last in the company of this particular POV character.

Any good book will keep you turning the pages, even a massive, fat fantasy in multiple volumes. But no one does it so well or so consistently as Martin does in ASOIAF.

Honestly, Martin is a genius, a proven master with what he’s achieved with ASOIAF. The next volume is due out in July and I believe there are two more volumes after that slated to wrap up the whole thing. The TV show is going to have one series for each volume. So Martin had better keep writing so the actors don’t outgrow the story before he’s finished. Regardless, whatever he does, the books will always be more powerful and more compelling than the television series. And not just because we get more in the books – more characters, more detail, more history – but because of the way Martin has chosen to tell that story. The method that so often had me bleary of a morning because the night before I sat there reading saying, “Oh, just one chapter before bed.” Then it was another Tyrion chapter. Then an Arya chapter. And then… and then…

There’s a lot that makes Martin’s masterpiece so good, but it’s the way he tells the story that makes it so addictive.

What do you think? Is this why you love it too? Or why you hate it?

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2 thoughts on “On episodic storytelling – A Game Of Thrones

  1. *Nods emphatically* What you said. All of it. Only my favourite characters are Arya, Jon, and Daenarys. Tyrion is sort of a given as I think he’s almost like the glue who holds the whole thing together.

    As for film/TV adaptations that are better than the books on which they are based: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the Coppola version); True Blood; and The Last of the Mohicans. The first two popped in my head immediately and the last I had to rack my brain to remember because I didn’t want to give only vampire related examples. I do NOT have a vampire addiction! I can stop at any time …

  2. I’ve heard lots of people talk about True Blood being better than the books. I love the show, but haven’t read any of the books so can’t compare. Not sure that I’d consider Coppola’s Dracula better than Stoker’s book, but equal probably.

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