I decided it might be considered too easy to dismiss what is technically wrong when considering only novels you love, so I have chosen one I abandoned, and abandoned early on. High fantasy is a genre that rarely interests me, add to that my deep dislike of violence, unpleasant characters and abhorrence of misery used as titillation and its pretty clear this was never going to hold my attention. However, I know those who are sworn fantasy avoiders who have had their heads turned by GRR Martin’s series and I have, for all I tossed it aside, never agreed with the naysayers: Martin can spin a yarn.
And maybe out of all the books I don’t like that I could have picked, I picked this one because it commits the ultimate Sin of Beginnings. And I do love those who really fuck the rules… 😀
Mr GRR Martin wrote a prologue..
Prologues. What does the world have to say about prologues? ‘Don’t’ would sum it up fairly effectively (warning: there may be an even greater proliferation of adverbs in here than usual. I can’t help myself. Once I blaspheme I just keep on blaspheming..) But we’ll take a tour of the articles..
“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Like I said, don’t.
Martin paid no attention. He not only commits the ultimate sin, he does it in the ultimate way. (I may have to set up an altar for him, alongside Leonard and Parker) How? He kills the character he has just so carefully introduced. And what is the very first sin listed in Worst Ways? “
I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
Listed under the subheading – False Beginning – its usually cited as the reason why you should never open with a dream sequence. I not only know a recently traditionally published author whose book opens with a dream/vision, I could list on ten hands the number that have done this in the last decade and not been punished by industry or reader. Which is actually the reason I would caution against using it.
Dream sequences are in the odd position of being both common and specific. A slightly contradictory situation that works against them. Many of the other common beginnings are generic. They can seem worlds apart yet still be essentially doing the same thing. Take for example the Family Showcase. This can be anything from an abusive aunt and uncle with comic overtones, as in Harry Potter, to a couple of kids squabbling in To Kill A Mockingbird. After all there is no greater showcase than taking us back to your ancestors in the civil war.
Dream sequences, however, tend to have several pivotal points which mark them as distinctly alike, not least that they have become a genre staple in the newly arisen Paranormal Romance. There are the key markers that tell you this is not ‘real’ – the character out of their own setting, place and even body, the other people who shouldn’t be familiar but are and of course the waking up. Even if you manage – as few do – to avoid your character being in mortal danger, waking up sweating and thankful to be alive, those markers will still render it overly familiar. And they are considered the reason the opening is false, asking the reader to invest in something that is essentially not only unreal but is introducing a world that we aren’t in.
Investment is light at this stage and the biggest investment is always in the story and voice, neither of which are false simply because of a dream. However, Martin does sidestep this pitfall. This after all is the man who has every viewer taking bets on who will be killed next. He tells you straight up front not to get too attached. Death is the one true constant and if you aren’t comfortable with it then do as I did and bail. Bail now.
He opens with three men, apparently together yet each clearly agin the other, the antagonism apparent in the first exchange of dialogue.
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.
We get a taste of the Game, a battle for power, and its callous nature as they one up the other over what seems to be a family, dead and abandoned in the snow. It pervades every adjective chosen, ‘iron certainty’, ever small detail included, ‘where Maester Aemon had cut the ears away’. The only one remotely likable character, a put upon thief, our guide through this, who just wants to get out of the cold, shown only the mercy of dying last.
To reiterate the most important point from the first part: its not a matter of do for the beginning. What you bring to your first lines should be exactly what you bring in every other line. And that’s what every good opening, including Game of Thrones, does. There is no false start. He brings death, brutality, unrelenting hardship; this is as grittily real as fantasy will ever get. If you don’t like it, you’re not going to like anything that comes after.
The other main reason prologues tend to be so reviled is that they are often not truly story, but rather an ill-disguised info dump of backstory, which in fantasy means explaining the way the world is set up and a glossary of odd terms. All of which aren’t just reviled in prologue form but get their own entries in the list of worst openings.
“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story”
“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape”
Again Martin sins here. We not only learn of Ser Royce’s position and unfortunate reputation amongst the rest of the Night Watch, we get his length of service and a detailed description of his moleskin gloves. But what we really get in spades is the Wall. The ice, the politics, the barren wildness, the immensity. Every character there is nothing more than an illustration of this hard brutal place.
“Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold. … It burns it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it… They say you don’t feel any pain towards the end.”
And that defines the entire Song of Ice and Fire, not merely the Game of Thrones. It is the world that is the hero, everything and everyone else pawns on this epic board.
Of course as always in writing it comes down to how you do things. He could have simply told us. Narrated the history of the 8000 year old monstrosity, its dimensions, the magic that fortifies it, the Giants that built it, the men who live and die for it. Wiki will if you prefer the text book approach. It sounds cool. But I wonder if it does so mostly because first we read a scene which hinted at such a marvel.
“And how did you find the Wall?”
“Weeping,” Will said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now the Lordling had pointed it out.
“They couldn’t have froze. Not if the wall was weeping.”
Martin chose to show us, with a brutal, nasty little story of arrogance, ice and death. We see the characters interact, we hear the harsh orders and ego prodding of the Lordling, the stifled fury of the old soldier and we see it all through the eyes of a man who is all but helpless, duty bound to obey, to his death.
And then he does the best thing you can ever do. He leaves us wanting more.
Will closed his eyes to pray. Long elegant hands brushed his cheek then tightened around his throat. They were clothed in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.