Warning: Spoilers ahead for season 6 of Game of Thrones.
This week I participated in the #10minutenovelists chat on Twitter (Thursdays at 6PM PST). The Q&A sessions revolved around Save the Cat, a well known and respected book explaining successful script structure. Many authors swear by the method for novels, as the concept of hooking and retaining an audience applies to either medium. Every. time. an outlining tool is mentioned to a group of writers, a discussion ensues extolling the benefits of pantsing (spontaneously creating--"by the seat of their pants"), plotting, or a combination of the two. While there are famous writers who have found success pantsing, I'd like to talk about a brilliant example that highlights just how profoundly impactful planning ahead can be.
This example is brought to us by the great George R.R. Martin.
As a reward for getting my books back online and driving the third book in The Hunted closer to production (more on that soon), my husband and I splurged on an HBO Now account and binged on Game of Thrones. With George R.R. Martin you can count on two things. 1. He's going to kill off your favorite characters in spectacular fashion. 2. The man's long game (planning) is stunning. I think he's brilliant and anyone who disagrees can't be my friend.
What separates the amateurs from the masters are the details. Not only does Game of Throne feature a dizzying amount of characters, but each of them is complex. All have backgrounds that shaped them into who they are. Even the worst have at least one feature that makes them more human than monster (even Cersei--she loves her children). But what makes the series great are the intricate themes that have the potential to play out into shocking reveals. Six seasons in, George R.R. Martin blew my mind with a single word.
Bran's consciousness stands in the past while his body is being dragged away from the wights and white walkers. The cave is under attack because of a critical mistake he made. Bran wandered up to the White King without his mentor and was touched, breaking the protective magic of the children of the forest. The people and creatures around him fight for his existence while he stays in a trance. Bran creates a link to Willis, the stable boy who grew up with Ned Stark, giving the boy a window into how he dies. Bran short-circuits Willis' mind, leaving him writhing on the ground, echoing the words screamed at him while he sacrifices his life. "Hold the door." This is how Hodor got his name.
The longer I thought through it, the more convinced I was that this was George R.R. Martin's plan all along. I confirmed my suspicions by watching the extra material. The writers working with George R.R. Martin described the hotel room they sat in while their minds were blown. He planned it all along. He knew how Hodor got his name.
While I slow clap George R.R. Martin's latest grey matter explosion bestowed upon us all, I encourage pantsers to plot at least a little bit. Without knowing where your books are going and some key details along the way, you miss opportunities to plant material that leads to something that yanks the rug out from under your reader. Know where your series is going. Create backstories for your characters, which may even mean spending time on material that's never published. If you plan it just right, a simple word has the potential to twist your readers' hearts and connect them to a character.
Have you watched or read a series that had a masterful reveal? Do you think it's critical to plan ahead?