Three Things Game of Thrones Can Teach Non-Fiction Writers

game of thrones reading writing

This is an essay by Rhonda Kronyk.

The list of categories we can choose reading material from is endless. Yet, as busy people, we often choose to read in the genre we write in and forget that all writers can learn from reading outside their genre.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of letting my non-fiction reading slide this year as I work on my freelance writing and editing business. I miss reading novels, but never seem to make the time to fit them into my schedule.

That is until my son introduced me to the Game of Thrones television series. I rarely read fantasy fiction, and I never watch it on TV. But I am enthralled by Game of Thrones. So much so that I bought all of the novels.

It didn’t take me long to realize that writers can adapt George RR Martin’s techniques for non-fiction writing.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Understand your characters.

All non-fiction writing has a human at its core. Whether you’re writing a technical manual, a scientific treatise, a book of history, or a self-help article, everything is written by and for humans. The sooner you understand that, the better your writing will be.

However, for some genres this is even more important. Biographies, case studies, and memoir come immediately to mind.

Martin’s characters reflect humanity. They are incredibly complex, almost always contradictory, and are motivated by a range of rationales.

The people you discuss in your writing are the same. That means you need to hone your interview skills in order to access this complexity.

What aren’t they saying? How do past actions contradict or support their current words? What are their motivations?

I’m not suggesting that you dig up dirt on the people you write about. But you need to remember that, like Martin’s characters, people are rarely easy. That means that you need to take the time to try to understand them. Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters. His response is classic: “I’ve always considered women to be people.”

What does this mean for you? No matter how difficult the interview or your personal feelings about a subject, you are dealing with people. None of us are easy, so take that into account.

2. Setting matters.

Have you ever read a feature article about a place and walked away disappointed? When Martin writes about his kingdom, readers can form a mental picture of dark castles, rich, walled cities and a wall of ice separating the North from the Seven Kingdoms.

You need to learn to convey this same detail in your non-fiction writing. Don’t leave your reader unable to form a mental image of the nature reserve, museum, or cultural event you are writing about.

That means it isn’t enough to say the lake water is blue. Rather, say “the clouds cause the water to change from blue green to steel grey, while the wind creates patterns of ripples across the water.” Details help your reader to see what you see.

Can you imagine the ice wall in the northern kingdom described as a barrier to separate the wild lands from the Seven Kingdoms? That doesn’t provide much of a mental picture, does it? But Martin’s ice-wall is 700 feet tall, 300 miles long, and infused with magic. It has abandoned forts built along its length and dominates the surrounding geography. It is forbidding and frightening and necessary.

When you build this level of detail into your descriptions, you provide your reader with a richer experience and draw them deeper into your writing.

3. The plot has to make sense.

It doesn’t matter if your story starts at the middle or the end. By the time the reader finishes the whole article, they have to understand the chain of events.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But think about the plot turns that Game of Throne takes. I can generally guess the ending of a show before the halfway point. Yet, I am constantly amazed by the plot twists that evolve. Not only that, but the twists are realistic because they reflect the characters and setting that Martin has worked into his story.

But you aren’t writing fiction, so none of this matters right? Wrong. Real life takes just as many twists and turns as a novel. It’s just as full of unintended consequences. As a writer, you need to be able to follow the various threads, sort them into a semblance of order and cut the ones that will clutter and confuse the story.

You always need to keep the facts straight so your reader can get an understanding of the events that you are writing about – no matter how complicated they are.

I’m thrilled that I was introduced to the rich tapestry that is a George RR Martin novel. It has been an excellent reminder to rekindle my love of fiction.

So expand your reading, go back to the wonderful world of well-written novels and incorporate the techniques of good fiction writing into non-fiction writing.

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Rhonda Kronyk is the editor and co-author of Releasing the Words: Writers on Writing, an e-book helping writers take control of writer’s block. As a die-hard word-nerd, she explores everything word related including writing, editing, and reading.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Douglas Brown.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer – Part One

writing child writer

This essay is in two parts and was written by Elizabeth Simons.

Part One: The Essence of Being a Writer

In the third season of the overwhelmingly popular drawing room saga Downton Abbey, the imprisoned Mr. Bates receives a packet of letters from his beloved wife, Anna. She, in turn, receives a packet of letters from her husband. The last scene in this episode shows them, side by side, each totally absorbed in reading the other’s words. The camera juxtaposes the two images as if they were next to each other. It’s a breathtaking moment.

This is the power of words. Human beings are born to communicate, to make connections. Words give us the means to reflect and interpret the world around us, and to share this world with others. We use words to bring thoughts to life on the page, and the page comes to life in the hand.

In the days before electronic communication, or even the typewriter, one wrote with a pen, one letter at a time, each letter blooming into a word, each word shaping the structure of a sentence. How you wrote, and what you wrote about, were uniquely your own.

But you wrote.

It has been said that speech shapes thought. As babies we imitated the language of those around us, and the words we learned echoed in our souls and reflected meaning. Dog! Cat! Tree! We learned the essence of these expressions before we grasped, through thought, what it meant to be a dog or a cat or a tree.

As artists, and especially writers, we long to recapture the enthusiasm of childhood, creating wings for our words, releasing them to soar and reflect the life within them. Speech is never more alive than it is at the threshold of thought.

We all create with words, spoken or written. We write stories and essays in school. Some of us keep a journal or a blog. We write business letters. And while we may have exchanged the computer screen for pen and paper, we express our emotions through personal letters.

Everyone writes.

For some, writing is redemption. We sculpt ordinary words until they shine, putting out into the universe something that has never existed before, tales that can delight or entertain or inform. Regardless of our individual circumstances, we can create worlds that are beyond what is personal. In the process of writing we discover that our stories are true because they reflect a universe in which we are inexplicably linked to every thing and every one around us. We make imperishable connections.

Somewhere in the unseen world there are words with our name on them, imprisoned like the fairy tale princess, waiting to be released. It is our task to discover them and share them with the world in which we live.

No one else can do this for us.

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Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marin.

America’s Love Affair With Television

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Inspired by A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace.

It was a coincidence that the first book I finished reading using an e-reader was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  I got a Nook for Christmas in 2010, and it lead me into a book reading binge. Recognizing how fast I was going through books with the device I made a resolution to write something down about each one so that I could take something from the reading experience. The ability to turn a page with a press of a thumb without adjusting or shifting your position made for a supremely convenient experience. Immediately, I declared that I would purchase all future books on the device. Later, I learned this statement was misguided because many publishers had not started releasing books in e-format.

Nevertheless, I did read David Foster Wallace (DFW) early on and found his discussion of TV ironic given my new “addiction” to the Nook.  From his work I thought out a few realities of television which is a technology he struggled with most of his adult life, even admitting to intentionally avoiding the set while doing his most serious writing. Here are the ideas that I took away through his inspiration to think about the subject:

1.  TV caters to the lowest common denominator and strips away your ability to be unique.

TV is designed to appeal as many people as it possibly can so that advertisements are worth more and the revenue stream will steadily increase. The dollar rules and the collective dollars of the collective assembly is the target.  I don’t think it is a new idea, but it is one worth recognizing in the context that everyone one should realize that you aren’t going to set yourself apart from the masses by consuming TV.

2.  TV does not encourage the treatment of a particular subject with breadth or depth.

The aim of TV is to fit entertainment bang between commercials.  The creators of TV programs have limitations imposed by the format. Attention spans being what they are, it is impossible to cover any subject with the same breadth or depth that a book can.  Complicated ideas are typically discarded in favor of a hook that will drag you through the next commercial break.

3.  TV destroys focus and mutates attention span to fit its format.

Watching TV transforms your patience and your brain to a focus on the program, but the experience is completely passive.  It asks nothing of you, and as a result there is no need to give full attention to the material.  When you need not give full attention, you don’t practice that.  Lack of practice leads to lack of skill in this department.

4.  TV has a clear focus, consumption as opposed to creation.

In conjunction with the passive nature of the experience there is typically no call to action with TV.  Rarely is the suggestion that you leave with inspiration to go into the world and create or give something back.  Instead the call is to tune back in for more consumption or, through advertisement, to express your consumptive self on a given product.  Missing is the call to contribute.

These realities are not necessarily an argument to avoid TV completely.  TV is not going anywhere.  In order to create something that is going to be appreciated by the masses these days you have to be familiar enough with the effects of TV to be able to communicate given the reality of its huge impact.  I am not advocating abandoning TV, but while trying to create something new and unique or while working to explore something with a new depth and focus you may find TV is a poison.

AMENDMENT:

After reading this post, someone suggested I follow-up this article by reading Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.  I finished it and wanted to add these thoughts.

Johnson asserts the basic hypothesis that IQ has risen as a whole over the past 20 or so years, and that one possible explanation is the increasing popularity and complexity of social media, including television.   By way of summary, Johnson sets out by stating that twenty-five years of increasingly complex television has honed our analytical skills.  He then moves on to argue that increasing IQ across society, known as the Flynn effect, provide some empiric evidence that his theory is correct.

Johnson paid particular attention to reality TV in setting forth the argument that these shows shift our brain toward focusing on  the emotional lives of the people around us.  The part of the brain that tracks subtle shifts in intonation, gesture, and facial expression, Johnson thought, were sent into overdrive while we watched these shows so that we could make judgments about whose side we wanted to be on.

After reading Johnson’s book I would echo his sentiment that there is need for more study to determine whether a true connection exists between the increasing popularity and complexity of television and some skill that translates to other areas of life. The reason I put the question that way is because if we just get better at watching TV by watching TV and the skill increase does not translate to other areas, there is limited value.

I believe the only point that is called into question by Johnson’s hypothesis would be point 3. above, TV destroys focus and mutates attention span to fit its format. The other conclusions inspired by DFW are not contradicted by Johnson’s conclusions.  I would consider amending the idea in point 3. if there were a study along the lines above.  I may even consider adding an additional sentence which would clarify that TV may, in fact, increase emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence probably can be practiced by watching humans interact with humans in a real way.  In that way, TV may increase our ability to read social cues.  This ability readily translates into success in the “real world.” In that way, it would be unfair of me to call watching TV a “completely passive” activity. This area is certainly one where scientific study would be worthwhile.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Kansir