What writers can learn from Chapter 1 of Game of Thrones

A lot of advice for would-be writers focuses on the first chapter and how to hook your potential agent and publisher so they don’t throw your manuscript in the garbage. As a budding writer, I’ve taken in a lot of such advice over the past few years, so I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to look at the first chapter of A Game of Thrones, and see how a world-renowned author such as George R.R. Martin crafts his opening chapter:

The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer.

Wait, what? That’s the opening sentence to the hugely-popular modern fantasy classic? A boring description of the weather? I guess that’s why GRRM added a prologue where a bunch of blue-eyed snow zombies gruesomely killed scores of people? The common writing advice trope of never opening with a description of the weather stands applies here though, so I’ve taken the liberty of excising it and letting the rest of the paragraph stand:

They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

Much better. We’ve got a seven-year old boy going to his first beheading and it’s apparently the ninth year of summer on whatever crazy planet this story takes place. If there’s something I missed out on as a child, it was going to see a beheading, so I’m glad that Bran’s father is raising him properly.

Moving on …

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it. He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

Looking back on this paragraph now five books and seven seasons in, it’s amazing how many hints G.R.R.M. dropped in one paragraph. We’ve got Mance Rayder (which is a kick-ass name, by the way), who won’t show up for three more books. We’ve got the wildlings, the presumed bad guys for the first half of ASOIAF. And finally, we’ve got the Others (the White Walkers) and the Long Night, which are incredibly important to the endgame of the entire series. I quibble with G.R.R.M. revealing that the Others are real in the very first part of the book, but I guess he needed a big opening to sell the book to his publisher. In my mind, not knowing if the White Walkers are real until the battle at the Fist of the First Men at the beginning of A Storm of Swords would have been a much more effective reveal.

Skipping ahead…

Lord Eddard Stark dismounted and his ward Theon Greyjoy brought forth the sword. “Ice,” that sword was called. It was as wide across as a man’s hand, and taller even than Robb. The blade was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel.

More important endgame information! You were probably more impressed with the size of Ice rather that the provenance of its metal, but as the story unfolds, that metal becomes all the more important, and it’s a good detail that G.R.R.M. tucks in here when readers won’t be able to grasp its significance.

After the beheading, the rest of the chapter involves the Stark children finding a pack of baby direwolves, who you know were just thrown in there so HBO could sell direwolf plushies 15 years later.

In all seriousness, this chapter actually accomplishes a lot. We learn a bit about the world and its history, meet some of the series’ most important characters, and then everyone gets a puppy to take home in the end. Just like in real life.

Originally published at www.jonauerbach.com on February 27, 2015.

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