Tower of the Hand

Why George Martin Will Now Never Finish His Novels

May 29, 2016, 9:00 AM ET
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Spoiler warning: scenes, character beats, and various other plot developments from The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring will be discussed in the essay below. As my dear friend Steven Attewell is wont to say before his brilliant chapter-by-chapter analyses, caveat lector.

The famed screenwriter/author/former journalist J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Changeling fame, has often talked about the inner drive - no, the inner need - for a writer to get a particular story out of his or her system. Given the psychological or existential pressures involved to make that internal reality an external one, Straczynski has for years entirely skipped the outlining process on his way to producing the finished screenplay or novel; he has found that the committing of his story to paper, even in a basic or otherwise inchoate fashion, satiates that drive and dissipates that pressure. If he writes an outline, in short, the likelihood of a finished script ever materializing becomes extraordinarily lessened.


I've found myself thinking a lot about this fundamental truth of that strange breed we call writers over the course of the past five weeks, ever since Game of Thrones debuted its sixth season - the first, of course, to be largely set after George R.R. Martin's latest installment in his Song of Ice and Fire saga, A Dance with Dragons. The sliding of certain developments or plot twists from his last two proposed volumes into HBO's series had already begun the previous year - hullo, the sacrificial murder of Princess Shireen Baratheon by her dear ol' dad! - but now, of course, we've found ourselves practically flooded by them.

(Yes, yes - we should probably pause here a moment to discuss the little fact that Game of Thrones is an adaptation, and that, as such, not all of its various handlings of all the various throughlines will necessarily be the same as what Martin will unfurl in his final two thousand pages or so [particularly considering just how many more characters, both main and tertiary, he employs in his version of the story]. Still, the show has proven itself rather adept at taking the broad strokes of the source material [say, Melisandre's desire to burn one of King Robert Baratheon's royal bastards alive] and stripping them down to a more streamlined - and, therefore, more manageable - version [the insertion of Gendry instead of Edric Storm]. All of which is to say that, more likely than not, viewers are getting some form or another of "spoilers," whether implicit or explicit, overt or oblique.)

To be honest, I'm not entirely certain where George Martin fits into this quirk of writerly psychology; his speaking on the writing process tends to focus more on his particular approach to the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of storytelling, and not on the fundamental drive of birthing a tale or the necessity (or lack thereof) of outlining. With that said, however, Martin does spend a lot of time delineating what he considers to be the two general types of authors: "architects" tend to outline and draft and plan everything out before venturing out into the narrative wilderness, while "gardeners" like to plant an idea and water it over time and through various meanderings on the page. Neither approach is necessarily flawed nor flawless - it's just how an individual writer's mind works.

Martin, infamously, is a strong proponent of the gardening school (as his ever-longer waits between books avidly attests to; he once threw out the entire and not-insignificant beginnings of a first draft just because he decided the five-year time jump in between that book and his previous one wasn't quite working out for him on a storytelling level), which means, I strongly suspect, his burning need to tell a particular story is quenched once he's figured it out on the page, letting it stand there until it can be discovered by the audience. So far, this process has been an entirely private one, with his many legions of fans not getting the chance to see his twists of plot or turns of character until the full package has been completed and sent out into the world.

Obviously, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss practically blow this particular arrangement up. They had to pry his closely-guarded (and loosely formulated) narrative beats out of him in order to tackle them in the realm of television - and now that we know for a fact that at least some of these twists will, indeed, make their way to either Winds of Winter or Dream of Spring, and now that audiences will have had the chance to experience and absorb them, it is as if that function of the storytelling process has been fulfilled for him. Viewers - including, I'm assuming, the vast majority of his readers - know that, say, Hodor becomes Hodor thanks to some weirwood-inducing time-traveling interference by a young Bran Stark. That's got to cut at Martin's gut in a very real and visceral way; that's got to have an effect on whatever peculiar internal dynamics are at work that eventually, painfully propel a narrative out of him.


This, then, is my fear: Martin, who is, objectively speaking, a peculiarly demanding author that absolutely requires a whole host of factors to be lined up just right in order for him to sit at his keyboard and produce work, will now lose some of that steam to deliver the next chapters in the stories of Jon and Jaime and Cersei and Stannis and, yes, Bran and Hodor. He'll become even slower at this whole translating-concepts-to-black-and-white paper thing, which will discourage him even more, and he'll find himself pulled more towards those many projects and side-stories that won't find any purchase in the narrative landscape of Ice and Fire (it is at this point, I imagine, that the siren call of developing other television series for HBO, which he already signed a contract to do several years ago, will become the most dangerously tempting). This is even truer once he publishes The Winds of Winter (he already has too much material amassed for him to turn back now) in either 2017 or 2018, the latter being the year that Thrones will more than likely end, and suddenly finds himself staring down what is supposed to be the final volume in a world that already knows what that famously "bittersweet" ending will be, in one shape or another (I find it very hard to believe that the final person sitting on the Iron Throne [if, indeed, the throne ends up surviving the seven-book epic] at the conclusion of the television series will be different than the one in the novels).

Think about it: just how discouraging must it be to summon all the many hundreds of hours of work and the many years of commitment to tell a story whose suspense will already be largely dissipated - particularly a story that he has been slowly, torturously giving birth to over the past 20 years? Once the cat's out of the bag, it's out of the bag - and not even Arya will be able to scoop it back up.

Okay, okay - it's time for all the many disclaimers to be lined up neatly in a row, starting with the admission that, given his gardening methodology, Martin possibly won't feel that final twinge of accomplishment until he has the physical book sitting in his hands; it's just as likely that he'll view Weiss and Benioff's version of the story as a sort of rough draft of his own, using that iteration to inspire later, final developments. Hell, we already know that this has happened with the sixth-season episodes; he came up with an idea to take a character (who has already been killed off on the HBO series, thank you very much) in an entirely different direction, potentially resulting in a final denouement that will be substantially different than anything the showrunners would be able to produce.

Of course, the irony here is that such further deviations on the gardening path will only make his writing time all the longer and all the more convoluted, which only adds to the likelihood that he'll drift irrevocably away from the Ice and Fire path once Thrones's eighth and final season goes off the air. And all the other objections to the proposed scenario I've cobbled together out of the deep, primal, fear-based recesses of my psyche ultimately turn into similar counter-points: what if Martin deliberately changes the ending he's always had in mind since the early 1990s? What if he summarily ignores all the teleplays he's sent by the showrunners over the course of the next two years, purposely keeping his head stuck in the literary sand? What if he ties the Tales of Dunk and Egg ever more fully into the main saga?

Unfortunately, as much as it pains and disappoints me to say so, the emotional effect of the bombshell revelation that this week's episode dropped (that the white walkers are the creation of the children of the forest) just won't quite be the same when it finally materializes in either Winter or Spring - for either the reader or, most tragically, for Martin himself.

In short, the odds grow increasingly likely that George R.R. Martin will never finish A Song of Ice and Fire.

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