A NORTAV Analysis of G. R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones

For instructions on performing a NORTAV analysis, see The NORTAV Method for Writers. To purchase a copy of A Game of Thrones, click here.

Narrative Mode: DCE 1

Narrator: Omniscient

Narrative Intrusion: No

Focal Character(s): Will

Prose Type(s) and/or Beat Types(s): DCE

Narrative Tense: Past

Additional Constraints: None

Narrative Pattern: DCE 1 throughout

Source: Prologue;Paragraphs 1-13


    [O1] “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”

To start, we don’t know who the focal character is yet, so it’s hard to label this beat without further reading. On first glance it certainly feels like it’s Gared. But from moving on in the analysis we discover it’s actually Will. Thus, [O1] is a beat of Observation. In fact, this is a good example of how the “feel” of a beat changes simply based on the reader knowing which character he/she is experiencing the beat through. In other words, read this beat again as if you are experiencing it through Gared. Now read it again and let yourself experience it through (the as-of-yet unknown character) Will. Do you sense the difference? Certainly a writer has to be aware of his narrative mode and narrative schema at this level of detail if a reader can sense something this subtle. When a writer doesn’t handle narrative modes and narrative schemas properly, a reader will sense it and feel the writing is somehow “off” or “amateurish”, even if the reader can’t explain precisely why.

Moving on, we can see that Martin has stripped out all sense of a narrator so far. If this style continues (and it will), we know we are dealing with DCE.

    [O2] “Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

More of the same here. The as-of-yet unknown Will is observing Royce as he mocks Gared. Thus, [O2] is another Observation beat.

    {O3}[T4] Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. [O5] “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

Here we have a beat of thought, [T4], that’s triggered by an implied observation {O3}. That is, Will continues to observe what is happening between Gared and Royce and realizes (probably somewhat subconsciously) that Gared isn’t biting because of his age and experience. Also, [T4] is performing a bit of beat substitution, for we as readers experience it somewhat as Will’s observation. In other words, as Will realizes what’s happening, we are “seeing” Gared remain cool-headed in our mind’s eye. Remember this, cause I’m going to come back to this point.

Finally, [O5] is another beat of Will’s continued observation as Gared speaks.

    [O6] “Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”

More of Will’s continued observation. Again, notice that there is little-to-no sense of a narrator here. In fact, this is about as close to pure DCE as you can get.

    [O7] “Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”

More of Will’s observation.

    [T8] Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. [V9] “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

And here it is: The first beat that firmly establishes the focal character as Will. Prior to this beat, every beat could have been experienced through Gared or Royce. Remember the beat substitution in {O3}[T4]? If [T4] is not being experienced through Will, the implication of its type changes.

Take the time and reread the sample again up to this point. Read it first as if Gared is the focal character. Then read it as if Royce is the focal character. Finally, read it as if Will is the focal character. Notice how the beat types change and how, depending on the focal character, we start to get a sense of a narrator’s presence. Again, this is a great example of how subtle narrative modes, narrative schemas, and beat types can be. And if it’s this subtle and subconsciously noticeable to the reader, what does that tell you about what you need to be aware of as a writer?

Back to point. Here, [T8] is Will’s direct thought to himself, which triggers his response in the vocalization beat [V9].

    [O10] “My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, [T11] too loud in the twilit forest.

Initiating Observation beat [O10] is Royce’s response, as heard by Will. Notice the observation continues a bit, where Will listens to the echoes, which triggers his realization in [T11].

    [O12] “We have a long ride before us,” Gared pointed out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”

Here is another initiating Observation, [O12], where Will hears Gared add his two cents.

    [O13] Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. “It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”

More of Will’s observation here.

    {O14}[T15] Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. Gared had spent forty years in the Night’s Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of. Yet it was more than that. Under the wounded pride, Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.

Here Martin’s style nearly slips into NCE, but because he is so deep within Will’s experience (i.e. the narrator is completely gone), that the reader continues to experience the beats from deep within Will. This kind of slip is infrequent, which allows Martin some leeway.

So, because we are notating this as DCE, we need to be especially careful. Notice we have the same implied observation/beat substitution going on here. Will observes something (which we don’t get directly) and then we get his instant musing on the observation. Also, notice the narrative tags in here (Will could see, Will could sense). Because of the beat substitution, this makes these tags also come across as thought, as if Will is thinking to himself, making note of the fact that he can actually “see” and “sense” this stuff.

Subtle? Of course. But I’ve already shown you how important it is to grasp the narrative mode, narrative schema, and beats at this level. 99.9% of the pros do, even if their grasp of these concepts is subconscious or intuitive (based on YEARS of trial and error and practice).

    [T16] Will shared his unease. He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterward. He was a veteran of a hundred rangings by now, and the endless dark wilderness that the southron called the haunted forest had no more terrors for him.
    [T17] Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise. Nine days they had been riding, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of wildling raiders. Each day had been worse than the day that had come before it. Today was the worst of all. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. Gared had felt it too. Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with your commander.
    [T18] Especially not a commander like this one.

And lastly, [T15] triggers Will’s chain of thought from [T16] through [T18].

Now, if one wanted to learn how to write like George R. R. Martin, what would one do?

George writes in nearly pure DCE, one of few writers who can do so with such ease. Though he does, on occasion, dip into some Narration (not shown here), he usually only does so with minimal intrusion to direct the scene and transition characters in time and place. For instance, he may write an entire chapter of pure DCE, with the exception of one quick narrative direction like “The next day…” added to make a transition in time or place smoother.

You’ll also notice that each chapter in his SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series is dedicated to one and only one character, and that character’s name is used as the chapter title. Why? Because he writes in such deep DCE, it is the magnitude of the focal character’s experience that becomes the driving force for each chapter.

So if you want to learn to write like George R. R. Martin, grab a copy of THE NORTAV METHOD FOR WRITERS and study the section on DCE. Write from deep within your focal character’s experience and keep your narrator from sticking his nose in, except when it’s absolutely necessary.

Source Copyright

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Copyright 1996 by George R. R. Martin

Excerpted for this analysis under the Fair Use doctrine codified in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.


2 comments for “A NORTAV Analysis of G. R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones

  1. August 24, 2015 at 6:03 am

    Hi, I would like to buy this book, is there an ebook that I can buy? The reason I cannot buy from Amazon is that I am in South Africa and it will get stolen en route (Ive ordered three times from Amazon and its gone missing when it gets into the country) not Amazons fault. Like I said, I am happy to pay for it but do not want to have rely on our incredibly inept postal service and a courier in our currency is far too expensive. I look forward to your reply, Cheers Lesley

    • Jim
      August 24, 2015 at 11:20 am

      All my books are available as ebooks on Amazon.


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