Riding the Waves
Kurt Vonnegut once gave a charming lecture about the shapes of stories. His point was that some types of stories deploy their ups and downs differently. To this I’d like to add that all these curves are variations on the sine wave. That’s how drama works. The character is doing terribly, then they’re doing well, then they’re doing terribly again. The attitude of that wave – crest or trough – at the story’s end is what exposes our sensibilities as tragedians/comedians. Before the story ends, however, all authors are the same, providing a regular oscillation in the fortunes of the characters. If that is not the case in your work, and you’re trying to write a page-turner, I would make changes.
In AGOT, Martin places a limit on how much trouble a character will be in. Let’s take Dany for example. Her predicament is horrendous. She is a thirteen-year-old girl sold, by her cruel and power-hungry brother, to a barbarian warlord. She considers suicide. Then, inspired by a dream (I know), she decides to see the silver lining in her captivity. Seen objectively, still a nightmare, but she’s happier and more confident, so we have to consider her life on the upswing. She uses some of this confidence to confront and shame her brother. Suddenly things are looking pretty good for Dany! She even is starting to fall in love with Khal Drogo.
Naturally Martin must introduce some chaos into this. We can’t have a character happily roaming the prairies of Essos with her horselord hubby. So Dany begins to adopt some of Viserys’s revanchist dreams. And then, the kicker – she’s pregnant.
Dany’s third chapter finds Martin at his most narratively efficient. Which is a strange thing to impute to a guy who underestimated the final length of his series by four (or more?) very long books. But when you take AGOT as a whole, his screenwriting skills are evident.
In her first two chapters Dany is betrothed and then married. By the end of the third chapter Martin has advanced her arc considerably. Here is where we see her going native. She’s learned to cope with her captivity, and has begun to flash some queenly instincts. She’s a better rider and more attuned to the land they’re journeying through. She reverses her relationship to her abusive brother, Viserys. We see Viserys pinching or grabbing Dany a number of times, and in her third chapter Dany shoves him back.
His hand went under her vest, his fingers digging painfully into her breast. “Do you hear me?”
Dany shoved him away, hard.
Viserys stared at her, his lilac eyes incredulous. She had never defied him. Never fought back. Rage twisted his features. He would hurt her now, and badly, she knew that.
With that gesture of defiance, the relationship is exhausted. Certainly Viserys isn’t done – he still needs his crown – but he will never again dominate his sister. We can say that with confidence because it would not be interesting to return to that scenario. In our real lives we all engage in cycles like this, but we don’t bother with it in narrative – not necessarily for emotional reasons, either. It’s simply a question of diminishing returns.
For Dany to rebel against Viserys within thirty pages shows how Martin will move it along when he wants to. Viserys has been her major antagonist to this point; but her situation now with Khal Drogo requires her chapters’ full attention. So Viserys has to be put in his place. And it’s a good, exciting scene. We see Viserys’s cruelty, Dany’s mercy, and the loyalty of her bodyguards. We understand that Viserys is not going to take this lying down, and so we anticipate his attempted revenge. Dany certainly anticipates it:
“I hit him,” she said, wonder in her voice. Now that it was over, it seemed like some strange dream that she had dreamed. “Ser Jorah, do you think… he’ll be so angry when he gets back… She shivered. “I woke the dragon, didn’t I?”
And this is only in the first five pages of the chapter. Dany then proceeds to turn into the skid of her horrible marriage, by participating freely in the sex she has been forced into until that point.
So if Dany’s arc in AGOT is growing up, she’s certainly growing up fast; she’s pregnant by page 199.
I disagree with the common conception of the character arc, while still acknowledging that it exists. My issue with it is that it’s useful to readers. For writers, I don’t think it’s helpful to have this idea of a beginning/middle/end for a character and then have a checklist of “inciting incident”, “reversal of fortune,” etc. All of these should emerge from microplotting whose mechanics are more natural, clear cut, and robust. And that rhythm is a simple one: gain chaos in your life, get rid of it; rinse and repeat.