The Review/ Short Read/

George R. R. Martin’s advice for those who know nothing (and for those who know a little something, too)

How you can tame your own creative dragons

Aug 25, 2017

In the summer of 1991, George R. R. Martin was in the process of working on a science-fiction novel when he was struck with the image of a boy stumbling on some wolf pups in the snow. He immediately put pen to paper. Though the handful of chapters he wrote that summer would spend the next few years tucked away in a drawer, Martin couldn’t get the world of Westeros or the characters he had created out of his head.

By the time he returned to that drawer, he knew he had to explore Westeros again – and explore it he did. Though Martin isn’t finished writing the popular series, HBO’s adaptation, Game of Thrones, is now in its seventh season. Ardent fans across the world are blowing up the Internet with their predictions for the remaining GOT episodes – and debating how the show will resolve the assorted entanglements of its (often) highly flawed characters.

“I knew I was doomed when I drew the map,” chuckled Martin good-naturedly in a 2012 visit to TIFF. The famous author shared with us his own battles with Hollywood’s dragons, how he learned to always listen to the demands of the story, and the vivid scene that took him from science fiction into the rich wilderness of medieval fantasy.

As the seventh season’s finale draws near, we think it’s the perfect time to revisit our visit with the writer who started an international obsession. This week, we bring you George R. R. Martin’s top 6 pieces of advice for young writers and filmmakers — our “TIFF 6ix” for the week:

  1. Start small, and build a name. “I always advise new writers to break in with short stories. Write a whole bunch, and sell as many as you can — it will give you a leg up when you move to the world of novels. When you do finally write your first novel, it’s not just going to be by some new person you’ve never heard of; it’s going to be a long-awaited first novel by this person who published 20 short stories, and you’ve been seeing their name in all these magazines.”
  2. Learn the medium in which you’re working. “As a novelist, you have certain tools at your disposal to work with. You have internal monologue, access to characters’ thoughts, you can do unreliable narrators... You can’t really do any of these as a filmmaker or as a television director, but you have other techniques. You can bring in music to heighten the emotional impact of the scene, you can do things with lighting, and your actors can bring a tremendous amount with just a look. You have to always be aware of what medium you’re working in, and what things work in it and what things don’t.”
  3. Know what you’re up against. “Working in television and film requires a certain temperament and skills that prose writers don’t necessarily need or often have. In television and film, you’ve got all these people — the studio, the network, the actors, the directors, the producers... Sometimes it’s hard enough to do the good work, and other people want to mess around with it or they have their own ideas. You have to have the temperament not only to do the good work, but to fight for your work.”
  4. One scene can change everything.“I’d just started working on this novel that I had been thinking of writing for, like, 10 years, and I was writing that and moving on well, and suddenly this scene came to me. I didn’t know what it was — I knew it wasn’t part of the novel that I was writing — but it came to me so vividly and so strongly that I felt compelled to write it. So I put aside what I was doing and I wrote that chapter, and that chapter led to another chapter, and then I wrote another.”
  5. Real characters exist in the in-between.“Characters have to be real. Human beings are such wonderfully perverse and contradictory creatures. The war between good and evil, as a subject for fantasy, is not fought between armies of heroes in white cloaks and armies of ugly guys in black cloaks, but rather is fought within the individual human heart, in the choices we make in times of crises. All the greatest heroes have flaws, and all the greatest villains have moments of humanity, or redeeming qualities, about them. To my mind, that makes them more interesting. Characters that are full of contradictions.”
  6. The story has its own demands. “You can’t always do the popular thing. Sometimes you have concepts or ideas that aren’t immediately popular, but are the right thing to do to tell your story. If I had said, ‘Okay, fans, should I kill Ned in the end of the first book?’ he would still be kicking around. I mean, nobody would have voted to kill him, but that was the right thing to do for my book and my readers. There is a sequence in the third book that was the hardest thing I ever wrote. And it was very painful. But it had to be done. It’s the story.”


For more from the bestselling author, you can check out Martin's entire Master Class interview with TIFF, or look back to our In Conversation With...George R. R. Martin at TIFF Bell Lightbox.