Storytelling lessons from “A Song of Ice And Fire”

Late as I’ve come to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice And Fire” book series, I can’t put the books down now. They’re well-written and engaging. Engagement is — of course — the paramour of social media. If we can understand how to drive engagement over such long pieces of writing, we will become better online storytellers. So I tried to uncover a few lessons (without revealing the story).

Embrace Constraints

Rules might seem cumbersome and unnecessary. On the contrary, they guide story-tellers. Rules help you decide which chunks of content do not fit your strategy. And they help your creations shine.
For example, “A Song Of Ice And Fire” uses only a limited number of point-of-view characters. The author follows this rule even when it becomes difficult. As he says in interviews, POV characters should have a story, which makes it impossible for them to be simply pairs of eyes. Sometimes this creates complicated problems, such as the one he refers to on his blog as the Meereenese knot.

For online story-tellers: informational needs of audiences, tone, article length, and the channels they prefer provide plenty of opportunities to create rules. Seize them. Your audience doesn’t need to be aware of them at all. Yet, being consistent in these helps you meet audiences’ expectations and makes your content more easily digestible.

Relatable Characters

The lawful-good Starks’ introduction at the beginning of the “Song” sweeps the readers into the story. Their family life is introduced, and immediately besieged by their environment and the political situation of the realm.

Characters’ flaws, the pressures of their environment and their story help audiences to relate to them. Even when they exhibit major flaws, people will still relate to them. As the author says in his interview on Sword and Laser, people — especially women — relate quite strongly to Sandor Clegane, nicknamed “The Hound”.

For online story-tellers: of course, most content marketing is non-fiction — one would hope. Yet, there are still characters to be built. In a case study, for example, both the caring employee and the client have to be fleshed out. You have to decide which aspects of their personality to include and which to leave out. Are your clients laid-back or corporate? Are they demanding or outright anxious? How do you or your employees respond to them? Such details become apparent in case studies or any other type of narrative document. Better plan for that.

Use Familiar Elements To Build Rapport

The novels in “A Song of Ice and Fire” introduce a fantasy world full of wonders but in such a way as to not confuse readers. For example, the numerous religions present in the series are based on mixing and matching tenets of existing religions and adding some imaginative elements. Anchors of the storyline are references to dynastic wars from British history. Grounding things in reality makes them more plausible, George R.R. Martin says in his Authors@Google interview.

For online story-tellers: in your own efforts, beware that people need to put your service or company into an existing category. Same thing with your content. Breaking expectations in subtle ways like George R.R. Martin does in his books with unnatural eye colors, for example, will help you build your publication’s personality.

Pace and Variety are Everything

Books longer than 500 pages tire me. I seldom finish them. Most of them are poorly paced and too monotonous. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is neither. The rare times I would get tired or the more frequent times I would become disgusted with the story’s cruel twists, I’d glance a few pages ahead. Seeing which character would be the next point-of-view, I’d quickly finish the chapter at hand in anticipation of reading the next one.

For online story-tellers: social media and blog posts aren’t as sequential as novels but they’ll tire your audience all the same. To prevent this, provide different types of posts, don’t make them longer than they need to be and don’t publish too often.

Reveal the past as you go forward

If you are going to reference the past, it helps to uncover it little by little. When you anchor your reminiscing in the flux of current events and concerns, you provide important information without diminishing the momentum of your story. In “Song”, George R.R.

Martin uses this technique all the time, he says in his Authors@Google talk (31st minute). From time to time, a character will start telling the story of another character’s parents or grandparents. He even introduces conflicting accounts of the same events from different characters. And it’s up to the reader to piece them together.

For online story-tellers: social media users in general and techies in particular are obsessed with the future. One step ahead, always one step ahead. Past and current events don’t get discussed in much depth. The rise of topic pages in new services might alleviate that — in the future. But for now, this is the way it is.
As a result, posts that are out of beat or explore the past don’t get much attention, I noticed. Hence, dropping the name of current cultural phenomenons such as the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its HBO adaptation “Game of Thrones” is an effective — albeit inelegant — tactic.

Don’t Overpromise

For a time, George R.R. Martin would announce estimated completion dates for his works. Now, the book will be written when it is written and no interviewer in his right mind dares ask the question any more.

For online story-tellers: although building up anticipation can make sense in some cases, most of the time it is best to keep expectations low. Do not make promises you cannot keep. Publishing many posts in a short period of time might also count as a promise for more. Pacing yourself will ensure that you won’t set expectations too high.

Image credit: Detail from “Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte” (oil on canvas), Albert Anke, 1884. And « Sanctuary — Edward IV and Lancastrian Fugitives at Tewkesbury Abbey« , Richard Burchett, 1867

I wrote « Storytelling lessons from “A Song of Ice And Fire” » on’s blog, it was originally published on November 12, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.




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