How to Write a Page-turner like Game of Thrones and Goosebumps

Have you ever read a Goosebump book by R.L. Stine? Maybe when you were a kid? Remember how they were structured? At the end of every chapter, there is a cliffhanger. You know, to keep your young mind reading.

R.L. Stine was a master at doing this, however, as we got older, we became more suspect — you can only trick us so many times with a “sound coming from behind a door” page-turning trick, and have it turn out to be a cat or something else inconsequential.

Example:

Last line in Chapter 26: I suddenly felt a chill. A dark shadow slid over me. And I realized I wasn’t alone in the house.

First paragraphs of Chapter 27: I spun around with a gasp.

Was it Shockro? Some other scary creature?

A tall figure leaned over me. I squinted in the darkness, struggling to see his face.

“Dad?”  I cried as he came into focus. “Dad I’m so glad to see you.”

-Shocker on Shock Street – RL Stine

goosebumps

You can do better. Yes, better than RL Stine.

When you write your compelling story, you can structure it in much of the same way as a Goosebump book. A cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. However, not every cliffhanger should be life or death. There needs to be a variety. You need to balance it.

The 10-Episode Structure

The structure I want to share with you today is taken from modern day 10-episode-seasons-television series, such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.

At the end of every one of these episodes, you get emotionally invested. You have to keep watching. It’s not even a question. However, the only reason that you are emotionally attached to the story is that each chapter or episode itself has a Freytag’s pyramid to build up the tension.

When it is done well and when you reach the end — call it a cliffhanger or call it a hook, either way — you are hanging on until the very end of the season (for an ultimate hook that gets you anticipating the next one).

So like a novel, a television season has a story arch. From episode 1 to episode 10, John Snow or Walter White goes through an inevitable and surprising change.

What’s interesting is the way each episode when pulled out of the rest, can be analyzed and found to have its own story arch.

So you have the season’s story arch, which spans all 10 episodes and looks something like this:

story archAnd, each episode within itself will have its own story arch. Like this.

story arch10So each episode should begin with an inciting incident, followed by a rising action, culminating in a climax, and then a denouement where you can hint at the next inciting incident, which is why we never return to the same level of drama as the beginning. Things have changed.

Take, season one of Game of Thrones. I use this example because this season is as close to the book as you will find in any adaptation.

There are two main stories happening:

A) Ned becoming the hand of the king

B) Dany becoming Khal Drogo’s wife.

Game of Thrones (Season One) Endings Breakdown

Episode one: We start off by introducing all the characters and what their objectives are. Robert Baratheon arrives and encourages Eddard to leaves Winterfell. And that is the main conflict in the episode, will Ned leave his life or not. We find out that he does, and the episode ends with Bran getting pushed out of the castle window by Jamie. That is an epic cliffhanger.

Each episode after that offers a little more details and increases the stakes. Each ending with another cliffhanger.

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Episode 2 ends with Bran waking up (oh no, is he going to reveal who pushed him?)

Episode 3 ends a shot of Ned watching Arya train, the sounds of real blades clashing, echoing in his head. (uh oh, he’s getting worried… what’s going to happen to him)

Episode 4 ends with Catelyn Stark arresting Tyrion Lannister in a tavern, accusing him of being the one who hired the assassin to kill Bran, concealing the Lannister’s secret. (this is surely a mistake, but is it?)

Episode 5 ends with a battle between Ned and Jamie out on the streets, Jamie has discovered that his brother has been captured. Ned ends up being stabbed in the knee.

Episode 6 ends with the B story about Daenerys in Essos. Remember what I said about building cliffhangers with variety. This is what’s happening, now it follows another character. The Dorathkis give her brother a golden crown, pouring gold on his head, thus freeing her from Viserys. And so the plot thickens on that end.

crown

Episode 7 ends with Joffrey claiming the throne after his father’s death and Ned accusing Joffrey of not being the rightful heir. Thus watches his men get slaughtered and Ned arrested for treason. (at this point, we still think Ned is the good guy and he can surely get out of this mess).

Episode 8 ends with Sansa begging mercy for her father to Joffrey. And Joffrey seems reasonable, offering that all Ned will have to do is confess his crime. (oh good, surely Ned will come to his senses)

Episode 9 ends with Ned having his head chopped off. (this is probably the most intense cliffhanger in the history of television.)

Episode 10 ends with Daenerys’ dragons hatching in the fire of Khal Drogo’s pyre.

dragon

End of season 1.

In the end, the story we set out to understand is made clear. We find out about Ned Stark’s journey as the hand of the king and we find out Daenerys experience as Khal Drogo’s wife, a Khaleesi. But as two stories are resolved, many more are revealed.

Exercise

Once you have the first draft of your story, you can start breaking it apart like a television series. Finding the micro story arch within the macro story. Once you have that you can create little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter or part, increasing the stakes each time.

Give this exercise a try and let me know how it turns out in the comments.

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What happened when George R. R. Martin finished his first book

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How to be successful and create your own ‘Misery’

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published for the 1976-themed issue of the Other Press. January 13, 2016

Young author George R. R. Martin’s first collection of novellas and short stories, A Song for Lya, is being published this year. There is probably not going to be a big launch party. There is probably not going to be coverage from multiple media sources. And there are probably not going to be lineups outside the bookstore. It is probably going to be a modest event with reserved excitement.

For a writer, there doesn’t need to be a big event, because there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing one’s works there, visible on shelves at a local bookstore. It must be the same sensation musicians feel when they hear their song on the radio, or how actors feel when they see their face on the screens.

Yet, at what point does that thrill fade? As artists, your profession is also your passion, right? That’s why when I see an artist with an insipid attitude towards their craft, I wonder: Why pursue this daunting, critical, often thankless, often highly demanding, sometimes soul-crushing, most often a poor return of investment brand of work? Why climb Mount Everest if you dislike heights?

Hopefully, this young Martin fellow can recall that initial sensation of accomplishment for having been published if he continues to write, and will never feel resentful towards any fame or success he gains.

My advice to Martin and to other young writers is to always be carefully aware of the scope of one’s craft—what it will mean to you, and what it will mean to the greater public. If you create something people love, what responsibility do you have to continue delivering? How much do you owe to those who have raised you to such prowess?

I was speaking with Stephen King, another young writer, and we were bouncing ideas around. He had this outline for a novel called Misery. It’s about an author who is captured by an obsessed fan and held hostage in an attempt to get him to write another book. That’s the risk of being beloved; you are not actually loved. I hope King gets around to writing that book soon. I think it’ll be good.

Let’s hope we never do the same thing to Martin. We love his work, but we don’t care about him as a human being. He won’t win us over with his delightful personality or his literary, sci-fi, or fantasy expertise. We’ll respect him for the awesome work he will surely produce. But if we want more, he’ll have to supply it or find someone to help.

Artists need to think of their work like starting a franchise. Books are the business. Understandably, when it comes to artworks, the artists get personally attached, because writing is, in essence, a birthing process. But if they’re not able to maintain their franchise, the artists should sell their rights to their work or hand the reigns to trustworthy partners. Although it would be tough to give their art up for adoption, if the author does not have the capability to raise it properly, would the right thing to do not be giving it up for the fan’s sake?

Too epic for words

Image via forbes.com

How I feel about the ‘Game of Thrones’ television series surpassing the novel saga

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 31, 2015

As season five of Game of Thrones commences, show runner David Benioff and D.B. Weiss revealed that the adaptation will indeed surpass the books.

The anticipated sixth part of Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R. R. Martin, Winds of Winter, has been one of the most anticipated novels of our generation. The reason is because many who enjoyed the books two decades ago were able to relive the journey of war, love, and betrayal through the HBO series. Many more discovered the books through the show and have spent off-seasons catching up on their reading, comparing it with the on-screen version. However, it appears as though the television show will have its finale before the last novel is published. This is ultimately going to leave many book lovers like me forlorn.

I’m a big believer in reading the books first and then watching the adapted version. There is an intimacy to reading that cannot be translated on screen. True, many movies and television shows have done terrific jobs giving life to words. Game of Thrones is definitely one of them and I have little doubt that the ending will surely be epic. Needless to say, I wanted to read the grand conclusion first, soak it in, indulge in the details, and feel the pages transfer from my right hand to the left as characters perish. Of course, I can stop watching the show, hold off, and wait patiently for the books. But knowing Martin’s process, I could wait a lifetime.

As a viewer, I have always separated the novels from the show. Many of the details get lost in the recollection, but the framework is what matters. When the show concludes and all those who are reading the novels see the winners of the game of thrones, will they return to the books and finish it? Will the ending be significantly different? I believe those are now the questions for viewers going into the next season. For a while, those who had caught up on the novels have been keeping their lips shut, limiting their chances of spoiling the story; but now, every viewer will be on the same page. For a story of such magnitude, I think that is fitting.

I like the idea of a series of books having a longer lifespan than a television show. To me it proves how challenging it is to write, edit, and publish a novel. Martin’s tale of Westeros is a feat that will go down in storytelling history. There will come a day when the show ends and the last novel in the seven-part series, A Dream of Spring, is available in stores. On that day, all the true fanatics will relive the experience again through the written words. When the show ends, the story will continue.

Long live the king

‘Game of Thrones’ actor Jack Gleeson’s retirement is a great loss

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. May, 5, 2014

It’s customary to start a piece concerning Game of Thrones by stating that there will be spoilers in this article. You have been warned.

Now with that being said, as an avid fan of the show and the novels, the most stunning news for me to hear in the aftermath of the Purple Wedding was Jack Gleeson’s retirement from acting. Joffrey Baratheon, perhaps one of the most disdainful characters to ever transition from page to screen is finally dead, and that means that 21-year-old actor Gleeson will no longer be a part of the show as it heads into the latter-half of the fourth season and beyond.

While some actors have used Game of Thrones as a launch pad to fame after their characters’ unfortunate demise—for example: Richard Madden who played Robb Starkrecently starred as the lead in Discovery’s highly publicized mini-series Klondike, and Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo currently has five new movies in the works in addition to his television series The Red Road—Gleeson is choosing to step away at perhaps the most marketable phase of his acting life.

For the past four years, Gleeson has allegedly been harassed in public and online due to the fact that he was playing such a despicable character on television. Whether that was a determining factor to his retirement is unclear, but a young man losing his passion for a career many would die for is something I can’t ignore.

Many actors have chosen to take breaks from their acting careers to pursue other activities. In an interview after Game of Thrones season four episode two, Gleeson told reporters that he will perhaps go back to school and get a “post-graduate of some kind.” But some actors have taken a break for a reason that many consider risky, since well-paying jobs are so rare.

Dismiss it however you like, but I believe that Gleeson’s retirement is connected to the fact that he does not want to be typecast. After he has played such a horrible character, it is hard for the public to see him as the hero or even a likeable supporting character. He is a talented actor, but sometimes the audience determines the performance simply by the actor’s appearance.

If you may recall in the late ‘90s, Leonardo DiCaprio went on a slight hiatus after Titanic so that he could diminish his “pretty boy” persona. Since then numerous other actors in their prime have followed that model of breaking their stereotype.

The ability to say no to big-name production companies gives power to the actors in the long run. I think we can all learn a lesson from what Gleeson is doing, even if it is an upsetting loss for the time being. Saying no is important—scary, but important. If an actor or any other professional wants a career with longevity, then they must not only understand how to do the job, but understand why they are doing it. The worst thing that can happen is to be living a role that doesn’t make us happy.

We must all look at what we do and ask ourselves why we are doing it: is it for the money, or for the art, or simply because we want recognition? You can be the villain or you can be the pretty boy, just as long as you are being yourself.