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.

love

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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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.

The Report Card: Non-fiction reads

Opinions_Fiction-vs-non-fiction

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 18, 2014

Now and then, I step away from my science fiction, contemporary dramas, and classic coming-of-age novels to enjoy something more factual. Non-fiction books allow me to touch base with the world I’m living in through historical texts, biographies, memoirs, and self-helps. I choose these readings of my own accord; they are not textbooks or instruction manuals—but they can sometimes feel like something assigned by an instructor. Non-fictions are never really the sweets for me, they’re the vegetables, and the nutrients I know I need more of. But, which do I relish in, and which do I spit in disgust?

Pass: Memoirs

Only recently did I start reading memoirs. I used to think the ramblings of a famous actor, politician, athlete, or public figure weren’t worth my time. I would rather spend an afternoon reading about wizards or revisiting my homework than reading about someone else’s success. Hell, if I wanted to know more about the person, I would read their Wikipedia page, right?

Not that I’m wrong, but memoirs offer a subjective lens into the person’s life that is otherwise lost in a biography, or Wikipedia page. Reading the words of someone not known for their writing ability is quite an evocative experience; it’s as if you are hearing their story through their own lips. You can see the way they colour an aspect of their life, while hiding details in another. You can feel what matters to the person in that moment, what they wanted to communicate about themselves to the public. And if the memoir is done well, it can definitely inspire.

We all possess the power of choice, and whether we like the memoirists in the real world or not is up to us. The magic of a memoir is that, even if we dislike the person, we can see through their eyes for a moment and recognize the struggle they went through to achieve what they have. A good memoir highlights the failures along with the successes, and proves to the reader that what they’ve done might not be achievable for everyone, but it was for them—after all, they lived to tell the tale.

Fail: Self-helps

I’m having trouble buying into the billion-dollar industry of self-help books. I’ve read many in my life thinking that it was the solution to my problems. I believe many other people pick them up for that same reason. Whether you’re trying to live in the moment or explore a diet, reading a book is not going to help you do it. Self-help books are temporary distractions by design. They might provide guidelines for achieving goals, but they do little to convince you you’re doing it right or that your efforts are working. The books don’t even get you to put in effort at all—their motivational power is limited.

You cannot read a manual on fixing computers and instantly become an expert. Your brain simply can’t retain all that information; same goes with self-help books. You cannot read a book and ask if you are happy, or if you’re fit, or if you should have children, and find the answer. Self-help books are someone else’s ideals and reality presented to you in the form of a product—you’re just buying it first and then being convinced after. You wouldn’t join a cult just because it tells you that it can make you happy, right?

There is a lot of value in self-help books, but it’s the presentation that ruins it. Success is not a chapter-by-chapter thing; it’s more of a choose-your-own-adventure and learn-from-your-mistakes kind of thing—and that is what self-help books are not.