By Mark Alpert
Six years ago, after HBO launched the Game of Thrones television series, I decided to read the fantasy novels on which the series was based. I’d loved The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, and thirty years later I reread the Tolkien classics with my son, so I was eager to try another author in the fantasy genre. And I wasn’t disappointed — I read all five installments of George R.R. Martin’s series within a few months (and some of those books were lonnnnnggggg). Then, like millions of other fans, I started waiting for Martin to write the sixth book. Out of principle, I refrained from watching any of the HBO episodes, because I didn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the novels.
Well, a couple of months ago I got tired of waiting. The promised sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, may be published this year — or maybe not. Either way, the hiatus between books was so long that I’d completely lost the thread of the plot. Rather than reread all five of the previous novels, I thought I could refresh my memory more efficiently by watching the television episodes. This was a problematic choice, because the TV adaptation differs from the novels in many significant ways, so there was a chance I’d get more confused rather than less. (The books have a bewildering variety of characters and locales and plot twists.) But I decided to go for it.
And again, I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I liked the TV series more than I liked the books. The HBO producers streamlined the plot and eliminated inessential characters and added visual and sonic depth to Martin’s imagined world. I watched all six seasons — sixty episodes in all — in about six weeks, which is a little sick when you think about it.
No, not sick. The better word is addictive. I couldn’t stop myself from reading the books or watching the TV episodes. And the defining feature of all addictions is the desire for intense pleasure. So the key to making your novels addictive is injecting moments of pure pleasure into the pages. Here’s how to do it:
- Create Addictive Characters. In Games of Thrones, it’s Tyrion Lannister. In Confederacy of Dunces, it’s Ignatius Reilly. In All the King’s Men, it’s Willie Stark. In Catcher in the Rye, it’s Holden Caulfield. In Lolita, it’s Humbert Humbert. These are fascinating, perplexing, infuriating characters. Very often they’re not likable, but they’re always riveting. Sometimes they’re like hilarious drinking buddies — you want to spend all night with them, you just can’t get enough. And sometimes they’re like a horrible car wreck on the side of the highway — you don’t want to look, but you can’t turn away.
- Imagine Addictive Scenes. Let’s talk about the famous Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin’s series. (Spoiler alert here, although who hasn’t already heard about this chapter?) The scene is constructed with so much delicious foreboding. The reader suspects that something terrible is coming, and so do the characters. That’s why Catelyn Stark immediately calls for bread and salt as soon as she and her son enter Lord Walder Frey’s castle; Catelyn is counting that the sacred traditions of hospitality will stop Lord Frey from harming the Starks after they’ve shared a meal as his guests. Afterwards, Catelyn is reassured and lowers her guard a bit, and so does the reader, but there are more ominous signs to come. The musicians at the wedding are terrible (because they’re not really musicians!) and many of the guests seem to be bulkily attired (because they’re wearing armor under their fancy clothes!) And when the trap finally springs and the knives come out and the musicians start firing their crossbows at the Starks, it’s both a surprise and an awful confirmation of our worst fears. (By the way, the bulky clothing trick figures in another great scene in contemporary literature, the passage in Mystic River where Jimmy Marcus’s goons get Dave Boyle drunk before Jimmy guts him.)
- Write Addictive Sentences. How can you stop yourself from reading a book that starts like this: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Or how about this for an opener: “Hans Walther Kleinman, one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, was drowning in his bathtub. A stranger with long, sinewy arms had pinned Hans’s shoulders to the porcelain bottom.” (Okay, I’m bragging here. That’s the first paragraph of my first novel, Final Theory.)
- Orchestrate Addictive Dialogue. Say what you will about Tom Wolfe, but the man knows how to write funny, realistic talk. Consider this exchange in Bonfire of the Vanities between the anti-hero Sherman McCoy and his unliterary mistress Maria:
“He couldn’t wait to tell me he was a movie producer. He was making a movie based on this play, Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, or just Marlowe, I think that was all he said, just Marlowe, and I don’t even know why I said anything, but I thought somebody named Marlowe wrote for the movies. Actually, what I think I was thinking about was, there was this movie with a character named Marlowe. Robert Mitchum was in it.”
“That’s right. It was a Raymond Chandler story.”
Maria looked at him with utter blankness. He dropped Raymond Chandler. “So what did you say to him?’
“I said, ‘Oh, Christopher Marlowe. Didn’t he write a movie?’ And you know what this…bastard…says to me? He says, ‘I shouldn’t think so. He died in 1593.’ I shouldn’t think so.”
Her eyes were blazing with the recollection. Sherman waited a moment. “That’s it?”
“That’s it? I wanted to strangle him. It was…humiliating. I shouldn’t think so. I couldn’t believe the…snottiness.”
“What did you say to him?”
“Nothing. I turned red. I couldn’t say a word.”
“And that’s what accounts for this mood of yours?”
“Sherman, tell me the honest truth. If you don’t know who Christopher Marlowe is, does that make you stupid?”
I think every writer knows, at least on some unconscious level, whether his or her manuscript is working or not. If the book is entertaining the author as he or she writes it, then it’ll probably entertain a large number of readers as well. But if the author dreads writing the novel because it’s become a bore, then readers probably won’t like the book either.