Plotter vs. Pantser

The Plotter

This is one of those eternal writer questions, getting into the heart of the creative process. For those of you who don’t know, a “plotter” is someone who plots out (outlines) their entire story before writing it and a “pantser” is at the opposite extreme, starting with an idea or a character and just going for it, like a daydream. Of course, everything between exists as well, it’s an analog space. And for what it’s worth, writers, including myself, love to talk about this.

Given that I’m more hard core, workaholic, and over-organized than nearly everyone I know (and having gone to MIT that includes a lot of anal folks) I would have assumed I was a plotter.

But when I got into it a couple years ago by starting to write The Darkening Dream, I found I totally prefer to just go with it. I do need to plot a chapter or two ahead as I can’t write the scenes until I see in my head what’s going to happen, but after I finished revising my first novel (and there was a lot of revision) I decided to try to plot the whole second. This resulted in about two months of fairly unproductive head banging. Then, with only a lame first act plotted, I started writing and it veered onto a different course anyway. The characters and the situation seem to dictate what happens. Often you can’t tell in plotting which secondary characters will be the coolest, etc.

The Pantser

But certainly the pantser approach requires plenty of revision. I always have to go back and examine the motivations of the characters after the first draft and map  more of the formal dramatic arc onto the story in the second and third drafts. Pantsing also leads to Second Act Problems (what doesn’t?). I think that’s just the way it goes. It would be very difficult in the first draft to do the kind of “setup and payoff” that good stories have. A great example of this is the film Back to the Future which undoubtedly had umpteen drafts and where every little reference at the start of the film is a setup that tests and then pays off for one of the characters. Case in point where George McFly gives in to Biff about the car. Then back in 1955 he does it as young George, but by the end of the film, with Marty‘s help he has the backbone to be in charge in the revised 1985. This is formulaic but satisfying and artfully crafted in a way that takes multiple passes. Still, I think you can start any which way that works for you. Sometimes getting the draft finished is the most important thing. Then you can step back and look at what needs changing.

Personally I find the two different modes: plotting vs. just writing, to use different sides of the brain, and therefore useful to stagger. I can only handle a few days of plotting before I need the release of getting it out there. There really isn’t any rush in writing as good as just pounding out a great scene that’s already gelled in your head, and it’s even better when the scene and characters take on a life of their own and bring something novel to the process. Looking back on it, I realize that as a computer programmer I took this same exact alternating approach (between designing the algorithm and just coding) and that the rush and rhythm were nearly identical.

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All Things Change

So I’m about halfway through my last polish pass on my third major draft of Untimed. [Update 7:44pm, finished the polish] This is one of the umpteen revision passes. Only another day or two to go before I send it off again and get down to waiting for feedback (hands down my least favorite part of writing).

The book totally kicks ass BTW — biased opinion but true.

Anyway, this has me planning to spend my “downtime” (waiting) doing some really serious research on self-publishing my first novel, The Darkening Dream, and seeing if I can get it out there before the holiday season.

I’ve been following self-publishing blogs like A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and Dean Wesley Smith for around a year. These guys — rhetoric aside — have made sense for some time but the arguments for traditional publishing grow lamer and lamer. Check out something like this, which lays it out there — albeit with a lot of flavor. Publishing is in the throws of the cataclysmic “doing digital” change that has or is shaking up all the media businesses. For example, in music the conversion from media (vinyl, cassette, CD) to MP3 during which the labels/studios stuck their head in the sand and found themselves nearly destroyed.

The fact is, the change is coming no matter what any big old-school companies want or try to do. Readers are well on their way to embracing ebooks, the rise of the tablet (aka iPad), and dropping smartphone and reader prices (order your Kindle Fire here! 250,000 preorders in 5 days!), has etched the writing on the wall (in blood). In a few short years print will make up 20 or less percent of the market. Paper books (and I say this as someone who has a two story library with over 15,000 of them!) aren’t going to vanish instantly, but they won’t be majorly relevant for novel sales.

So this basically guarantees completely and without any doubt that print revenues will crater, leaving publishers unable to support their big overheads. Borders (and nearly every independent) going bankrupt will just hasten this. Barnes and Noble is next. They tried with the Nook, but Amazon is going to crush them (again, Kindle fire, not to mention $79 regular Kindle). And publishers, being large old-school companies that employ LOTS of people under the old model are showing lots of signs of panic, but pretty much not a glimmer of adapting to the changing business.

But they won’t have one soon. Because without control of the gates to bookstores, they don’t control anything.

Right now they still make the better product. But as an author they:

1. tie up rights

2. take way too much money (15% vs 70% doing it yourself)

3. take way too long (15 months instead of like 1-2 to market!)

4. charge too much for ebooks

5. don’t actually do any marketing

6. often have really stupid ideas about “marketability” (like “sex doesn’t sell” or “vampires are over” *)

Eventually new meaner leaner packaging companies will make the murky ground of processing books a bit easier, but in the meantime. Time to get researching.

If anyone knows a kick ass indie book marketer, I’m looking to hire one (that’s the only part I can’t really do myself).

For more posts on writing, click here.

* From above: The Vampire Dairies and True Blood both prove both statements simultaneously asinine. And while TDD does have a vampire, he does not ever sparkle in daylight (900 years and he hasn’t seen a glimpse of it) and he is not in the least sexy. He is, howeverfrightfully smart, cautious, and happy to decorate your house with the entrails of your closest family members.

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

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I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp :-)

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

For more book reviews, click here.

PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Author: Susanna Clarke

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Length: 948 pages, 308,931 words

Read: August 20 – September 10, 2011

Summary: Really good, really unusual book

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This is one of the best and most unusual books I’ve read in a while, although it’s not for everyone. As you can see it’s quite a tome, clocking in at 308,000 words! It’s set mostly in England during the Napoleonic Wars (first 15 years of the 1800s for historical dolts). It’s also written in a very clever approximation of early 19th century British prose. Think of it as Dickens or Vanity Fair with magic. Actually it’s a little earlier than either of those, but still.

This is not your typical modern novel. It doesn’t have a lot of action. It’s stylistic and archaic voice mostly “tells” (as in “show don’t tell”). But the voice is great, if you like that sort of thing (I did). It’s wry and very amusing, with a defined narrative tone. The voice gives the who book a kind of wry feel, as if we (the reader) are in on something.

It’s also a very character driven story. This is the tale of two magicians, the only two “practical” (i.e. real) magicians to surface in England for some centuries. It’s to a large extent about their quirks and their relationship. There isn’t a ton of action, although there is plenty of magic. There are copious and lengthy asides. Every chapter has several pages of footnotes on magical history! You can skip/skim these if you like.

The historical feel is really good. Most of the characters are “gentlemen” or their servants so their’s is a particular rarified world of the early 19th century British aristocracy. I know quite a bit about this era and it felt pretty characteristic. The Napoleonic Wars are well researched, but they aren’t front and center, serving more as a backdrop. This all has a very British slant to it, which is accurate from the British perspective. I.e. Napoleon is a bit of a bogey man. While the British felt this way, it was mostly propaganda. I’m actually a pretty big Bonaparte fan — he did a lot to shake up and form the modern era — even if he was a “tad” aggressive. The 19th century British Empire was itself staggeringly arrogant and well… imperialistic. But anyway…

I also liked the way the book handles issues of enchantment and perception. This is a very fairy oriented magic — as is appropriate to a historically based English Magic — and it’s treated deftly with a strong sense of the fey. Many of the characters are under strong enchantments, preventing them for hundreds of pages from realizing something which seems rather obvious to us readers. This is both fun and frustrating.

If the book has any problems (besides being a bit long) it’s that the end isn’t entirely satisfying. Things are not really explained to either the characters or the readers. They are wrapped up, but not clarified. So I had the feeling of a grand build up without appropriate payoff. But I did enjoy the journey. This is clearly one of those huge first novels that was like 10 years in the crafting — making it unlikely the author will every exactly repeat the phenomenon.

For more book reviews, click here.

Save the Cat – To Formula or Not To Formula

I’m always reading books on writing and storytelling. In fact, I read three this week. One of them was Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder. This post isn’t a review per se of that book, but more some mental ramblings on issues it raised.

First an observation about the nature of “advice” books and the possible career of sceenwriter. Mr. Snyder was (he unfortunately died suddenly recently) a noted screenwriter, having sold over a dozen major spec scripts, at least two for over a million dollars each. He worked on roughly 100 screenplays in some capacity. Yet, only two of these have even been made into movies.

Eeek gads! If this is success as a screenwriter it has to be creatively bankrupt. Unlike novels, screenplays aren’t a medium themselves. In fact, I find them boring as shit. They’re just a weird but essential initial sketch of a film. Now don’t think I consider them unimportant. A production can easily ruin a great script, but it’s exceedingly rare to take a bad one and make a good movie out of it. They’re certainly the single most important element of any film. Great screenwriters add immeasurably to a film. Look at the different between Empire Strikes Back and Phantom Menace. Personally I think it was Lawrence Kasdan or some other writer who was NOT George Lucas.

In any case, having almost none of your creative work see the light of day has to be depressing. I’m also guessing that in recent years Mr. Snyder made more money selling his books/lectures/advice ABOUT writing screenplays than in actually writing the things. Hehe.

Cover of

Cover of Wedding Crashers

But that was what I intended to write about. Save the Cat is essentially a book about making your story (screenplay) correspond fairly rigidly to the classic Hollywood three act structure. It even goes so far as to break (every) film into roughly a dozen beats and assign exact page numbers in which they should occur. For example: “theme stated” (page 5) or “catalyst” (page 12). All of this can be found on his website.

Now there is some real merit to this structure and it’s certainly very useful and entertaining to be able to breakdown movies like this. In fact, if you want a giggle go to this page where you will find a breakdown of the guilty-pleasure comedy The Wedding Crashers. It’s highly amusing to see a film this silly (but admittedly funny) stripped down to include a Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis dialectic. And I do admit if you are trying to write and sell high concept comedies in today’s marketing executive driven world, this whole formula has to be the way to go.

But I wonder how useful it is to try and fit EVERY story into this exact mould. You could say actually that Save the Cat represents a thesis: yes all movies should follow this fixed structure. The antithesis of course is that interesting ones, the example he uses is Memento, should not. Now Mr. Snyder’s conclusion is literally “Fuck Momento!” (actual quote from the book). But I think that Christopher Nolan is laughing to the bank — just not on that film! — he had to remake it using dreams inside of memory loss.

I myself am thinking that a synthesis is in order. A new universe blending both perspectives. The classic structure does encapsulate A LOT of solid lessons about audience expectations for story telling. Perhaps one should use it more as a toolbox or set of guidelines.

This is specifically relevant in my new novel, Untimed. It does to a large extent follow the classic structure (although certain not with such rigid page number demarkations). But there are questions. I have two ideas in the book that could be considered thesis and antithesis, but their advocates are far more muddled than formula would require. Do I restructure and state each in a more obvious way? Likewise, as is typical with me, my ending does not neatly wrap up all questions, villians, and the like. There is climax, but it’s messy. I like ambiguity, and I have gone to great length to construct a world order sufficiently complex that not all mystery is to be solved in one book. Doing so leads to the standard Hollywood sequel problem, where the followups are just more of the same but missing the best part: the discovery inherent in beginnings. If you haven’t answered all the questions, there is still more to learn.

But a squeaky voice in the back of my head wonders: do I need a more Hollywood ending?

Food for thought.

For other posts on writing, click here.

Or find out about my novels:

The Darkening Dream and Untimed.

Kushiel’s Dart

Title: Kushiel’s Dart

Author: Jacqueline Carey

Genre: Epic Historical Fantasy

Length: 912 pages, 315,000 words!

Read: June, 2011

Summary: Long, overdone, but intriguing

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This book itself as Fantasy, but it’s certainly not your typical one. Really it’s a sort of reinterpreted epic (and I mean long) historical romance — without much of the modern sense of romance (almost none). But it does have plenty of the traditional, more atmospheric form.

This is a flowery first person narrative about a slave girl brought up as a sort of high end courtesan who gets involved — very involved — in politics. I’m going to try and break down and discuss various elements of the work.

It’s worth noting the tremendous length. The book is 900+ pages and feels it. I enjoyed it, but it’s like four novels glued together. This lends it a decidedly Gone with the Wind effect. Just when you think it should be over (except for the fact that you have 650 pages to go!) everything switches up and it moves on to a new stage. This happens several times.

First the setting. With the exception of a bit of prophecy and one large scale pseudo divinity (the Master of Straights) at about the 85% mark this novel really has no magic. And in fact, is actually a sort of disguised work of Historical Fiction. The Fantasy is more the invented nature of the tale than any actual magic. As best as I can tell the whole thing is more or less set in a reinvented thirteenth or fourteenth century France. It felt late medeval or early Renaissance. At times I wondered if it even had overtones of Carolingian (ninth century France). The names of the places and faiths are all changed, but in a recognizable way for those of us who know our European history. Rome is “Tiberium,” Spain “Aragonia,” the Germanic tribes the “Skaldi.” Carey does a good job of this, and her grasp for the flavor and cultures of Europe between the fall of Rome and the modern era extremely solid. The central nation of the novel feels both troubadour French and even a little Late Venetian Republic at times. There are plenty of deviations from real history. First an foremost the loosey goosey religious situation (as opposed to the dogmatic Catholic church). The religions have been reinterpreted and the nation founded by what appears to be an interesting mating of Jesus and Dionysus. An intriguing (and Romantic) mythical entity who was also followed around by a bunch of demi-god disciples who seeded various schools or bloodlines. Overall, the setting was probably my favorite part of the novel.

The voice. At first I loved the voice. Yeah it’s flowery. Girly. Really girly. And full of words that the Kindle dictionary informed me were “archaic” or just chosen for plain weighty flavor. Words like “limned” or “ague.” The sentences have an unusual and formal structure. There is a LOT of reppetition. This began to wear on me. Carey reminds you like 50 times who everyone and everything is, which considering the vast cast of characters and the incredibly complex political situation might be necessary for those that don’t have a semi-photographic memory or an obsessive knowledge of European history. The narrative is first person, and told from some unspecified far future point in Phedre’s (the protagonist) life. It’s the antithesis in many ways of my own voice, as it’s really really really heavy on the TELL and fairly light on the SHOW. Carey loves to insinuate before the action (when it occasionally occurs, separated by many many pages, but often enough given the titanic length of the book) that things won’t turn out as planned, or that something bad is about to happen. Lots and lots of stuff is done with narrative summary. I myself try to set everything in scene and tell it as it happens in a more hard boiled style, more like the Maltese Falcon or the Big Sleep, even if the subject matter is very different. Carey chooses a more sentimental approach. But at the same time I found the voice very distancing. A lot of this is the feeling that it is written looking back on events, which removes a lot of the tension inherent in the action. The rest is probably the TELL factor.

I liked the whole sex-slave-girl-bondage-courtesan angle. But Phedre is a little too good at just about everything other than pure agressive bravery, and she has her constant companion the warrior-monk for that. While bad things do happen to her, she pretty much flawlessly reads every situation and is titanically lucky / unnaturally talented. I still kinda liked her. And the fact that she has a lot of edgy sex is good. The book alternates between graphic and evasive in this realm, which ends up being more teasing than satisfying. Still, I guess normal people might find it dark.

Now the overall affect of this novel is pretty good. It starts off great. But it sometimes bogs under volumes of political talk I found excessive — and I read multivolume political histories for pleasure! Some of the sub-adventures (like Phedre’s time as a Skaldi slave) are really good and there are lots of varied settings, cultures, and characters. I also really enjoyed the depth of world building and the alternate but very “realistic” religious mythos. But…

There is absolutely no psychological realism to any of the characters, our protagonist included. The central condition of Phedre’s nature is supposed to be that she finds pain and suffering intrinsically hot. Even this isn’t really handled totally consistently. The rest of the people — while interesting and possessed of different traits — merely serve the story or the need to roster out a bunch of interesting types. The don’t feel exactly cardboardy, as they are detailed, but unlike the completely brilliant Game of Thrones, there is no fundamental relationship between the different nature of different personalities, their situations, and the decisions they make and the consequences those decisions bring.

In the end, I found the way in which things just sort of grandly worked out for Phedre tedious. The big war at the end is complex, but summarized, and the wrap up phase of the story nearly 100 pages. Carey also just loves to throw in grand and sumptuousness just for it’s own sake, which at the beginning felt lush, but by the time Phedre has dressed in 62 elegant gowns a bit much.

Still, I kind of liked the book, if only for its world and its very creative reinterpretation of medeval/renaissance fantasy. At times it reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay, but his works felt somehow a bit more connected to place and certainly more emotional.

For more book reviews, click here.

Game of Thrones – Episode 9

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 9 – June 30, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Best episode in the series!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 9, “Baelor.”This is the episode where it all comes together, pretty much summed up by the text I got on first airing from a friend I convinced to watch (he hadn’t read the books — but is now): “OMG!  They killed Ned Stark!”

Not only does it take a lot of guts to up and kill your most central character near the end of the first book of an epic series, but George R. R. Martin really grinds the emotions in by making the reasons it happens so damned personal and believable.

This is the episode where the frothing cauldron of the last two boils on over. For everyone. This emotional tone renders it less sensitive than the previous episode to the diminutive effects of TV. We open with Varys visiting Ned again in the dungeon, and this narrative is used to spell out Ned’s last choice: die honorably, or confess and hope for exile and to save his daughters.

Then we have Robb faced with the choice of making a disreputable deal with an even more disreputable lord in order to gain military advantage in his war. He knows he’s got no choice but to win, and so he’s forced to go all in. Frey is just as amusing as in the books, and while he doesn’t have quite so many children as I imagined, the scene is well done. Particularly amusing is when Catelyn tells Robb he has to marry a Frey daughter and he asks, “how did they look?” and she replies “one of them was well…”

At the wall, Jon ponders not only his father’s imprisonment but the fact that his brother is going to war. Mormont tries to bind him further to the brotherhood by giving him his family sword. This is nicely done and there is some tie-back to Jorah. I particularly like the “he dishonored himself, but he had the decency to leave the family sword behind” bit. In another scene he gets a lecture from Maester Aemon about the hard choices between duty and family. Jon finds out exactly who the Maester was and we have another great scene from the books nailed with top performances.

Tyrion learns that he and his violent new tribesmen friends will get the most dangerous position in the upcoming battle. He stomps back to his tent to find Bronn has brought him a whore named Shae. She’s not how I imagined her in the books (they made her foreign), but I like the way Sibel Kekili plays her. I noticed her last year in the heavy German film Head On, and she’s a gifted actress. Although, we do have to wonder where Bronn dug up such a smart and sexy whore on short notice! Later in the show when the three play medeval “truth or dare” is a really good scene. Shae is cocky and sexy, and Tyrion’s rendition of his boyhood innocence and treatment at the hands of his father is perfect.

However I had mixed feelings about the battle — or lack there of. Tyrion is great and there are some funny lines like Bronn’s advice to “stay low.” But, instead of actually managing to fight — albiet badly — he’s just knocked out. The visual effect of him being dragged along is kind of cool, and I know they were trying to save time and money. But… they could have given us a three minute little window on the fight. I can’t help but feel this is more “TV shrinking effect,” the show’s biggest problem (really it’s only significant problem at all). I can’t help but feel the producers could do something creative and get a little more scope of action without too much more money.

And the same goes for the (non) battle of the whispering wood, where we just see Robb race back to his mother and deposite a captive Jaime at her feet. Come on. It was a night battle, they could have shown some horses and soldiers clashing in front of Riverrun and Jaime’s last stand. The books actually also suffer from certain large scale action being off screen (which I always felt was odd), but I’d hoped the show would rectify rather than amplify this. It would be easy enough.

Now as chaotic as the action is in Westeros, Dany’s journey is just as important. Her world is crashing around her. Drogo’s little chest wound from the last episode is now infected and he’s dying. For some slightly mysterious reason she has trusted the witch lady she saved (Mirri Maz Duur) to treat it, and now is willing to do whatever it takes to save his life, even if that means black magic. I love this part of the story, and I think Emilia Clarke handles it extremely well, but I do have a couple problems. The Mirri Maz Duur actress feels a little silly to me, not too bad, but she doesn’t have enough gravitas. And more importantly, the handling of the magic is underplayed. I liked the weird wailing sounds coming from the tent, but they decided to forgo any kind of special effects for the ceremony. I think this is deliberate rather than purely budgetary (although that is surely a factor). They have consistently played down the supernatural. But they needed it here. They didn’t have to go all the way to swirling wisps of light (ala early 80s Conan), but I think they should have done some kind of creepy animated shadow-play. As it is, the whole dark ritual is left mostly up to the imagination, and it may be hard for the new viewer to know what is supposed to be happening. It almost felt psychological. But the horse death was pretty decent.

And the final scene isn’t half assed at all, which is typical with the show, managing big pivotal (big in the sense of important, not scope) scenes nicely. Arya living in the streets is great, and then her viewing of Ned’s tragic “confession.” Joffrey continues in deliciously despicable style and orders the execution anyway. The handling of this for all involved is well done. Arya perching by that statue. The hysterical Sansa. Even Cersei livid. I would have just liked a little nod to the fact that they use Ned’s own sword: Ice. Come on, everyone loves a sword with a name. Jon said it when he gave Arya Needle, “all the best swords have names.”

Still, by the standards of TV, this is a near perfect episode. The human drama is handled flawlessly, they just need to add a little more cinematic feel to the action and magic.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7, Episode 8 ]

Or the next, Episode 10.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.