George R. R. Martin is often credited with describing his writing process as being more like a gardener than an architect. In other words, he prefers to discover a story as he goes, editing it here and there like a gardener tends his plants, but mostly allowing the process to unfold naturally, rather than planning it all out (at least on paper).
Now, before I detract this process entirely, I want to acknowledge the ways in which it can be useful and effective. If you are writing about the life of a single character, or a family drama perhaps, this method can be useful. By following the gardener method of writing you allow room for your characters to react organically to outside forces or the actions of other characters rather than to act in a way that simply serves the plot.
The problem with this method is that by its very nature, it tends to defy a clear end goal—even if you have one in mind. As the story unfolds and the characters react to events in ways the author wasn’t initially expecting, the end goal shifts, little by little. The more complicated the plot, and the more characters (and therefore character actions and reactions), the more likely it is the end goal will move further away from the author’s original intent.
This shifting end goal can be mitigated in two ways:
1. The Unifying Theme
A unifying theme determines in part the trajectory of the plot and the way the consequences of characters’ actions are framed. Lord of the Rings, for example, contains a unifying theme surrounding the struggle to reject power and its corrupting influence. The plot is driven by this theme which requires the protagonist to overcome his desire and destroy the object which stands in as the metaphorical representation of power itself (or to be consumed by it—as Gollum was).
But Martin’s series doesn’t really have a single unifying theme. Let me be clear, Martin’s work does not lack themes in the plural sense. You can discern themes of redemption, survival, honor, family, etc within individual character arcs. But as a whole? What is the overarching theme of the work? What is Martin trying to tell us?
One could, I suppose argue that Martin’s theme, in opposition to Tolkien’s genre-standard setting, is the struggle to gain power rather than reject it (certainly this is reflected in Daenerys’s story lines, as well as Cersei’s, and perhaps to a lesser extent Arya’s). But that isn’t necessarily the case with other major POV characters—Jon Snow’s arc is a lot more about honor, duty and courage. Bran’s (and Samwell’s) arc is about the pursuit of knowledge (which is a kind of power, but not as destructive). Sansa’s arc is about survival in a world where she has very little control over her own situation, etc. for all the other characters.
These different perspectives muddy the waters about what any greater idea Martin may be trying to convey. Granted, it’s also difficult to determine the theme in part because the series is not complete. Trying to get at what Martin is trying to say is mostly conjecture until he actually gets around to saying whatever it is he is trying to say.
But the growing number of subplots and story threads spreading further and further away from each other increase the likelihood that many of the characters will never have their arcs concluded, even if he does have a singular unifying theme he is working towards. This will leave loose ends hanging open, in ways that are unsatisfying in terms of both the theme and the general plot. I haven’t read that far into the series yet, but the message boards are full of fans wondering how the hell all of it could be wrapped up when Martin keeps adding new characters.
As one beleaguered fan on the ASOIAF subreddit asks:
“Is ASOIAF even a story anymore?”Paraphrased and inappropriately cited, because I lost the link like a gorram amateur.
May be it isn’t. Maybe it never was.
Martin wrote ASOIAF in part as a response to the allegory, romanticism and simplistic morality that permeated the fantasy genre of the early 90s. He wanted to showcase the brutality and messiness of a medieval society, and so he took actual historical events, like the War of the Roses as his inspiration. And in the end, that is what he has ended up with—not a story, but a history.
History has no great theme—certainly there are edited and isolated pieces of it from which we can derive some meaning, but it is not directed to any single purpose. There are few, if any, satisfactory endings, and some stories whose endings we cannot know because we are still in the process of watching them unfold.
Such is the problem Martin finds himself in now—even if the major plot lines are concluded other character arcs cannot be completed at the same time. Even as some stories end or some characters die, others go on. They continue. History marches ever onward…unless of course, it doesn’t.
2. The Event Horizon
Which brings us to the second option for mitigating the shifting end goal, that is, to have a specific event in mind—one which will occur regardless of what the characters do or don’t do. Martin does have such an event like this in place, and it’s been there from the beginning. He has been building the threat of the Others since the very first chapter of the series.
Presumably this has been a ploy to build up to a showdown between Ice & Fire, in which the conquering Daenerys becomes a liberating savior, there to rescue Westeros from the onslaught of icy death personified. A flame of light against the Long Night that is dark and full of terrors.
Now that in and of itself is an event—but it requires the characters to act towards a single goal. For it to work, Dany and her allies must converge in some meaningful way. The TV series is managing to do this, albeit ham-handedly. But they also had to eliminate several plot threads in the process. Even if Martin can get the most relevant characters in place for a final battle, it may still leave loose ends (especially with regards to the plot lines involving Dorne and the Iron Islands).
But what if that’s not the end game? What if the threat of the Others is a built-in Doomsday button? A way to wrap it up, by ending it all?
I don’t really think that this is most likely the path that Martin will take, but I must admit, there is something about it that appeals to me. All the petty squabbles and politics of humans rendered void by the unrelenting march of an army of ice zombies. It’s almost poetic in its simplicity—and wrapped up in a sweet unifying theme about the meaninglessness of human endeavor and the inevitability of oblivion. Underscored by the meta-realization that the reader wasted all that time and emotional investment only to watch the efforts of their favorite characters be wiped away by an icy horde. It’s trollish and terrible and will never happen.
But I kinda hope it does.