(some minor spoilers for the book Game of Thrones below)
If you haven’t read George R.R.R.R.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire Series, I don’t blame you. They’re long, and the tv show is pretty awesome. But, there’s one thing in the first book, Game of Thrones, that I think makes an excellent storytelling lesson.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy book. It’s what’s referred to as “low fantasy,” which means (as far as I know), that it has a low amount of fantasy in it. Most of the characters are humans or human-like. There’s magic, but the focus of the story is mainly on things that could happen in the real world. The later books in the series deviated from this, but we’re talking about GoT here.
In the book, there are these things called wights. Wights are basically zombies, and they’re a major bad guy in the GoT book.
But (and here is where we get into the storytelling lesson), they mostly don’t appear until far into the book. Up until they make an appearance, they story is about a medieval sort of political intrigue, knights and kings and sword battles. There are almost no fantastical elements at all until the wights show up.
This could be jarring to a reader, to suddenly change genres. The reader thinks she’s reading an Arthurian sort of tale, then all of a sudden, it becomes something else. Imagine you’re reading a romance, hoping and praying the characters get together, and then in the third act, the characters decide to travel through time to prevent Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Naturally, you would say WTF? The genre expectation has been thrown in the trash at this point.
And you see, GRRM was smart about this. He knew he would have to prepare readers for the upcoming fantasy elements by properly foreshadowing them early on. SO, he added a prologue featuring wights doing wight-y things, and now you know what kind of book it is in the first few pages. Afterward, you don’t mind 500 pages of political intrigue, because you know the wights are coming back at some point.
This is why so many horror movies start off with the demon randomly killing some poor schmuck out in the woods, before showing you thirty minutes of college kids settling into a cabin. Right off the bat, you know what’s coming later, and you’re prepared for the genre.
Am I saying you need to have a prologue in your book? No. Am I saying you can’t surprise the reader? No. What I am saying is that if you spend 75% of your book making your readers anticipate certain genre conventions, then you don’t deliver, you’re going to have plenty of pissed-off readers.