Creative Writing Fiction 2020-10-30 00:00

George R.R. Martin and the Art of the Shocking Twist

red wedding

Whether you read it or watched it, I can guarantee you were shocked by the Red Wedding. You’re not alone—it’s one of the best plot twists in the history of fiction. So let’s analyze it.

For those who wish not to have HBO’s Game of Thrones or George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords spoiled for them, please turn back now. There will be spoilers, and they will be big ones.

In this article, we’re going to examine the Red Wedding. How did it work so well as a plot twist, and how can we write such shocking scenes of our own? Let’s begin.

  1. The Setup
  2. Welcome to the Wedding
  3. The Takeaways

The Setup

The shock of the wedding begins several chapters prior to the event. In a war council, Robb Stark, King of the Northmen, discusses plans to reclaim the kingdom he squandered. And you’ve got to admit, they sound pretty good.

Following his Uncle Edmure’s wedding to a member of House Frey (one of Robb’s vassal houses), Robb Stark plans to march on a key castle with the help of another bannerman, Roose Bolton. Those reading the passage for the first time are probably thinking to themselves, Good plan, Robb! Can’t wait to see it work out. That’s the genius of Martin. He suggests a hopeful future to throw us off the scent of what’s coming.

In Catelyn’s next chapter, she, Robb, and the rest of their host arrive at the Freys’ crib for the wedding. Catelyn is eager to eat—not because she forgot to pack snacks, but because she wants to secure guest rights. In the Seven Kingdoms, all agree that once you’ve shared meat and mead, peace is assured.

If new readers were feeling anxious about what might happen, their concerns would likely be alleviated at this point, just like Cat’s. Of course, that’s just more misdirection. The Red Wedding will not turn out well for our heroes—and since Martin hinted not once, but twice that things would be okay, it’s all the more shocking.

Welcome to the Wedding

Catelyn’s next (and sadly, final) chapter begins on an ominous note:

“The drums were pounding, pounding, pounding, and [Catelyn’s] head with them. Pipes wailed and flutes trilled from the musicians’ gallery at the foot of the hall; fiddles screeched, horns blew, the skins skirled a lively tune, but the drumming drove them all.”

Plenty of unsettling hints are scattered throughout the chapter. First, Ser Ryman Frey, Catelyn's tablemate, is drinking heavily.

“Ser Ryman drank as if Westeros was about to run short of wine, and sweated it all out under his arms.”

Hmm. Why’s he so nervous? And shouldn’t Roslin Frey, the bride at the wedding, be a little happier?

“Poor Roslin’s smile had a fixed quality to it, as if someone had sewn it onto her face.”

And why isn’t Lord Bolton taking advantage of the open bar?

“[Roose Bolton] sipped hippocras in preference to wine or mead, and ate but little.”

These are all subtle hints that something is amiss here.

Some small talk comes next, then more reflections from Catelyn about the awfulness of the heat, smoke, and noise. Some dogs fight over a scrap of meat, which makes her think of Robb’s direwolf, Grey Wind. Walder Frey specifically refused to allow the wolf into the feast, ostensibly because it might scare the guests. Or perhaps another reason...

The next important detail is this:

“Roose Bolton murmured some words too soft to hear and went off in search of a privy.”

If Roose barely ate or drank, why would he need a bathroom break? Careful readers might be wondering the same.

Then comes another misdirection when Robb says, “I’d hoped to ask Olyvar to squire for me when we march north.” More suggestions of things to come (that tragically will never be). When Robb asks where Olyvar is, Ryman Frey vaguely cites “duty” as the reason. And when Catelyn inquires after another family member, Ryman insists that the man is “away.”

Here, Martin steadily builds the tension. Why is Ryman so evasive? Why are all these family members mysteriously absent from the wedding? Hmm…

The Westerosi bedding tradition comes next, wherein the bride and groom are disrobed by the guests and sent to bed to consummate their marriage (not like most weddings I’ve been to, but to each their own). Catelyn knows that the tradition must be stressful for the bride, but she notes that Roslin isn’t just nervous—she’s crying. (That’s because Ros knows what’s about to happen.)

A long paragraph comes next, but I think it’s worth including the whole thing here:

“Dacey Mormont, who seemed to be the only woman left in the hall besides Catelyn, stepped up behind Edwyn Frey, and touched him lightly on the arm as she said something in his ear. Edwyn wrenched himself away from her with unseemly violence. ‘No,’ he said, too loudly. ‘I’m done with dancing for the nonce.’ Dacey paled and turned away. Catelyn got slowly to her feet. What just happened there? Doubt gripped her heart, where an instant before had been only weariness. It is nothing, she tried to tell herself, you are seeing grumkins in the woodpile, you are become an old silly woman sick with grief and fear. But something must have shown on her face. Even Ser Wendel Manderly took note. ‘Is something amiss?’ he asked, the leg of lamb still in his hands.”

Notice how Martin doesn’t give us time to reset. Though there are many opportunities for paragraph breaks in the action, he refuses them all, instead opting for continuous action. Just like the wedding guests, the hair on the back of our neck is rising.

The foreboding details come quickly now, their meaning far more menacing. For example, the music choice.

“No one sang the words, but Catelyn knew ‘The Rains of Castamere’ when she heard it.”

I prefer DJs at weddings, but when a band plays that song, even I know what’s up. “The Rains of Castamere” is, of course, the Lannisters’ number one jam. It’s a song about how Tywin Lannister extinguished the once prosperous house of Reyne when they refused to honor a debt. The song is basically a warning: Don’t F with the Lannisters. Whatever’s coming, they’re behind it.

And in case we really weren’t sure, when Catelyn approaches Edwyn Frey, here’s what happens:

“She grabbed Edwyn by the arm to turn him and went cold all over when she felt the iron rings beneath his silken sleeve.”

At this moment, both Catelyn and the reader are in full panic mode. All those little details sprinkled about prior are coalescing into dread. And since the previous chapters were all about future plans, we never would’ve expected such a shock. Something very bad is about to happen.

With the music pounding, Robb gets hit in the side with a crossbow bolt, then another. Catelyn is hit too, and after she goes down, their entire crew gets murdered around them. Catelyn makes a last-second plea for mercy. She vows that all will be forgiven if they just let her son go. She even threatens to kill one of Lord Walder Frey’s grandsons in reprisal if he doesn’t stop. But if you’ve seen the show or read the book, you know how it ends.

Now that is how to shock a reader.

The Takeaways

Plot twists work best when they’re hidden. Much work was done in the chapters leading up to the Red Wedding to make us think nothing bad would happen. Therefore, in our writing, we should work hard in preliminary chapters to offer plausible alternative outcomes for subsequent events.

However, that doesn’t mean twists should come completely out of nowhere. Just like endings, plot twists should be inevitable, yet unexpected. We know Robb Stark embarrassed Walder Frey, and we know Frey would not forget a sleight. However, Martin worked tirelessly to divert our suspicions.

Finally, when writing the twist, notice how Martin unsettles us. All those little details of something strange happening at the feast increase the tension and put us on edge. They build in intensity, first with minor details, then major red flags.

Martin uses persistent action to keep his readers on their toes. It’s hard to know whether you’ve pulled off your plot twist successfully when you’re reading it back yourself. You know what’s going to happen, after all. If you’re not sure, try checking your chapter with ProWritingAid’s Pacing Check. This will tell you if you’ve included too much introspection at a crucial moment, which could be a sign that your reader might become disengaged.

The final twist in the Red Wedding comes fast and hard, culminating in the murders of Robb and Catelyn Stark.

Let’s aim for the same structure with our twists. Ease in, ramp up the tension, then deliver on the drama. If so, you’ll have a shocking twist on par with the Red Wedding.

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