By Evan Dahm.
George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings both take place in settings with seasons that work very differently from reality. With that convenient point of comparison, let’s look at how the two books go about introducing this item to the reader.
A Game of Thrones:
“You are a young man, Tyrion,” Mormont said. “How many winters have you seen?”
He shrugged. “Eight, nine. I misremember.”
“And all of them short.”
“As you say, my lord.” He had been born in the dead of winter, a terrible cruel one that the maesters said had lasted near three years, but Tyrion’s first memories were of spring.
“When I was a boy, it was said that a long summer always meant a long winter to come. This summer has lasted nine years, Tyrion, and a tenth will soon be upon us. Think on that.”
“When I was a boy,” Tyrion replied, “my wet nurse told me that one day, if men were good, the gods would give the world a summer without ending. Perhaps we’ve been better than we thought, and the Great Summer is finally at hand.” He grinned.
The Way of Kings:
“The others cry at night,” she said. “But you don’t.”
“Why cry?” he said, leaning his head back against the bars. “What would it change?”
“I don’t know. Why do men cry?”
He smiled, closing his eyes. “Ask the Almighty why men cry, little spren. Not me.” His forehead dripped with sweat from the Eastern humidity, and it stung as it seeped into his wound. Hopefully, they’d have some weeks of spring again soon. Weather and seasons were unpredictable. You never knew how long they would go on, though typically each would last a few weeks.
The wagon rolled on …
I am hesitant to put forth or support ANY absolute rules in storytelling or art, but I think it is obvious that Martin’s introduction of this variance in setting is elegant, story-embedded, and clear, while Sanderson’s is clunky, distracting, and unsubtle.
In the first excerpt, we get a huge amount of information about the setting’s seasons: they last varying amounts of time. They are thought to be predictable by maesters, but there’s contention on that point. Nine years is considered a very long time for a summer to last. The characters of Tyrion and Mormont and their relationship are developed throughout this conversation, as is a bit of more textural, background stuff regarding cultural ideas surrounding the seasons. This is all within the text of the story and within the events of the story. We are taught this information without really even being taught it.
In the second excerpt, we are given a brief aside explaining outright how seasons work. The characters are not really seen to interact with this information, and it’s not as “embedded” in the text as the previous excerpt, making it seem less relevant to what’s going on in the story, and therefore much more easily forgotten by the reader, and much less conducive to immersion in the story. This is an attempt to teach the reader an important fact about the setting, but it’s an attempt made so straightforwardly and overtly that it is far less successful than Martin’s.
This is a point I’ve been trying to make: no matter how gorgeous, elaborate, and inspiring your SETTING is (and Sanderson’s is definitely all of those things!), it all really comes down to how it is CONVEYED.