The Game of Thrones Books Can Learn From Stephen King's Dark Tower Failures
So, there's this bestselling fantasy series. The man writing it takes years between releasing installments—sometimes, a book comes out six years after the last one. He's said that he plans to write seven books in all, but readers grow impatient, and they grapple with the possibility that he'll die before completing his magnum opus.
We could here be referring to either of two different book series. One is A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin series that became Game of Thrones. The other is Stephen King's The Dark Tower. Unlike Martin, King wrote dozens of other novels during the same years that he wrote his fantasy series, frustrating readers still more that he was delaying returning to his unfinished story. And unlike Martin, King actually did finish his series, thanks to a sudden kick in the pants delivered by the universe.
In June 1999, a van slammed into King when he was walking against the traffic one afternoon. He survived, despite hip, leg, and head injuries, but he realized he might not have. And so—after a few more years, in which he wrote a few other books that weren't directly part of the Dark Tower series—he cranked out the final three Dark Tower books in quick succession. The previous 21 years had seen just four of the books come out. Now, the final three books came out all within a single year.
Some readers weren't exactly happy with the direction the series suddenly took. I'm not talking Game of Thrones final season unhappy (readers questioned the big ideas, not the execution, and you can enjoy reading a book that's written well even if you wish the plot were different). And the backlash was nowhere close to the backlash against the eventual Dark Tower movie (which made the bizarre choice of, rather than adapting the first part of the story, trying to take elements of every single book and condensing the 4,000-page epic into a single 90-minute film). Still, some people were severely disappointed with the way the ending went.
Here's the big swerve toward the end of the series: Stephen King wrote himself in as a character. The heroes discover that they are a part of the Dark Tower book series, they meet its author, and they must later travel to Maine in 1999 to save him from being killed by a van. King recounts his van accident in detail, including some insulting passages from the point of view of the van driver. This is not a jokey epilogue but a major part of the story; after saving the Tower, the characters must save King, else the world ends.
I won't diss this plot in too much detail, because I personally liked it. But I like it partly because when I first read it, I thought this kind of metafiction was original and fascinating. Other people had read this sort of plot many times before in parody and fanfic and figured it had no place in a serious work.
Books commonly take inspiration from the author's life—The Dark Tower's overall theme is addiction, something King knows too much about. Authors often even write characters closely modeled on themselves, which is why Stephen King has written so many writers from Maine. But inserting a character who’s literally yourself, into a story that's already a million-plus words and has strung fans along for so many years, is a supreme act of self-indulgence, the sort that you can't imagine King would have thought was the best idea were he a few more years removed from his accident.
Of course, many people were happy to have received an ending at all. At the time, I couldn't imagine maybe waiting another 20 years to find out how the story ended. I hadn't even been alive 20 years total.
Today, though, almost 20 years have passed since then. I'm still alive. King is still alive and writing as much as ever. A fair number of people aren't still alive, but who cares about them, none of them are reading this article. If King went on writing the books at the old pace, leaving as much as six years between each and giving himself plenty of time to plan out new plots and then a conclusion, he'd have finished all seven by now after all. He could have even written an eighth (King actually did end up writing a short eighth book, set between some earlier books, suggesting he'd never quite got the closure he'd planned for the series).
So, how about we all chill a little when it comes to wanting new stuff to come out and wrap up long-running series. If it takes a long time, who cares, we'll still be around—unless we won't, in which case we also won't be around to be mad about it, so again, no worries. I could also offer guidance directly to George R.R. Martin, telling him not to worry about rushing his final Ice and Fire books. But since Game of Thrones screwed up its ending, no one's really pressuring him to finish the series anymore, and for all we know, he has no plans whatever of writing those last books, so he probably doesn't need that advice.