The Three Twists GRRM Originally Planned to End ADWD On (And the One He Planned to Start TWOW On), Conclusion: The Case of the Missing King
GRRM originally had a "Where's Stannis?" arc in mind for A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, ending with a massive twist. But then GRRM changed his mind (twice) at the last minute.
In a 2005 convention appearance, George RR Martin talked about the advantage of splitting A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons:
GRRM himself stated this is an advantage of this book. That we will get some hints of what is going on in the North and East but we wouldn't know what is true and what not. We may learn that Stannis is killed for example but that could easily be a red herring.
Hold on. Isn't that kind-of what happened at the end of A Dance with Dragons? In Jon Snow’s final Dance chapter, Jon and readers “learned” that Stannis was “dead” via the letter Ramsay Bolton sent to Jon. Was this what George was referring to when he spoke about Stannis’ death as a red herring? Probably not. As Adam Feldman pointed out to me: George probably meant Davos Seaworth and how he was reported dead in Cersei’s fifth chapter in A Feast for Crows, but this turned out to be a red herring in Davos’ A Dance with Dragons chapters.
That said, there is a similar Stannis is dead red herring going on in A Dance with Dragons. Stannis was present and a mover of plot action in Jon Snow’s early chapters in Dance. But thereafter, Stannis remained mostly off-page until close to the end of the book when he re-emerged in Asha Greyjoy’s “The King’s Prize” and “The Sacrifice” chapters. And then Stannis was reported killed in the Pink Letter.
But what if the original plan for A Dance with Dragons would have had Stannis staying off-page for much, much longer? Because that’s what George was planning for the book. And that absence built towards a major twist until GRRM changed his mind at the last minute. And then, goddammit, but GRRM changed his mind yet again.
Stannis and the Krakens
When GRRM split Feast and Dance, he always planned to bring back two POV characters from Feast to Dance as he wrote in 2006:
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS will feature all the characters that you (and I) missed in A FEAST FOR CROWS. Jon, Tyrion, Davos, Dany, and Bran will all be present with major storylines, and toward the end of the novel Arya will appear as well, as will Asha Greyjoy. There will also be one new viewpoint character debuting and one old returning, giving me a total of nine POVs, plus the usual prologue.
AFAICT the only Iron Islands chapters in aFfC will be the Arms of the Kraken story. Asha will feature in at least one chapter in aDwD (which is already written).
The wording here also indicates that GRRM left open the possibility that there would be additional Asha chapters in A Dance with Dragons. However, there is no indication that the two later Asha chapters found towards the end of A Dance with Dragons (“The King’s Prize” and “The Sacrifice”) were written early in the process. In fact, those chapters were not written until very, very late in the timeline of GRRM writing A Dance with Dragons.
We're hoping to have a finished manuscript by Christmas. [GRRM] told me he has five chapters left and bits of each chapter are done. He really wants it done by the end of the year. We really—I mean really—want to announce the pub date in January.
So, according to Anne Groell (quoting George), there were only had five chapters left to complete for A Dance with Dragons by October 2010. This presents a problem, because it conflicts with what George was still working for Dance six months later.
In the Cushing Library Archive, a manuscript page shows us the chapters that George hadn’t submitted for Dance by April 2011. They are:
The Sacrifice (Asha III)
Theon (Theon’s Seventh Dance Chapter)
That's seven chapters, not the five chapters Anne Groell said were left to complete for Dance. If I’m doing my subtraction correctly, that’s two more chapters than GRRM reported needing to finish back in October 2010. Six of these seven chapters ended up in Dance with Bran’s chapter cut from the manuscript. So, where's the rub?
The answer may be found in what GRRM reported writing in December 2010 — two months after Anne Groell's appearance at the New York ComicCon:
It's snowing. On Jon. On the krakens. On me. We all slog onward.
"Snowing on krakens" is a not-very-subtle reference to Asha and Theon's late chapters in Dance where the snow begins to fall heavily on Stannis’ march to Winterfell and on the castle itself. Given that these chapters were set in the snow, it's probably a reference to Theon's final chapter along with Asha’s “The King's Prize” and/or “The Sacrifice” chapters.
Then in February 2011, GRRM wrote this:
Will this damned snow ever cease? Might be, might be. Saw a sliver of sun last night. (Oh, it's a gorgeous sunny happy day in Santa Fe. Just not out on Skull Island). Wrestling with a pair of krakens. One almost subdued, t'other still writhing and twisting and slapping me alongside the head with her tentacles.
Again, this is another reference to Theon and Asha’s chapters — with both kraken POV characters still dealing with “autumn’s kiss”. And remember, GRRM was two months away from completing A Dance with Dragons when he made that notablog entry.
All of that begs the question as to why were these chapters written so late in the process? The answer can be deduced through GRRM’s original plan for a Stannis Baratheon twist for A Dance with Dragons (or The Winds of Winter) and how GRRM changed his mind on this twist very late in his writing process.
Speculating on the Original Stannis Baratheon Story in Dance
This is the most speculative part of the piece, but I think the original idea - the one that GRRM stuck with until late 2010 - was that he planned for Stannis to be entirely off-page in A Dance with Dragons after he left the Wall until the start of The Winds of Winter.
Thereafter, readers would sort-of see Stannis in Asha's “The Wayward Bride” chapter and hear about his exploits through the letter Stannis sent to the Wall in Jon Snow’s seventh Dance chapter. And then readers would hear about Stannis advancing from Deepwood in Theon's chapters in Dance. But otherwise, I think George’s original idea was that we wouldn’t be with Stannis on the march to Winterfell. The reason why is that GRRM was laying foundation for both a shocking moment in the narrative and a big twist. Part of that dynamic exists in the published form of A Dance with Dragons with Jon’s final chapter via Ramsay's Letter to Jon, but I think the original conception was supposed to be even more of a mystery.
To help set the stage for this theory, let’s trace the way A Dance with Dragons was written as GRRM closed in on finishing the book. Though the chronology of George’s writing of Dance coupled with events as they played out in the published version of the book are murky, there is some data which supports the theory.
Now I was picking up some steam again. June of 2010, a partial of 1028 pages. August of 2010, 1332 pages, December of 2010, 1412 pages.
Another chapter done.
And another character. This wraps up Yogi for the book. The Meereenese knot is hanging by a thread. One more good slash and it may finally part.
That’s eight characters completed. Not counting the prologue or epilogue.
Course, there’s still more to due. Got to get back to shoveling Snow soon, and there’s still Fred hanging on, but first I need to hack at that blasted knot some more.
(For reference, “Snow” is Jon Snow, and it’s likely that “Fred” is Theon Greyjoy. These were codenames (lol) for the identities of the POVs GRRM was working on)
My thinking is that between September and December 2010, GRRM continued to work on the Meereenese Knot, knocking out another 80 pages/3 chapters of the book. But GRRM still had to “shovel Snow” (Jon) with “Fred” (Theon) still hanging on. Notice that there’s no mention of another POV that GRRM still had to work on. I think that’s possible evidence that Asha Greyjoy was not planned at that point.
Moving on to a few more data points. Given that we know that GRRM referenced working on Jon Snow’s final chapter in July 2010 but hadn’t finished Jon XIII (along with Jon XI and Jon XII) by April 2011, My best guess is that those Jon chapters account for three of the five remaining chapters Anne Groell referenced. And the other two chapters? Again, these are best guesses, but given GRRM’s statement about working on “Fred” in August 2010, I’d wager that one of the chapters was Theon’s final chapter (Theon VII). As for the fifth chapter, my best guess is that this is a Bran Stark chapter that didn’t end up in A Dance with Dragons. In George’s February 2011 update, he referenced “having a wolf to face.” That is perhaps Jon, but George usually referred to Jon as “Snow” in his notablog updates. I think this is probably that Bran chapter that sadly didn’t end up in A Dance with Dragons.
Thus, Asha’s “The King’s Prize” and “The Sacrifice”, the Theon chapter that ended up as a Winds sample (along with Tyrion’s twelfth Dance chapter) were not included in that five chapter count from October 2010. GRRM conceptualized and started these chapters two months later — in December 2010.
So, why didn’t George envision them originally? The reason, I think, has everything to do with the twist GRRM was planning for Stannis. By process of elimination, if George did not intend to write those Asha chapters, we can deduce that that George likely planned to skip over Stannis’ march from Deepwood Motte to the Crofters’ Village and the ensuing action flowing from the plot events captured in those chapters.
That means that GRRM’s original plan did not encompass a so-called Battle of Ice in A Dance with Dragons. After Theon Greyjoy jumped from the walls, there would simply be radio silence on the fate of Stannis Baratheon. And then the Pink Letter would arrive at the Wall, informing Jon Snow that Stannis was dead and his army was destroyed. Game over, Stannis, right? Wrong!
My best reading of GRRM’s original plan was for Stannis to be reported dead at the end of A Dance with Dragons, and then he would show up to take Winterfell — probably as a major twist to start of The Winds of Winter.
A possible pathway GRRM might have taken to get Stannis to Winterfell without a Battle of Ice is one that may well play out in The Winds of Winter: namely, northern lords disloyal to the Boltons may aid Stannis in killing the Freys riding for him and help Stannis gaining access to Winterfell itself. In Theon Greyjoy’s final chapter, he sees Manderly and Frey knights riding out from opposite gates of Winterfell, bound for Stannis at the Crofters’ Village, noting this:
The Frey men wore the badge of the two towers, those from White Harbor displayed merman and trident. They shouldered through the storm in opposite directions and eyed each other warily as they passed, but no swords were drawn. Not here. It may be different out there in the woods. (ADWD, Theon)
That works as foreshadowing for the Manderlys to kill the Freys in the forest. The Manderlys then may have parlayed with Stannis and then smuggled his army into Winterfell. Beyond the Manderlys, most of the northmen within Winterfell stew angrily over the Red Wedding and may come to view Stannis as a means of attaining vengeance against the Bolton-Frey perpetrators of the Red Wedding.
But I think all of those plot-events would have been off-page in Dance. George wanted to fast-forward to the plot-relevant portion of Stannis’ story in the North: taking out the Freys and Boltons and liberating Winterfell — though whether Stannis would have eliminated all of the Bolton-Frey villains is the subject of another essay. But why did GRRM originally plan for this rather than writing a blow-by-blow account of all of the moving pieces of the battle?
Remember the introduction and how GRRM said that we might hear about Stannis being dead but that might prove a red herring? Though that probably was a reference to Davos Seaworth, I wonder whether that was a possible germination of the idea of the narrative death and resurrection of Stannis Baratheon. Beyond that, a general rule of fiction is that if a major character is reported killed off-page, readers should take that information with an enormous grain of salt.
Moreover, there’s precedent for a reported-dead character to be an actually-alive character in A Song of Ice and Fire. And then there’s precedent for the actually-alive-character to reappear dramatically in the narrative. Back in A Clash of Kings, Ramsay Snow was reported killed by Rodrik Cassel. And then, surprise!, it turned out that Ramsay wasn’t dead after all. And what did a resurrected Ramsay do? Why, he took Winterfell and sacked the castle, didn’t he?
The irony potential in a reported-dead Stannis taking Winterfell from the Boltons might have originally been too rich for George to pass up. He seemed to have kept on that course until very late in the process of writing A Dance with Dragons. But then GRRM changed his mind.
GRRM Changes His Mind
In developing major plot payoffs in A Song of Ice and Fire, GRRM has generally adopted the rule that the more detail and story he can imbue into the narrative leads to a more satisfying conclusion. Though George has never officially stated that this was the reason he ended up writing the Battle of Ice, I believe that this was the primary motivation. A secondary but crucial reason GRRM changed his mind is that he also wanted to show a cool-as-shit battle on-page. But in changing his mind, GRRM had to abandon his twist of Stannis taking Winterfell. Or did he?
GRRM’s decision to feature the Battle of Ice be on-page was one that was initially couched as an event which would occur at the end of A Dance with Dragons. To achieve that, GRRM wrote “The King’s Prize” and “The Sacrifice” along with the Theon Winds sample chapter between December 2010 and April 2011.
These three chapters were the necessary set-ups for the battle to occur. “The King’s Prize” charted Stannis and his army’s march from Deepwood Motte until winter set in, forcing Stannis to halt at the Crofters’ Village. “The Sacrifice” demonstrated the growing desperation in Stannis’ camp and the rising casualty count. At the same time, the Asha chapters showed possible groundwork for the battle to occur with a fire burning in the watchtower overlooking one of the lakes, and Stannis’ men cutting holes in the ice lakes — ostensibly to fish. Meanwhile, Theon’s Winds sample chapter had Stannis all-but-declare that he had a plan for the coming battle.
In developing a cool-as-shit battle, GRRM may have picked up historical inspiration via the Soviet film Alexander Nevsky's portrayal of the historical Battle of Ice. Alternatively, GRRM may have been inspired by Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn which depicts a battle on a frozen lake. (George is an enormous fan of Tad Williams and considers his Dragonbone Chair books to have inspired A Song of Ice and Fire)
Whatever George’s inspiration for deciding to feature this battle in A Dance with Dragons, it is a bit of an outlier from earlier abandonments of twists where GRRM seemingly decided against these twists in order to do character work for Quentyn, Tyrion and Victarion. In the North, GRRM decided to change his mind from the twist of Stannis disappearing from the pages of Dance so as to feature a spectacular, on-page battle on the frozen lakes. And what would the outcome of that battle be?
Again, we’re in speculation territory, but one idea I had while working on this piece is that GRRM may still be planning for the twist of Stannis taking Winterfell in Winds. Perhaps instead of clearly showing Stannis as victorious during the Battle of Ice, we’d have a few chapters showing the battle on the ice lakes with GRRM leaving the outcome unresolved. Perhaps in doing this, GRRM might borrow from his earlier Battle on the Blackwater when Tyrion observed Tywin and the Tyrells arriving at the Blackwater to fight Stannis but couldn’t make sense of it:
On one side of him was a raging battle, a great confusion of bright banners waving above a sea of struggling men, shield walls forming and breaking, mounted knights cutting through the press, dust and mud and blood and smoke. On the other side, the Red Keep loomed high on its hill, spitting fire. They were on the wrong sides, though. For a moment Tyrion thought he was going mad, that Stannis and the castle had traded places. How could Stannis cross to the north bank? Belatedly he realized that the deck was turning, and somehow he had gotten spun about, so castle and battle had changed sides. Battle, what battle, if Stannis hasn't crossed who is he fighting? (ACOK, Tyrion XV)
Perhaps in the case of the Battle of Ice, Asha or Theon might observe the Freys gaining the upper hand on Stannis’ army after the initial shock of some of their knights falling into the lake and begin to adjust their battle tactics. And then the close of the battle would have Theon or Asha see Mermen Tridents arrive on the battlefield. Fast-forward to the Pink Letter, and we’d “learn” about the death of Stannis and the defeat of his army.
The chronology, as usual, is tricky. This chapter will be found eventually at the beginning of WINDS, but as you will be able to tell from context, it actually takes place before some of the chapters at the end of DANCE.
I think George is specifically referring to Jon’s final chapter in Dance. In one very late version of Dance, GRRM wanted both the Battle of Ice and the Pink Letter to occur in the same book. Leaving Stannis’ fate and the outcome of the Battle of Ice unseen was necessary to create skyrocketing narrative tension when Ramsay’s letter arrived at the Wall.
But then George, and I know this will shock all of you, changed his mind again.
GRRM Changes His Mind Yet Again
By deciding to feature a battle that GRRM probably didn’t originally envision for Dance, he sacrificed valuable page-space when he had little left to spare. In his retrospective on Dance, George charted his rising manuscript page counts as the book drew to a close:
Now I was picking up some steam again. June of 2010, a partial of 1028 pages. August of 2010, 1332 pages, December of 2010, 1412 pages. By March of 2011, Kong was screeching and the biplanes were in the air, and I sent in the final partial, which weighed in at 1571 pages… but I still had some incomplete chapters, some that remained very rough, some that I didn’t know whether to include or not. It was those that pushed the final count over 1600 and up near 1700 before the editorial changes and final sweat that I’ve detailed up above.
George was at 1,412 manuscript pages when he started working on Asha and Theon’s chapters set in and around Winterfell. Given that George and his editors were aiming for a book of about 1500 manuscript pages, GRRM was running tight on space. And then in March 2011, GRRM made his first indication that he was writing yet another battle for A Dance with Dragons: the Battle of Fire.
By March 2011, the manuscript page count was 1,551 manuscript pages: 51 more pages than he originally planned. And the count kept rising. At the end of March 2011, Dance was 1,600+ manuscript pages. A few days later, GRRM finished another Meereen chapter with hopes of finishing another chapter the next day.
If you’re interested in this type of analysis, you know how the rest unfolded. George had simply written outwritten his own book. He had too many pages of A Dance with Dragons to publish them all in the book itself. So, in a bitter irony that only George could enjoy after a few drinks, he ended up having to cut finished chapters from Dance to Winds. And he chose to cut most of the finished battle chapters from Dance as GRRM’s editor Anne Groell alluded to shortly before the publication of the book:
Finishing this book where he absolutely wanted to end it would have taken probably another year and more pages than could be realistically bound between two covers. And so much great stuff had happened already that no one, I felt, could be unsatisfied by the developments. So he voluntarily pulled one big sequence out of the book. I lobbied for another…and it came out, too.
One of the great ironies of Dance is that GRRM decided very late to write the Battle of Ice. But then writing the Battle of Ice (and Fire) drove the page count way over the point of publication. And yet even then, the battles were not complete by the time he ended up cutting those sequences from Dance to Winds.
A common misconception is that GRRM was finished writing both battles and cut those two, completed sequences from A Dance with Dragons. As GRRM revealed in 2018, that wasn’t the case:
My original intent was to end DANCE with the two big battles, yes… intercutting between the two of them, each told through several different points of view. And both battles were partially written. But NOT COMPLETE, which became the issue. Also, maybe even more to the point, not yet good enough in my estimation. Battles are bloody hard, and I wanted these to be great.
Curiously, GRRM did end up including the two later Asha chapters in A Dance with Dragons. Why? GRRM has never said one way or another, but I do think the chapters do more than simply set-up the Battle of Ice.
Perhaps the reason why GRRM included these chapters was that he knew that he wasn’t going to resolve the cliffhanger plots of Stannis’ fate in Dance. At the same time, GRRM wanted to provide character resolutions in the book — namely in Theon and Asha’s stories.
The end of Asha Greyjoy's final chapter served as a beautiful closing to an arc for Theon Greyjoy that started in A Clash of Kings when he didn't recognize his sister Asha. At the end of Dance, Theon finally closes that loop:
A girl and an old man, thought Asha, as the two were dumped rudely in the snow before her. The girl was shivering violently, even in her furs. If she had not been so frightened, she might even have been pretty, though the tip of her nose was black with frostbite. The old man … no one would ever think him comely. She had seen scarecrows with more flesh. His face was a skull with skin, his hair bone-white and filthy. And he stank. Just the sight of him filled Asha with revulsion.
He raised his eyes. "Sister. See. This time I knew you."
And then Theon resolves the central question of his story in A Dance with Dragons over his identity:
Asha's heart skipped a beat. "Theon?"
His lips skinned back in what might have been a grin. Half his teeth were gone, and half of those still left him were broken and splintered. "Theon," he repeated. "My name is Theon. You have to know your name."
I’ve always found the close of “The Sacrifice” one of the most emotionally-poignant moments in all of A Song of Ice and Fire. I have to imagine that GRRM felt that same catharsis at the end of Theon and Asha’s stories in A Dance with Dragons. So, he kept these chapter in A Dance with Dragons. I’m glad he did.
A lot of fans were disappointed by the way A Dance with Dragons concluded. The battles that GRRM was building up to were shuffled off to The Winds of Winter. Part of the reason why that was the case was GRRM’s late decision to feature the Battle of Ice (and Fire) in Dance. Was it the right decision? In my opinion, it’s impossible to say without having The Winds of Winter in hand to evaluate the story GRRM wants to tell. Still, I’m quite excited to see the Battle of Ice in The Winds of Winter, even if I feel some frustration with not having it in the published version of A Dance with Dragons.
For his part, George RR Martin is quite cognizant of that fan-disappointment and frustration with A Dance with Dragons — especially the frustration that the battles weren’t in Dance. In 2018, he still wasn't sure whether he made the right decision in cutting those battles to The Winds of Winter:
Did we make the right decision? I don’t know, even to this day. I understand your frustration, and some days I do feel the same way.
To expand out more broadly to the theme of this essay series, I think George made the right calls in abandoning some of his planned twists despite the fact that George RR Martin can write a great twist. You need only to think of Ned's execution, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Jon becoming Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, the revelation that Lysa and Littlefinger murdered Jon Arryn or Jon's murder at the end of A Dance with Dragons to see George’s ability to throw readers for a twisting loop.
But there’s a reason I consider A Dance with Dragons to be George RR Martin's finest work. It’s the characters, their complexities, their external and internal conflicts.
All of the hard work GRRM did in writing and rewriting the book made for one of the most dynamic character works of modern fiction. I love that GRRM did such a deep-dive on the characters of Quentyn Martell and Tyrion Lannister rather than feature a major twist. I love seeing the off-page specter of Euron Greyjoy haunt Victarion’s Dance chapters. And even when those Asha Greyjoy chapters trend towards the plot-dense, GRRM still manages to thread beautiful, moving character work in her chapters.
Where George RR Martin shines as a writer is in his ability to write great, conflicted characters who bring me back over and over again to this series. That he abandoned several major planned twists in Dance in favor of character is to his credit as a writer and our benefit as readers.
So, with that, thank you for reading this series. Thanks for reading my work, commenting and caring all these years. And happy belated birthday, A Dance with Dragons! Thanks, George.
Thanks for reading. I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, PoorQuentyn and I have an ASOIAF Re-Read Podcast called NotACast where we analyze every chapter in ASOIAF one chapter a week. Come listen to us on Apple Podcasts, podbay, soundcloud, google play, spotify, patreon everywhere you get your podcasts!