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“Present Shock”, Game of Thrones, and Stories that Never End

Recently, Douglass Rushkoff talked about something called “Present Shock” in Wired. In particular one quote stood out for me, about how storytelling is changing:

“Think Game of Thrones. In the old days, this sort of show might be considered bad writing. It doesn’t really seem to be moving toward a crisis or climax, it has no true protagonist, and it’s structured less like a TV show or a movie than a soap opera.”

So is A Song of Ice and Fire bad writing because it has no central conflict? Or is it a new way of looking at storytelling and art? Read on!

What makes A Song of Ice and Fire “bad writing”?

The observation that A Song of Ice and Fire would traditionally be considered “bad writing” reminded me of a conversation I had with a bunch of really cool folks about a week ago. We were talking about A Song of Ice and Fire, and LOST, and Battlestar Galactica. My interlocutors were pretty certain that the end to A Song of Ice and Fire or the TV show Game of Thrones would be as dissatisfying to them as were the endings of LOST or Battlestar Galactica.

This XKCD (thumbnail does not do it justice) tracks the location of many characters in several films: Lord of the Rings among them. None of which are quite as drawn-out and complex as something like Game of Thrones.

This XKCD (thumbnail does not do it justice) tracks the location of many characters in several films: Lord of the Rings among them. None of which are quite as drawn-out and complex as something like Game of Thrones.

So what “went wrong” with LOST and Battlestar? Having never seen LOST, and having seen all of Battlestar, I’ll try to tackle the latter rather than the former. Their argument, essentially, was that Battlestar set up plots that it couldn’t possibly explain to anyone’s satisfaction. In my opinion, the best example of this is: what was up with Starbuck? They never even try to explain that. (I hear the smoke monster in LOST similarly never gets tied up satisfactorily.)

Moreover, in Battlestar, the last half of the last episode — where the writers tried to (1) give most of the characters relatively happy endings and (2) tie the philosophical questions raised in the rest of the series back to Real Life (TM) — fell flat, because they broke the tone and themes of the rest of the series. Battlestar started out as a science fiction story, a space opera. Admittedly, much of the technology is really far out, but the endings they give the characters much of the time didn’t even have the level of pseudoscientific post-hoc justification that a science fiction narrative asks for. (For instance, “Those alien species look like they are roughly shaped like we are. We can probably mate with them.” Or, again, what happened to Starbuck?)

Eventually, it stops being a bow and becomes a hideously complex knot. Image by User Sebbe.wigmo on sv.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, it stops being a bow and becomes a hideously complex knot. Image by User Sebbe.wigmo on sv.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In summary: the ending of Battlestar disappointed because the writers had to shoehorn so many strands – which could have, possibly, supported another season, or two, or three, or whatever – into so little time in order to even try to wrap things up. Some of them feel false, or tenuous, or don’t resonate thematically with the show. Some of them just get dropped entirely. No way to get around it.

How does that fit with Game of Thrones? The same thing that created the difficulty of wrapping up Battlestar is happening in Game of Thrones. There are so many different, as yet unrelated, plots. So many different, as yet rarely interacting characters. It’s not clear where we’re going or how this will all be tied up eventually. And if it does happen, it would be exceptionally difficult to pull off. (Even considering just the books, which avoid issues where, for example, the plot has to be changed mid-stream because one of the actors wants out, which is another common pitfall for long-running television shows.) A Song of Ice and Fire seems designed to go on forever. And books have endings. Which is a fundamental problem, at least with the way we’ve been telling stories so far.

A new kind of story

And then there will probably be some poetic language about sun rising over the tundra north of the Wall, and so on. This image, of sunset in Siberia, By Dmitry A. Mottl (photographer) & User:Tom_dl (File:Kuznetsk Alatau 2.jpg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end, there will be some poetic language about sun rising over the tundra north of the Wall, and so on. Observed by the two characters who are somehow still alive. This image, of sunset in Siberia, By Dmitry A. Mottl (photographer) & User:Tom_dl (File:Kuznetsk Alatau 2.jpg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I have hope that the very title “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a hint at the crisis that is actually being moved towards: white walkers vs. dragons, and relatedly, winter, and inexorability, and death versus summer, and unpredictability, and life. I think if anyone can bring all of the as-yet-unrelated plot points together, George R. R. Martin has the best chance. But I can see how even if there WAS such an overarching battle, it wouldn’t necessarily tie up all the plot strands George R.R. Martin has going. (And I was proven entirely backwards in my prediction of how J. K. Rowling was going to tie together the ending of the Harry Potter books, so I’m probably going to be proven wrong again.)

What I find most interesting, however, is that Rushkoff’s point suggests entirely the opposite. Namely, that one of the things people LIKE about Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is that it doesn’t seem to be building to a crisis; it works more like a role playing game, which has the potential to just last forever, rather than a novel, which has a defined ending. Or, not to get too hackneyed, like life – which doesn’t have any universal overarching conflict or plot, except perhaps the ones we add after the fact.

Of course, while that perspective is all well and good when you’re considering, say, the ability of a collaborative experience such as a role playing game or an online environment to create stories that last longer than any one author will write them, it takes a stretch to apply that to a series of novels. Or even a television show. Both of which usually have defined beginnings and endings. And in a certain way, the ongoing, eternal story that goes in circles but doesn’t have an overarching plot has been with us for as long as the comic book serial, or the soap opera, or the television series. But… well, whatever. You get the point: maybe these seemingly everlasting epics are, somehow, a new format/way of writing, more in touch with our peculiar momentary cultural milieu.

In other words, did the rise of role playing games fundamentally change the way we tell stories? Image By User:JohnnyMrNinja from images made by yves_guillou & w:David Vignoni [LGPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

In other words, did the rise of role playing games fundamentally change the way we tell stories? Image By User:JohnnyMrNinja from images made by yves_guillou & w:David Vignoni [LGPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

And the cool thing, for me, is how Rushkoff brings it all together into some kind of philosophical whole:

“However, the inability to tell stories over time has yielded new forms — like video games and fantasy role-playing — which tell stories in the present tense. They are less about getting to some conclusion and ending the play than they are about keeping the play going. That’s a better structure for a world contending less with victory than sustainability.”

The reality of the western world right now is that our struggles for survival are less about defeating a particular villain, and more about finding a way to stabilize and sustain our current existence. People have suggested that one of the reasons we’re so bad at dealing with things like global warming, or even realizing how dangerous they can be, is that there isn’t a clear enemy. The stories we have been telling aren’t necessarily the best ones for dealing with that kind of problem.

So maybe it’s time for different stories.

(Featured image is cropped from this image of banners advertising Game of Thrones by Keith McDuffee from Northborough, MA, USA (Game of Thrones sign) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at madgeneticist.tumblr.com, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

6 Comments

  1. April 19, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    I think a better analogy would be comic books. The shows that were mentioned here, LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones, are popular with a lot of the same people that read comics. Possibly because they are structured like comic books, having storylines that are designed to last for years or even decades.

  2. April 19, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Scott: that’s a very good point, and I think that the growing popularity of comic books only feeds into this trend.

  3. April 19, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Just out of curiosity, what was your prediction for the end of Harry Potter?

  4. April 22, 2013 at 11:38 am

    PZ Myers actually reviewed Dance With Dragons (ASOIAF book 5) a couple years ago: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/25/game-of-drones/

    It’s a characteristically biting review, but based on a slightly different complaint of plot stagnation. Being about halfway through DWD myself, I have to agree with PZ. It’s not that the ending’s bad (I’m not there yet!), it’s that hardly anything is happening in the meantime! It’s like watching a chess match where nobody’s even capturing pieces. The first three books were relatively easy reads, but by this point, there needs to be more motivation to read than the reader’s refusal to give up. There’s also the knowledge that even if I do trudge through the remained of the book, there’s still two more as-yet-unpublished tomes I’ll need to get through before I know whether the dull, meandering parts of the journey was worth it!

    I think something can still be considered a great work if its ending isn’t great, but the story had enough interesting character study to make it worth your time. Mad Men and The Sopranos come to mind as stories that didn’t/probably won’t have a grand finale, but spend the bulk of their time carefully dissecting the lives of interesting characters who the audience isn’t really rooting for or against.

  5. April 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    @MarlowePI — In short, this was my favorite theory, based on two parts of the prophesy (“neither can live while the other survives” and “a power [Voldemort] knows not”). I took the first to mean that Harry would have to die in order for Voldemort to be actually for-reals alive again, and that until that happened Voldemort would be in undead zombie-ville and not really killable. Since a lot of folks suggested that the power Voldemort didn’t know was *coughcornycough* luff, the love/friendship/loyalty that Harry inspired would last beyond him, and someone would kill Voldie as soon as he was made mortal by Harry’s death. Or maybe even spirit Harry would get into Voldemort’s head, like Voldemort had done to Harry a bazillion times, and fill Voldemort with so much remorse that he tore himself apart. THEN, since the Hallows were supposed to be this get-out-of-death-free card, Harry could come back. Happy endings all around! I think instead Harry beat Voldemort based on a technicality of wand lore that Voldie understood better than Harry did, and that Harry was effectively immortal because his mother loved him so dang much. Which was a bit of a disappointing reversal.

    @jtradke — I can absolutely understand that perspective, and it’s one that is shared by many of my friends. I think it ties in quite well with everything I talked about above: when there is no grand conflict, by design, and things are meant to just sort of continue forever, everyone will have a point at which they lose interest. That point will just be different for each individual.

    And, interestingly, I think that the way you phrased your essential issue is telling: you don’t know “whether the dull, meandering parts of the journey [will have been] worth it” — what if those are the point? What if there is no grand climax, and it just sort of peters out, or ends abruptly and unexpectedly (as it might, if Martin dies before finishing the books)? I think that the people who love Game of Thrones might say that they like it NOT because of the big battle that it’s moving towards, but exactly because of the character work that Martin does. It’s arguably why he has so many characters, and why he writes each chapter from a different character’s perspective. (The differing takes on womanhood by Arya, Brianne, Catelyn Stark, Danerys, Cersei, and Sansa are particularly interesting to me). There are a lot of great works of fiction coming out right now that do this, or that try. And everyone has a different definition of a great work, I think, but it doesn’t necessarily change the fact that whereas before the internet you were in some way limited by the space the written word took up on a page, or the number of reels/vhs tapes it would take to store the film, in the internet age all of a sudden fiction can just stretch on and on into eternity. And maybe that’s changing how we write, and leaking over into the stories we tell on dead trees as well.

  6. April 23, 2013 at 8:19 am

    elfinn- Interesting! The way I read the ending, it actually sounds pretty close to your prediction. (Um, spoilers ahead, I guess, if there’s anyone out there who HASN’T already read the books?) Voldemort couldn’t die while Harry lived, because he had accidentally transferred part of his soul into Harry when he killed Harry’s mother, making Harry a Horcrux. When Harry let Voldemort kill him in the forest, he wasn’t saved by his mother’s love (the protection of which was neutralized in Goblet of Fire when Voldemort used Harry’s blood to resurrect himself), but because the Voldie-soul-piece took the brunt of the attack, killing it off (and thus making Voldie mortal again) and giving Harry the choice to come back. The “power he knows not” was the love/etc., which gave Harry his initial protection, yes, but also made Harry sacrifice himself to save his friends not knowing he’d survive (self-sacrifice definitely being something Voldie doesn’t understand, and which allowed the aforementioned Horcrux to be destroyed), made Narcissa Malfoy lie to Voldie about Harry still being alive (because of her love for and desire to protect Draco), was at least partly responsible for why everyone else fought so hard (like Neville, who took out another Horcrux when he killed Nagini), and most importantly made Snape turn double-agent (because of his love for Lily Potter) which essentially made Voldie’s whole downfall possible. The wand-lore thing was just a bonus bit of hubris which let Harry defeat a much more experienced and powerful opponent in a straight-on duel, but it was all that other stuff that made it all possible in the first place.

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