“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.
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?)
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
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.
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.)