lane changes aren’t always signaled

I’ve been following, at a polite distance, all the disappointment (and outrage) about the end of the Game of Thrones TV show. It’s been interesting, since failures of storytelling are always good to study. For example, I’ve ended up with some quite detailed thinking about how Suicide Squad (excuse me, that’s “Academy-Award-winning Suicide Squad“) could have been improved.

With Game of Thrones, the reactions seem to generally come down to: 1) everything that happened was mostly the wrong stuff, and 2) it was the right stuff, at least mostly, but it wasn’t told properly (meaning, among other things, that the final seasons were too short).

And, of course, there’s always the assumption that the original text is better than any adaptation, and the TV writers ran out of original text to adapt a while ago, so they’ve been on their own.

But then I read this, at Scientific American: “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones

I can’t really speak for Game of Thrones, obviously, but the overall thinking on different types of stories is persuasive.

The show did indeed take a turn for the worse, but the reasons for that downturn go way deeper than the usual suspects that have been identified (new and inferior writers, shortened season, too many plot holes). It’s not that these are incorrect, but they’re just superficial shifts. In fact, the souring of Game of Thrones exposes a fundamental shortcoming of our storytelling culture in general: we don’t really know how to tell sociological stories.

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

This relates, as the article goes on to describe, to not only whether the later seasons were well written (it takes as a given that they were not — with examples), but that there was also a lane shift, from sociological to psychological (which is the overwhelmingly dominant way of writing for TV, obviously).

Referring to the early seasons, and why the show was so popular, the article says:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

This reminds me of all the writing blogs that I’ve explored where it’s taken as a given that a story must have a protagonist, and that if you can’t identify a protagonist in your story either you don’t understand your own story or you’ve written it wrong.

I wrote a novel some time ago, called U-town, and it did not have a protagonist. It had a lot of characters, and they definitely did “evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them,” but no protagonist — and I don’t think that means it was written wrong.

Anyway, all this made me think. Since U-town I’ve been doing psychological stories, more or less, but I think sociological stories require length (the Game of Thrones novels are famously long, and there are quite a few of them). U-town is 270,000+ words, and I don’t think I have another of those in me.

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