Fictional Railroading

Of late, there have been a bit of kerfuffle on the interwebs about the last season of everyone’s favourite weekly dose of sex, violence, and intrigue (not necessarily in that order)1. It kind of reminded me of something:

Fans’ reactions to the last two Harry Potter books (“Half-Blood Prince” and “Deathly Hallows“).

There’s the same division where some felt everything made sense, and others felt cheated, and that some characters were suddenly behaving differently. I’ve previously opined that the issue was due to every reader (or viewer, in the case of Game of Thrones) filling in the blanks of characters with their own experiences/perspectives, and not taking it well when their assumptions prove false.

Recently, though, I read an interesting twitter thread by Daniel Silvermint2.

For those who can’t be bothered reading the whole thing, the gist is that, while writers can allow stories to develop organically based on what the characters would do in their current circumstances, eventually they need to be steered towards and ending. This is what makes the audience feel like the characters have suddenly changed.

Personally, I feel it’s unfair to judge until you’ve read/seen the whole story, but I can understand people’s dissatisfaction. It takes a lot of skill to draw all the plot and character threads together for an ending, and even if a character’s actions have been properly set-up and foreshadowed, it can still feel like it happened too quickly.

It’s hard enough to get one book’s worth of plot to come together neatly, so I admire anyone who manages it with an epic, sprawling fantasy world.

Oh, and if you’re still not happy after the season finale: there’s always fanfiction. 😉

0 For those unfamiliar, “railroading” is a gaming term for when players feel they are forced to take particular actions chosen by the game designer(s), even if it’s not what they want to do, or how they think their character would behave.

1 I refer of course to “Jane the Virgin”.

2 Quoted in full here (for easier reading):

Want to know why Game of Thrones *feels* so different now? I think I can explain. Without spoilers.

It has to do with the behind-the-scenes process of plotters vs. pantsers. If you’re not familiar with the distinction, plotters create a fairly detailed outline before they commit a single word to the page.

Pantsers discover the story as they write it, often treating the first draft like one big elaborate outline. Neither approach is ‘right’ – it’s just a way to characterize the writing process. But the two approaches do tend to have different advantages.

Because they have the whole story in mind, it’s usually easier for plotters to deliver tighter stories and stick the landing when it comes to endings, but their characters can sometimes feel stiff, like they’re just plot devices.

Pantsers have an easier time writing realistic characters, because they generate the plot by asking themselves what this fully-realized person would do or think next in the dramatic situation the writer has dropped them in.

But because pantsers are making it up as they go along (hence the name: they’re flying by the seat of their pants), they’re prone to meandering plots and can struggle to bring everything together in a satisfying conclusion.

That’s why a lot of writers plot their stories but pants their characters, and use the second draft to reconcile conflicts between the two.

What does this have to do with Game of Thrones?

Well, GRRM is one of the most epic pantsers around. He talks about writing like cultivating a garden. He plants character seeds and carefully lets them grow and grow.

That’s why every plot point and fair-in-hindsight surprise landed with such devastating weight: everything that happened to these characters happened because of their past choices. But it’s also the reason why the narrative momentum of the books slowed over time.

After the first big plot arc, book four was originally going to skip ahead five years. But GRRM didn’t know how to make the gap in action feel true to the characters or the world, so he eventually decided to just write his way through those five years instead.

Which meant planting more seeds, and watching those grow. And suddenly his garden was overgrown, and hard to prune without abrupt or forced resolutions. He had no choice but to follow each and every one of those plot threads, even when they didn’t really matter to the story.

And now that the plants were fully in control, he struggled to get some of the characters that had grown one way to go where they needed to be for the story. (Dany getting stuck in Meereen is the example he frequently cites.)

And because he had all this story to cover and pay off, some of which was growing in the wrong directions and needed enough narrative space to come back around, he started increasing the number of books he thought it would take him to complete the series. And, well.

So the books the showrunners were adapting ran out. What now? People assume the show suffered because they didn’t have GRRM’s rich material to draw on anymore, as if the problem was that he’s simply better at generating new plots than they are. But that’s not what happened.

For a season or two, the showrunners actually tried to take over management of GRRM’s sprawling garden, with understandably mixed results. When that didn’t work, they shifted their focus to trying to bring this huge beast in for a landing.

They gave themselves a fixed endpoint – 13 episodes to the finale, and no more – and set about reverse-engineering the rest of the story they wanted to tell.

You see, I think the showrunners are not only plotters, they’re ending-focused plotters by design.

They want to deliver an ultimately satisfying experience. So with only two seasons to work with, they started asking themselves what was left to do. What could they build with the pieces left in the box? What beats did they just have to include?

What big moments did they want to deliver? Where should the characters end up? What did they think we, the audience, wanted to see on screen before the show came to an end? It was a Game of Thrones bucket list.

And once they had that list, it was time to connect the dots to make it all happen. So they started maneuvering the characters into the emotional and literal places they needed to be for all those dots to connect up in the right way.

That’s why Game of Thrones feels different now. A show that had been about the weight of the past became about the spectacle of the present. Characters with incredible depth and agency – all the more rope with which to hang themselves – became pieces on a giant war map.

Where once the characters authored their own, terrible destinies, now they were forced to take uncharacteristic actions and make uncharacteristically bad decisions so the necessary plot points could happen and the appropriate stakes could be felt.

Organic developments gave way to contrivance. Naturally-paced character arcs were rushed. Living plants became puppets of the plot. The characters just weren’t in charge anymore. The ending was.

No one’s to blame. Keeping a million plates spinning the way GRRM did is hard. And setting those plates down without breaking too many, which the showrunners had to do, is also really hard. Creation in general is hard.

There’s a reason writers have haunted eyes and always seem like they need a hug. Give everyone a break. But: the shift in approach did have consequences.

Is pantsing better than plotting? No. And this has nothing to do with which approach is ‘right’, anyway. It’s about the approach changing in the third act. That’s the sort of thing an audience can feel happening, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why.

The audience fell in love with one kind of show, but the ending is being imported from a different kind of show. Now, I happen to think the finale will stick the landing. It’s what the showrunners have been building toward these past two seasons, after all.

But to be satisfying, it matters how we get there, too. Treating the journey as equally important is how you get endings that feel earned. And it’s how characters keep feeling real the whole way through, even though they’re completing arcs some writer has chosen for them.

By placing so much emphasis on the ending, the showrunners changed the nature of the story they were telling, meaning the original story and the original characters aren’t the ones getting an ending. Their substitutes are.

That’s why no amount of spectacle or fan service can make this ending as satisfying as it should be. Resolutions invite us to consider the story as a whole; where it all started, where it all ended up. And we can feel the discontinuity in this one.
Daniel Silvermint, 7 May 2019


My Harry Potter is not your Harry Potter

Relating to my previous musings about fanfiction, and the recent short story detailing some post-Hogwarts events, it seems a good time to discuss this idea.

One of things I’ve found interesting about reading fanfiction is seeing different people’s takes on a character. This can even become apparent in seeing fan reactions to new stories/episodes/sequels/etc—some like it, some complain that a character has changed (the more adamant even claiming the writer(s)—in many cases the one(s) who invented the character in the first place—has gotten the character wrong).

You see, for any (significant) character, the writer has probably delved into vast screeds of back-story and analysis that colours how they expect the character to behave. The audience usually doesn’t have access to this information (which is fortunate, as it probably doesn’t make for exciting reading), so will fill in gaps with their own preconceptions, expectations, and assumptions.

We do the same thing with real people. Note that I’m not saying this is wrong; we’d find it much harder to empathise if we didn’t (as we’d have no frame of reference). It’s essentially the “putting yourself in their shoes” idea; the more you know about them, the more accurate the metaphorical shoes will be. It’s another of the sensible cognitive shortcuts that help us deal with the world around us. The only problems arise when the other person’s experience is so different to ours that we make completely wrong assumptions about them, and the only way to correct this is to be aware of the error, and be open to learning something new.

Which can be hard to do, especially if you’re a white male in western society (which keeps telling you you’re the norm), but it’s definitely worth it for the chance to see the world from a new perspective.

The Problem With Fanfiction

The Collins English Dictionary defines “fanfic” (short for “fan fiction”) as:

(noun) fiction written around previously established characters invented by other authors

While it’s not a new phenomenon (see for example The Testament of Cresseid), it has grown hugely in the internet age owing to the relative ease of dissemination.

What it generally is, however, is derided. Which I find somewhat puzzling. (hardly the only site out there) has hundreds of thousands of stories in a wide variety of fictional universes, and a wide variety of genres. Okay, it’s not as populous as something like facebook, but the point is that there are a lot of people reading and writing fanfiction; it’s not just an obscure, niche interest.

In fact, I would suggest it’s something that people do instinctively. How many kids make up stories about what their toys are doing? How often do you wonder “what if…”? Humans love stories, and—while I can understand the copyright and intellectual property concerns of some authors—nothing will stop people from being imaginative. Having a starting point makes the process much easier. Most aren’t doing it to make money, or to deprive the original creator. Even if it’s used for publicity for an aspiring author, it’s also publicity for the original work.

In the end, though, it probably comes down to legitimacy. Some creators don’t like the thought of other people playing with their toys, whether for profit or just for amusement. And some people are uncomfortable with the thought that the only reason Sherlock doesn’t count as fanfiction is because they’re getting paid for it. 🙂