Many good stories start with an ending.
So too on this new variation on a blog thing – my occasional attempt to decipher writing foibles, learn from what does/doesn’t work in TV, film, books, or in story generally… and especially to see if some kind of skeletal structure helps keep the meat on the bones.
And yes, in this opening post, we’ll ponder what Game of Thrones could have learned from Noel’s House Party. In one show, a sinister bearded in a crumbling castle battles rivals guarded by a twisted man-mountain. In the other… oh you get the idea.
So this first post is about an ending. Endings make great beginnings to stories. The end of an old job. The end of a relationship. The end of the day/the working year/the near-end of the marriage of John McClane (all roads lead to Die Hard).
Game of Thrones (which I’ll talk a bit about in this post… not too much, and not too spoilery) starts with the end of Jon Arryn. Who he? He’s talked about but we barely see him. He just sparks things off – in this case, he sparks the Starks. If you’ve not seen GoT and you think all talk of it sounds like elfy witchy nonsense, basically Jon Arryn was, pre-show, the king’s right-hand-man, and his early exit meant Sean Bean’s Ned Stark could reluctantly take his place. Arryn’s demise sparked eight seasons of backstabbing, frontstabbing, sidestabbing and other horrible ways to die.
Arguably the show itself found another horrible way to die. Many fans thought it ended with a whimper, rather than a bang – which is almost impressive, given the final season’s sheer urban devastation, with dragons breathing more hot air than Piers Morgan. Yet still a bit boring?
Other fans quite enjoyed the final season. A generous assessment might call it a mixed success. A less-generous assessment might say it went down in flames (though they could be from the dragon). So where did it all GoT wrong?
I did a Radio 2 Pause For Thought last week crowbarring in this very thing. The link is here if you fancy. On that daily inspirational/theological/philosophical message, I tried linking GoT’s meh finale with a stand-up comedy event I’d just done for Dying Matters week – an initiative to focus on planning our own finales. What do we want to leave behind? Have we thought through the practicalities? Where do we want it to happen? Have we tied up loose ends? Same things could be said for ending a TV show.
If you’re writing something yourself, planning ahead may make or break your ending. It’s satisfying when seeds planted in season 4 bear fruit in season 8. Some GoT apologists point out that some final plot points were foreshadowed in season 1’s poster, or in muttered dialogue in season 2. GoT grumblers have equally pointed out that as soon as George R R R R R Martin (you know he just added the Rs to sound like Tolkien?)’s books ran out, the TV show’s plot and pace started wavering.
Personally I’m somewhere in the middle. On the one hand (of the king), I think it does a disservice to the very talented showrunners to say they were only ever copying the books. They’ve skilfully created a completely separate work of art to Martin’s books – and at its peak, it’s been the best television out there. On the other hand, I didn’t find much to like in the last season. The fun and games had passed. But maybe that’s because… the Fun and Games had passed.
Screenwriting guru Blake Snyder maps out a story structure of fifteen or so ‘essential’ story beats. And halfway through a story is what his calls ‘Fun and Games’. Also known as ‘The Promise of the Premise’, this is the bit in the trailer, the reason you tune in or to buy that cinema ticket. While Snyder’s beat sheet is meant for single movies or episodes, zoom out to a full series like all 73 Game of Thrones episodes, and the structure still works. Snyder has a catalyst near the start of each episode – but equally Ned Stark’s, ahem, downfall at the end of season 1 is a catalyst for the show as a whole. He sees the dark drawing in about 80% through an episode – and sure enough, at the about the same point in the series as a whole, ‘undefeatable’ White Walkers swamped the landscape. And those ‘Fun and Games’, due halfway through a story, were long gone by the final season. The Game was still in the title, but the Fun was long gone.
We love midway surprises: good characters choose bad, bad characters triumph. No hero too good, no villain so irredeemable – everyone’s in the middle. In epic stories though, the good aren’t just good – they’re the saviours of everything: Frodo Baggins in Middle Earth, the Pevensie children in Narnia, Luke Skywalker in, er, space. The baddies aren’t just misunderstood heroes, they’re hell-bent on destroying everything: Darth Vader, Sauron, Voldemort. They’re blacker than black – but it was the shades of grey along the way that were interesting. Because none of us are whiter than white or blacker than black, but pingponging around in the middle.
If stories help us understand ourselves, we enjoy watching them when they’re doing that middle moral muddle. But by the end of an epic saga like GoT, everyone has to choose a side. Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen were all flawed in their fun episodes, but in that last season they all picked a lane. And I think that’s when the plot started plodding. Fun’s over.
Think of the best TV endings. Don’t they just stop? Yes they spend their last episodes tying loose ends, but they keep the fun and games going as long as possible. Our flawed hero stays flawed and our villains stay endearing, rather than picking noble heroism or pure evil. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to, yes, Noel’s House Party, the fun and games keep coming as long as possible, flawed heroes and gunge and all.
So what could Game of Thrones learn from Noel’s House Party? NHP just stopped. At one point Noel cancelled the run by broadcasting in protest from the BBC broom cupboard: “Enough. They’ve cut our budget and the show’s rubbish.” (paraphrased) It all stopped. The show came back but Noel finally left Crinkley Manor covered in gunge by Freddie Starr. Don’t drag out a goodbye – keep the antics going till the closing credits.
I’m not saying that’s the ending GoT should have gone for. But by forcing characters into Pure Good and Pure Evil, it fell into the Epic Ending Trap. Remember the last Lord of the Rings film? They took 45 minutes to say goodbye. Goodbye Sam. Goodbye Frodo. Goodbye Gandalf. Goodbye Legolas. It was like the end of The Waltons (“Goodnight Jim Bob…”).
Perhaps as an epic fantasy, GoT doesn’t have the luxury of nuance. Other genres can enjoy shades-of-grey fun-and-games (nothing to do with E.L. James), right up till the last. M*A*S*H‘s great finale benefited from its war-zone setting, where tragic heroes veer between right and wrong all the time. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Dexter all had at their core a bad guy whom we loved – a mobster, a druglord, a serial killer – all anti-heroes who went down in a blaze of glory (or a lumber yard – yeah that one didn’t really work).
In cinema, I often find fun action films become boring in the final act. It looks ‘not boring’ (explosions, guns, baddie’s lair)… but you’re not as engaged in the story. They’ve thrown stuff at the screen to distract you from the fact that the tale’s run out of track.
So if you’re writing, maybe look at what you love in the early part of your story, and find a way to keep that going in some way. Things will be different – your characters will have moved on, but say farewell too early, and you’ve GoT trouble.
Do comment with your thoughts on this. And especially if you’re writing an epic (maybe fantasy?), how do you avoid the pure good vs pure evil problem in the final pages? How do you keep ’em guessing till The End?
The End. (For now. More soon.)