What Game of Thrones can teach about showing a world
I was having a conversation with @thedavidwwright (from the excellent Collective Inkwell) on Twitter last week about the excellent Game of Thrones TV series. I thought it would be worth expanding on it a bit.
First off though, I have not read the novels (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series), so everything I’m writing here pertains to the recent TV series. This is finished on Sky Atlantic for a good three weeks now, but if you missed it, I would definitely recommend catching it if it airs again.
That Game of Thrones has a well-developed and interesting world is clear. It is absolutely packed with rich backstory. Absolutely nothing exists in isolation, but is part of a complicated web of relationships and histories.
How do I know this? It’s because the series showed me through current action, and because I concentrated quite a lot whilst watching it (more on that later).
So what am I not talking about when I talk about “showing” in this series?
Well I’m not talking about long explanatory monologues to make sure everyone is up to date with what’s going on (the laziest form of backstory delivery). And I’m not talking about flashbacks either (the laziest form of showing).
In the Now is in the Know
No, this showing takes place as the current story unfolds, in a steady drip-feed of information that complements the current action. It’s in the set (the Throne itself, or the dragon skulls in the dungeons), the costume, the behaviour of the characters (the duplicity of the king’s advisors or the warrior tribalism of the Dothraki).
But it’s in the dialogue that the fine line between too much information and too little is trodden most skilfully, and it’s that I want to focus on. The reason it is so successful is because it is natural.
Simply put, if two characters are talking and some point of history, recent or otherwise, is relevant to their conversation, they will mention it. Apart from that, no one goes out of their way to mention things that have happened or people they’ve known. That’s where the drip-feed comes from. After an episode finished, my wife would often complain that nothing had happened. But although most episodes lacked action set pieces, each one was packed with nuggets of information and what interested me when the credits rolled was not what had happened, but what I had learned about the world. Despite the many comparisons to big-budget movies in the media (largely due to the series’ phenomenal budget), it felt a lot more like watching a novel than a summer blockbuster.
The message Game of Thrones sends to writers then is to let their characters do the talking. As a writer, you know what the history of the world is, you know what each character knows and how they behave. Let them talk, or think or act, and the important parts of the backstory will come out by themselves. Don’t stop to worry if the reader is keeping up.
But is it as Simple as That?
Almost certainly not. For a start, dreaming up such a complex world is not simple in the first place. And I’m probably doing everyone involved a great disservice by saying that the world will reveal itself, as if it takes no effort on the writer’s part at all.
The truth is probably closer to dedicated crafting – taking out large chunks of explanatory dialogue or subtly adding bits over many drafts. I for one will be taking the approach of letting my characters show the backstory, and only adding more if my testing with readers shows it’s needed.
And it’s a fine line, isn’t it. Game of Thrones takes an unusual approach to that line. Normally you expect TV shows to err on the side of too much information, terrified of an audience becoming confused and switching off. Game of Thrones errs on the side of too little. If you are not familiar with the world, you will be confused at multiple points in the series (or per episode) – the raft of characters and relationships is just too much to keep track of.
But I would rather be occasionally confused than patronised. I trusted the writers to reveal the most important information, and I’m grateful they trusted me to keep up. I had a thoroughly intriguing and enjoyable time watching Game of Thrones and I for one can’t wait for series 2.