Life & Stuff · Writing Tips

Interpreting Stories: What Makes Them Good or Bad?

*Mild spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8!*

I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said that they write their stories (books, tv, whatever) and then once it’s published, it’s out there, it no longer belongs to them; it belongs to each individual consumer.

I like this because after all the upset over Game of Thrones’ ending and also The Crimes of Grindelwald I started to really think about good and bad in storytelling. In what makes something so great go so wrong. In what can make the majority dislike something.

I mean, logically, we all know that consuming creative work is subjective. There is no real and final ruling of good or bad because it’s always down to opinion, right? The only way it’s determined one way or another is:

  • Popularity
  • The portrayal of tropes and following narrative norms or expectations (rules)

That’s it. But I bet many of us can also name shows or books that have been unpopular, yet we’ve viewed them as amazing. Or ones that have broken rules and have still been amazing.

So, is there really a good and bad in storytelling, especially now in our more open, complex world?

 

This is what really makes something bad:

Breaking its own rules

What’s the one thing we know and appreciate about Game of Thrones? The slow pace. It takes its time and flirts with ideas. But come Season 8, we’re unhappy because it’s not slow anymore. It’s rushed. I think people would have been fine with the narrative that it gave us in the end (perhaps not in love but fine with it), if it had taken its time. Gave it to us at a slow, steady pace over time, like we’re used to.

But it broke its own rule. It’s own storytelling rule. It’s formula that had been working for years. And that is a big fail.

Even if the setups were left unfulfilled or it had a slightly weird ending, we’d all be more satisfied if it was at least delivered correctly.

 

Another convention of GoT is in its depth. The hidden meanings, complex narrative lines, character connections, decisions and brave steps like the death of the main characters. This is another big expectation and admiration from the fans of Game of Thrones. We know we’ll be shocked, scared for the safety of MCs and left in awe of its cleverness.

But it did not deliver.

No main characters died. No clever big reveals that made us go “hold on, whaaaaat?!

I think I wasn’t alone in expecting Arya or Bran to use their powers and abilities to perform a shocking twist. It felt like what GoT usually does, and in a clever manner, was suddenly taken away.

It broke its own formula, it’s own rules. This is more important than breaking normal storytelling conventions.

 

Failing the characters

This is why people have turned on Game of Thrones lately. Interpretation of the story, actions, motivations, and characters are all wide open. I’ve seen different interpretations and reviews and feelings, but people still think it’s bad for the other stuff.

Why? Because characters seemed to change. Their purpose, motivations and ARCs were turned on their heads or left open. Stories need characters who do what they do for a reason. Who have a goal, a need, a want, and that is dangled in front of them as they learn about themselves and the world on their quest. Their ARC ends with them having learned a lesson, paid a price, and changed due to that lesson learned.

Now, I’m no expert and I won’t pretend to be a character-creating genius. But I can see some examples of this in GoT season 8. I won’t explain them all; you can Google it and you’ll find plenty. My biggest issue was with Jaime’s character. It appeared that he unlearned everything from the show and just went back to Cersei. Boooo!

 

Failed Beats/ Pacing

As humans, we have a natural ability to connect with, share, and find meaning in stories. Our whole lives are stories. Sharing ourselves is a story. We understand the world and life through stories.

We all recognise the Hero’s Journey, act structures, and the age-old formula of the beginning-middle-end. But when that’s off-centre or skewed, we notice even if we can’t pinpoint exactly how or where or why. We feel cheated and confused.

Essays are formatted in this way, too. We start with an introduction, where we state what we will talk about and what to expect from the essay. Then we go into the body of the essay, the middle, where we explore our points and have ups and downs of analysis. Finally, there’s the conclusion, where we summarise all that is explored and come to a satisfying, logical conclusion from all that was discussed.

We are taught this formula, we are shown this formula, it works.

So when a story comes along and it doesn’t seem to naturally fit this formula, we get confused. We don’t understand it. We even get angry!

Narrative beats are like hitting key points in the story in a logical way that adds to the narrative. It’s setup, then boom, boom, boom, then an end. When this is out of rhythm or things are added and taken away and teased and then concluded but then unrealised and then forgotten, it’s all over the place. It’s messy. It’s dissatisfying. The brain doesn’t understand or like it.

This is what didn’t work with Crimes of Grindelwald. It’s pacing was off. The beats were off. The story wasn’t like Fantastic Beasts 1, where there was a clear beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it had different characters at different beats with different endings on their journeys and it got weird. It’s seen as a “setup film” because it appears to be a setup for future films. Like “hey, here’s the people and how they’re connected, but see you in two years to find out what happens!

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

Pacing is something I still need to learn a lot about as a writer myself. But I do recognise a few things:

  • Once a pace is established, don’t change it up! It confuses the reader/consumer.
  • You can’t have a large beginning and setup, a rushed messy middle, and an illogical end.
  • You can’t take your time and then rush the end.
  • You can’t rush the beginning and then drag out the end, either.
  • Your characters need ARCs either within the one book/film or across the series that is logical.
  • The characters’ ARCs need to close around the same time and finish around the same point as the close of the narrative itself.

 

To end I’ll say this, I loved Game of Thrones, even to the end. Mistakes were made, yes, but overall I loved the story, the message, the characters and actors and cinematography. It was brilliant. The same goes for J.K. Rowling’s writing. I still love her and have faith in her. I know the Fantastic Beasts story is a different medium for her and so we can all show a bit of compassion as she finds her feet!

And let me just say, comparing books to TV shows or films isn’t fair to the writers/creators. They’re different forms of storytelling that require different things from the maker. A book has a long time to give depth and meaning and explore things like a film doesn’t. A film or TV show has the use of visual imagery to convey a lot in a single look or a well-placed item to be interpreted later.

Different formats, different stories. Stop comparing them against one another!

Writing is hard. You can do so well for so long and then suddenly drop the ball. Just like humans, writers make mistakes! Writing a perfect story, especially a series, is frickin’ difficult! It’s easy to criticise from the outside looking in.

But if you are a creator or writer, then learn from these mistakes. I’m trying to! Everyone can interpret a story differently, and determine if it’s bad or good for themselves. But what we can all agree on is that you should never, ever:

  1. Mess with your characters once they’re established,
  2. Break your story’s own rules,
  3. Or fail on the pacing!

Happy writing!

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