Maybe it’s just bad writing

In general, I don’t have opinions about Game of Thrones because I haven’t watched it and I haven’t read it, and I don’t particularly care to. And yet my attention was drawn to this piece at Wired: Why the Writing in Game of Thrones Season 8 Feels Off

Reader, I am annoyed. Miffed. One might even say, irate. I have no opinions about the writing quality of any season of this show, obviously, though I know there are sure a lot of opinions floating around out there because I’m a human with a smart phone and a Twitter account. What has my back up here has nothing to do with the Game of Thrones bit and everything to do with what the author of the piece, Daniel Silvermint, points to as the culprit.

It all comes down to how stories are crafted, and for that, we need to start with two different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters create a detailed outline before they commit a word to the page. Pantsers prefer to discover the story as they write it—flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. Both approaches have their advantages. Since plotters know the story in advance, it’s easier to create tight narratives with satisfying conclusions. But that amount of predestination can sometimes make characters feel like cogs in service of the story. Pantsers have an easier time writing characters that live and breathe. They generate the plot by dropping a person with desires and needs into a dramatic situation and documenting the results. But with the characters in charge, pantsers risk a meandering or poorly paced structure, and they can struggle to tie everything together.


And his conclusion is:

In so doing, the showrunners moved as far to one end of the plotter/pantser continuum as Martin is to the other. They weren’t trying to resolve every character arc or pay off every last bit of world-building. They knew the destination Martin had in mind, they understood the dots they had to connect to get there, and they wanted to maximize fan entertainment along the way.

So apparently, Game of Thrones is now bad because George is a pantser and the showrunners are plotters and thus they’ve made the characters unutterably shitty and ignored development in the service of plot.

Here, I will offer an alternative reason for the season pissing so many people off: Maybe it’s just bad writing.

I know that writers at times like to pop off about their particular take on process, and some might want to start yet another iteration of the plotter versus pantser wars on their social media of choice because it’s great for getting engagement numbers. People talking in terms of if they’re a plotter or pantser when addressing process is easy shorthand when you’re on a panel at a convention and well aware that no one wants to hear you gush for ten straight minutes about how you in particular like to monkey around with your words. But frankly, setting this up like a dichotomy between “plotter” versus “pantser” is a gross oversimplification of something that is a full spectrum, one that writers often move back and forth on depending on what they’re working on, or if they’re trying to challenge themself, or even where in their career (or their book) they’re at.

Frankly, as someone who tends to be more on the plotter end of the spectrum, I feel rather personally insulted by the caricature of how writers who do this work. The point of writing a story is that you have to find a balance of plot, character, and pacing for the story that you want to tell. Acting as if outlining plot is wholly divorced from character reads to me like a massive misunderstanding of how one outlines; obviously I speak only for myself now, but much of the plot comes from the characters, and requires understanding them, and you’re damn right that I rewrite my outline if the characters demand it. Sure, you can use an outline that treats characters as pawns for you to shuffle around the chess board, whether the move makes sense for them or not.

But you know what that’s called? Bad writing. If your outline forces the characters to act in ways inorganic to them, it’s a bad outline and it should feel bad.

When you really dig into Silvermint’s thesis, beyond the irritating plotter/pantser redux, the more troubling implication is that there are story types or flavors that are inherent to a basic process. That, if you pick up a novel, you can tell by reading where the writer falls on the plotter/pantser scale, and that a story written by, say, a plotter would be inherently impossible for a pantser to pick up and effectively continue.

I do think it’s probably possible to tell something about a writer’s process if they’ve done it poorly. If the novel feels like you’re watching characters get dragged by the ankle through set plot points while carrying the idiot ball, all right. Failure mode of plotter right there. If you read a novel and it’s utterly disjointed and the plot doesn’t really get you from point A to point Z, then you can probably safely bet it was the failure mode of pantser.

But note what I said: Failure mode.

Writing is an art. We create something that is supposed to be greater than our process. One might argue that if we do our jobs right, all of the horrible mechanical bits should be entirely concealed because you’re so distracted by the excellent edifice we’ve built. The story is the towering, shining superstructure and you, the reader, should have no idea about the absolutely hideous foundation we cobbled together beneath. Hell, that’s even related to one of the perennial discussions about the Best Editor Hugo category–how do readers judge when someone’s done a good job as an editor, when if they’ve done a good job it means their work is invisible?

When I’ve read a good book or a good short story, I cannot tell if the writer was a pantser or a plotter, and I daresay most other people can’t either. Everyone makes a lot of hay out of George being a pantser (or gardener, in his lingo), but the reason anyone even knows that’s how his process works is because he told us that it had gotten him in a spot of bother with the books. Seriously, if someone picked up A Song of Ice and Fire and had no idea who George was or anything about him, would they really be able to toss his book down after finishing it and proclaim, “Well, that was definitely some excellent pantsing”?

Give me a fucking break.

Trying to pin this on basic process is, frankly, an insult to writers. Maybe the writers on Game of Thrones were in a tight spot because they had a limited number of episodes, but whatever thing has fans upset is not an inevitability of having a process where someone writes an outline. If the issue is that they’ve been allowed too few episodes and have too much to wrap up, then the triumphant return of pantsing wouldn’t magically expand the length of the season. If they asked for too few episodes, if they had a bad plan, then it’s not that failure was destined because they’re plotters touching the sainted product of a pantser, it’s that they needed to write a better fucking outline.

No matter the personal process used, every writer is capable of producing some utter crap, so maybe call it what it is: bad writing.

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