In the Writing #6: Parallel Plotting and Empathy in <i>Game of Thrones</i>

The best art is that which is both imaginative and mimetic, providing scenarios that engage our sense of wonder while in some way mirroring the processes of our own world.
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Following the Season 4 premiere of Game of Thrones, I found myself discussing the particulars of the episode with my dad over the phone. More than anything else, we marveled at its seeming brevity. "I felt like it had just started when it ended," he said. This feeling has been three years in the making; I've been consistently impressed with the show's ability to manage an ever-unfolding constellation of storylines, but the particular breathlessness that accompanied the premiere was new. I realized that asking what had changed was the wrong question to ask; it wasn't the show that was different, but my relationship to it. In previous seasons, certain story lines captured my attention pronouncedly more than others, a symptom of the parallel plot hierarchy television has employed for decades. Now, though, I found that each of the many storylines mattered deeply to me; if I didn't care for each equally, I was at least captivated enough to focus on the one at hand without quietly pining after another.

In Writing the Screenplay, Alan Armer explains:

As television has developed, its storytelling has become more complex. An audience watching a half-hour show that contains two or three simultaneous story lines feels it's getting more for its money than with a show containing only a single plot. The complexity adds texture and seems to be a more sophisticated way of developing a script.... The parallel plots are sometimes referred to as story line 'A' or story line "B." The "A" line is usually the major plot involving the TV series star. The "B" line may involve one or more of the subordinate characters.

A quick glance at TV Tropes reveals a series of popular names for different manipulations of these lines, some stretching to as many as four, but in any given episode, Game of Thrones can feature storylines in the double digits -- which then often splinter off or intersect and form new ones. Sometimes, we go episodes without seeing what happens to a given group (the advancing wildlings in Season 4). By presenting us with this many characters, the showrunners risk alienating viewers -- it's a lot to keep up with -- but what they earn in succeeding is an upheaval in expectations, effectively setting up each story line to turn into its own "A" line (In the first installment of this series, I wrote about an idea called "parallax," which can help explain how this process functions at the level of character). When Podrick is first introduced, for example, he's little more than Tyrion's faceless squire. Soon, though, details emerge that engender a more nuanced intimacy with him. His rendezvous with prostitutes, in its jolly, underdog silliness, inevitably marks a turning point in our thinking of him as a peripheral character into a more central one. By Season 4, he's become just as engaging to behold as his new charge, Brienne (herself another excellent example of this phenomenon). In this way, Game of Thrones shows how Joss Whedon's advice to give each character a distinct voice is so vital:

Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they're just setting up the next person's lines, then you don't get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful and not everybody has to speak, but if you don't know who everybody is and why they're there, why they're feeling what they're feeling and why they're doing what they're doing, then you're in trouble.

Armer's explanation of parallel plotting describes a model that centers on a protagonist's goal, with subplots put somehow in service of that goal. But Game of Thrones is a show about disparate parties vying for power, all involved believing that they have the "right" to their claim(s), with different-but-equal goals continuing to spring up throughout Westeros and beyond. The landscape of war imbues urgency to these goals; any one character's loyalties might dramatically alter the outcome for the whole. Even if we may take umbrage with a given character's motivations or choices, we believe and put stock in them. The best art is that which is both imaginative and mimetic, providing scenarios that engage our sense of wonder while in some way mirroring the processes of our own world. The imagination in Game of Thrones is self-evident, but what is discussed less frequently is how it offers us an access-point into understanding war as a basic human process. Combing through history textbooks, wars tend to seem clear and inevitable, their duration and effects as well-considered by the parties involved as contemporary readers. What Game of Thrones depicts, though -- both in the source text and the showrunners' translation -- is a spillover of accidents, a mess of disputes, alliances and opportunism. Yes, this is a show in which we witness acts of horrible physical and psychological brutality, but by generating empathy with an entire world of characters, rather than prizing a single group or protagonist, it positions us as if behind the veil of ignorance, allowing us the occasion to ditch our cultural biases for a moment and evaluate the human network from a broader vantage point -- one that, in its meticulous detailing, encourages empathy and compassion over dehumanization, the most brutal act we are capable of committing.

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