While many authors talk about letting the characters drive the narrative and just following wherever they take the story, it’s common for them to also have a specific place they want the story to go. For Game of Thrones, we can identify a few of these landmark events where the story needs to get to: Ned is beheaded, the Red Wedding, the Wall comes down, one or more dragons die, etc.
The difficulty with this kind of story scaffolding is that it can often seem that the characters arrive at these beats unnaturally. It’s almost as if they only reason they make the decisions they do is because they need to set up something later on in the script. Of course, the characters shouldn’t be thinking this way, and they certainly shouldn’t have access to the script.
The most egregious example from Game of Thrones is of course the Folly Beyond the Wall. Ask yourself why it was necessary for Jon and Co. to venture beyond the Wall and capture a wight. To convince Cersei to join them? Oh really? Imagine they get to the Dragon Pit, reveal the zombie, and Cersei responds with, “Well shit. I guess it’s truce time, let’s team up, beat this threat back, and sort out of the War of the Roses later.” Every single person should be thinking “this isn’t real, she’s going to have her soldiers murder us all in our sleep.” If Cersei accepted the deal, they should have backed out and refused her help. But, the only reason for the Folly Beyond the Wall was to convince her to join. So what really was the point?
As even the most popcorn-stuffed show enthusiast knows, the real reason for the excursion was to hand a dragon over to the Night King so he could destroy the Wall. The only reason to propose this plan is because Jon and Tyrion have magically gained access to the script and know where the story needs to go.
How can a story get where it needs without having the characters seem like they’re acting simply for plot-advancing reasons?
Why Would an 8-foot Tall Wookiee Want to Live on West Egg with Jay Gatsby?
In the opening to The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald faces a problem. He needs Nick Carraway, a young man working in finance in Manhattan, to take up residence in West Egg, a peninsula off Long Island. The problem is that young men working in finance in Manhattan tend to want to live in Manhattan. Funny that.
Michael Byers highlights the masterful move Fitzgerald does next, dubbing it the Sure-But-And-So (emphasis added):
The practical thing was to find rooms in the city but it was a warm season and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees, so when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town it sounded like a great idea.
Sure: Acknowledge the seemingly illogical nature of the character’s action.
But: Provide a reason why he does it anyways.
And: Provide another reason.
So: Inform the audience that you’re going with this direction (what Byers calls the “false, required conclusion”).
As an academic writing professor, I see this sequence play out a lot, and anyone who knows half a thing about writing college essays should recognize it as well. The best way to deal with an objection to your argument is to acknowledge the audience’s likely objection, explain why it doesn’t actually defeat your argument, then collect your easy B+.
Getting characters into situations that the audience may otherwise find contrived works the same way. Acknowledge the issue, give them a couple reasons why this direction is okay, and if the reasons are remotely intelligent, the audience will go along for the ride.
The easiest way to have a contrived situation that feels contrived is to ignore that it’s illogical to begin with.
Why didn’t Daenerys fly in a way to protect herself and her dragons from any sea-to-air attack? ‘Cause she forgot, apparently.
Why were the Dothraki sent on a suicide charge against the undead? Probably because filming fight scenes with horses is really expensive, but charging into a CGI cloud is not.
The next form of failure comes from a story acknowledging it’s going in a not-so-logical direction, but failing to sufficiently justify it. As discussed above, this fits the Pin The Tail On The Zombie adventure. Sure it makes no sense to go try to capture a zombie, but it’s needed for “reasons.”
Or in 8.4, Jaime needs to abandon Brienne and ride South because, um, he’s hateful? And he’ll leave after everyone else, instead of traveling with them, then stealing a night’s ride to get ahead, because… he wants to wound Brienne even deeper? ‘Cause he’s hateful like that.
Sure-But-And-So When It Actually Works
The series has plenty of moments (mostly from earlier seasons) when it gets the Sure-But-And-So logic correct, putting characters precisely where they’re needed.
Why the hell would Robb Stark go into the Twins knowing damn well how treacherous Walder Frey is, and having given Walder very good reason to seek vengeance?
Sure: It’s super dangerous.
But: Robb needs Walder’s men.
And: They brought along a pretty nice consolation fish.
So: Be sure to mark bread or salt when you RSVP for Edmure’s wedding.
We can even back this one up a bit. Robb only needed Walder’s men because he executed Lord Karstark. Why would he do such a thing?
Sure: Losing the Karstarks likely means losing the war.
But: Letting the boys’ death go unanswered puts Sansa’s and presumably Arya’s lives in jeopardy.
And: Robb learned justice from Ned. This is right up Ned’s alley.
So: Kill me and be cursed.
We can go back in this plot even more. Why would Robb, an honorable man promised to the least hideous of the Frey girls and in need of Walder’s military support break his promise and marry someone else?
Sure: This is one very costly marriage, militarily and in terms of honor.
But: The marriage pact was extracted under duress.
And: The Young Wolf has been on a tear and headed towards victory in the war anyways. (He hasn’t lost the Karstarks yet.)
And Also: Firm tits and a tight fit.
So: Yolo. What can Walder do about it anyways?
Sometimes the audience needs the reasoning handed to them explicitly, like with Edmure taking Jon’s place in the marriage pact. Other times, the story can rely on a well-established plot element or character traits, such as Robb’s successes in the war, or the visual callback to Ned executing the Night’s Watch deserter. Most of all though, what the audience needs is a credible reason, and when in doubt, they should be given two.
Rehabilitating the Iron Fleet Ambush
As an exercise we can try to reverse engineer the Iron Fleet’s ambush, killing one of Daenerys’s dragons. Assume that we need to get to this moment in the story, so we’ve got to contrive a way to get there. The most direct explanation is that Daenerys isn’t forgetful, but rather she’s feeling confident and secure and thus lets her guard down. So now we need to establish that confidence.
One of the remaining leaders suggests they send the bulk of the army by boat to Dragonstone to begin preparing the siege. But, to cover their movements, a smaller host will travel south by road, sending out ravens and riders to rally more soldiers to the cause. They will make a lot of noise and give the appearance of being the only survivors. Jaime might suggest this, being inspired by the Whispering Wood.
Now we have another piece to get into place, which is Euron knowing where the fleet and dragons will be. Easiest answer is someone (likely Jaime or Varys) sends a raven to King’s Landing letting them know of the plan.
When Dany arrives in the south, she scouts with her dragon and sees a thousand ships parked in Blackwater Bay. “Good,” she thinks, “there’s the Iron Fleet, far enough away from Dragonstone for us to continue.”
Sure: Getting a dragon shot down by a boat is silly.
But: Dany is feeling confident in their plan to deceive the enemy about their movements.
And: Euron has successfully tricked Dany by leaving the bulk of his ships in plain view and far away. No way she can tell a few are missing.
So: Euron’s small dragon assassination squad is effective on getting the drop on Dany. One more dead dragon.
Now, is this the best way for the events to play out? Probably not. But we know how Euron tricked her, and how she let herself get tricked. Even with fairly basic Buts and Ands, an audience will generally go along with the story.