A lot of shows and movies, and not just Game of Thrones, have relied on surprising or shocking moments as a form of “story telling.” And, as we’ve seen with Seasons 6-8, surprising moments the audience didn’t see coming are often shallow and disappointing. Let’s examine why.
Cause and Effect.
This is the heart and soul of a well-structured story. Something happens which causes something else to happen. Something else happens because of what happened earlier. Coincidence, luck, and randomness should be rare, and generally reserved for complicating things for the good guys (a shitheel lord controls the only bridge across the river; snow blocks Stannis’s army from advancing).
Sometimes the cause and effect can be straightforward and obvious. Ned is imprisoned, so Robb Stark raises and army to free him. Much of Season 1 follows this sort of direct line cause and effect, and it’s very effective. There’s little surprise, but the story is still very engaging because the characters are interesting. You don’t need a bunch of twists and turns when you’ve got complex, engaging, well-written characters.
Poly-Cause and Effect, Cause and Poly-Effect
Getting one step more complex than simple cause and effect, we can have multiple competing causes leading to an effect, and we can have a single cause have multiple effects.
An example of the Poly-Cause is the moment of Ned’s execution. There are several factors at work here determining what will finally happen. Ned has openly denied that Joffrey is the rightful heir -> Cause to execute Ned. Cersei and Sansa have pleaded for mercy -> Cause to have Ned take the black. Joffrey doesn’t like being bossed around by his mom -> Cause to defy her wishes and execute Ned. In this scene, either outcome could make sense for the story and the characters, as both have enough cause behind them. Different outcomes can seem more or less probable, but the multiple competing causes keep us in suspense about which will actually happen. In this case we have a surprise, but it comes from a small list of possible outcomes the audience fully understands.
Cause and Poly-Effect is when a single incident has several direct consequences, often ones that create tricky complications. For instance, Robert ordering the assassination of Daenerys doesn’t just set into motion the assassination attempt (which complicates things for Jorah), it also causes Ned to step down as Hand (which in turn exposes him to attack by Jaime). You can get surprise from the Poly-Effect when one of the effects makes sense but wasn’t on the mind of the audience at the time. This happens with Dany crucifying the Wise Masters. The direct effect we’re all thinking about is Dany establishing her ruthless flavor of justice. The unforeseen effect is she’ll have to deal with the kids of those she just crucified. Likewise with banning slavery, the direct effect is freeing slaves, but a secondary effect is upending lives of people for whom servitude worked. A lot of Dany’s reign deals with her not being able to anticipate all the effects of her causes. When the audience can anticipate them, they get dramatic irony; when they don’t, they get an enjoyable surprise twist in the story.
Multi-Cause and Effect
This is where stuff gets complicated. There are a bunch of moving pieces, all going about bumping into things, causing all sorts of stuff with complex ripple effects. We see this in the War of the Five Kings, with Robb, Cat, Joffers, Cersei, Theon, Tywin, Tyrion, Jaime, Roose, Varys, Littlefinger, Walder, and Stannis all going about with different motives that routinely clash into each other. Even though at the surface level this looks complex, it’s still very easy to follow because the characters and their motives have been well established.
In this situation, the audience can get a surprise when a fairly straight forward cause and effect goes unnoticed right under their nose because there were so many things going on. But, once the effect is revealed, it’s clear to the audience how all the causes lined up. The Tullys have looked down on the Freys forever, Robb ignored his vow to marry a Frey girl, Robb’s army is now on the losing side, and the Lannisters can offer a very nice reward to Walder. The audience is misdirected by a more straightforward cause that’s put in the spotlight: Edmure will marry a Frey girl to make amends. We (and the Starks) get a surprise because we were misdirected to looking at the wrong cause, but as soon as the betrayal is revealed it immediately makes perfect sense.
This kind of set up can give us lots of interesting twists and turns, but it all works because we understand how the pieces work. It’s a bit like watching a chess game. You can understand how the pieces function but it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen 5 moves down the road. But, when it does happen, you can look back and understand why it played out that way.
What distinguishes Poly-Cause and Multi-Cause is the audience’s ability to think through all the information. In a Poly-Cause situation, the audience can foresee all the reasonable outcomes, the same way anyone can think through all the possible responses to a move in Tic Tac Toe (or Onitama if you want a better analogy). Multi-Cause is when there’s so many interacting pieces that the average audience member has an idea about some of the ways the story might go, but not all of them. This is more like chess (to people who aren’t chess masters). In either case though, the audience needs to understand what the pieces are, how they interact, and when a piece is in immediate threat.
No-Cause and Effect
And now we come to the bad writing. This is where the writers want an event to be “surprising,” and so instead of misdirection or complex causation, they simple remove the cause from the story, making it impossible for the audience to predict the effect, or even reconstruct the logic in hindsight.
The most obvious example of this of course is Arya Ahai killing the Night King. The writers make it a “surprise” by literally writing the character out of the story. She runs off at 56:09 and doesn’t return until 1:17:32. She’s gone for more than 21 straight minutes of the episode, basically all of Act 3. On top of this, we know she’s lost her custom weapon, is injured, and the castle is now swarming with zombies. The audience is given no reason to think she can get to him, and we quickly forget she was even in this episode until the very end.
Consider an alternative: We see Arya fighting her way through the castle. She gets to a courtyard, but the way is blocked by a friggin’ undead dragon. She gets out her dagger, but can’t get at the dragon because it’s still spouting out fire. Then Jon arrives in the same courtyard from another direction, and the dragon turns its attention to him. Cause: The Night King has tunnel vision for Jon. Effect: He now ignores Arya and gets shanked. This isn’t the most satisfying of endings, but it properly gives us surprise. We know NK has a boner for Jon, but didn’t expect it to play out in that way, yet in hindsight we can see why it did.
Non-Cause and Effect
Sometimes writers will try to have a supposed cause, but it actually just doesn’t make logical sense. In this case “brown eyes, green eyes, blue eyes.” We are expected to accept this is the cause and effect in the story: Mel says to kill the NK. Effect: Arya kills the NK. Um… you don’t just get to win because someone said to win. That’s not a sufficient cause.
Callback and Effect
Callbacks are not causes. Arya’s knife switch to kill the NK is a callback to her sparring match with Brienne. But, it doesn’t fit a cause and effect model. If it did, it’d look like this: Cause: Arya spars with Brienne. Effect: Arya kills the Night King. But sparring with Brienne wouldn’t cause that unless she learned a new skill from that training. That’s not what happened though; she demonstrated a skill she already had. We need something like Cause: Arya trains in sneaky knife fighting techniques. Effect: Arya does a knife switch and shanks the Night King. …We never get that training in the show though. Instead, we get the spar with Brienne inserted so they can callback to it later, acting as if it were a proper cause.
Surprise works when something unexpected comes out of somewhere, not when it comes out of nowhere.
When I first wrote this, I got a lot of comments disagreeing with whether or not Arya’s killing of the Night King was sufficiently caused. That’s okay, and it actually leads into another topic I plan to write on in the future, which is when to leave things up to the audience to fill in, and when to take more control in guiding the audience.
For now though, whether or not you agree about Arya, the basic principle still stands: while foreshadowing and callbacks can make it feel like an effect “fits,” they are not actually causation.