Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.

It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog).  This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

Simple enough, right?  The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level.  That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction.  It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool:  By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure.  That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.

As part of the exercise, Save the Cat! assigns its cinematic subject a genre per Snyder’s codified classifications (you’ll notice I designated Raiders an “Epic Fleece”), but, quite frankly, the Cats are usually confoundingly off the mark:  In the last year alone, they’ve misidentified Brooklyn (for the record, it’s “Family Institution”), The Empire Strikes Back (“Fantasy Superhero”), Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (“Caper Fleece”), Room (“Family Institution”), Whiplash (“Mentor Institution”), Her (“Separation Passage”), and Birdman (which, as I demonstrated in a previous post, is a “Fool out of Water” story).  Not particularly encouraging.

In their most recent breakdown, they’ve attempted to apply Blake’s beat sheet to the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.  With my Raiders breakdown in mind, have a quick look at their effort here (feel free to skim—you only need to get the gist in order to follow my assessment of it).

Notice how clean and to-the-point the Raiders analysis is?  Now compare that with the Game of Thrones breakdown, which is mired in needlessly copious detail and author commentary, as the analyst attempts to illustrate that “Winter Is Coming,” like any other good story, conforms to the Save the Cat! precepts—and yet the more closely the episode is studied, the less it seems to actually adhere to them!

So, instead of saying, “Gee, this isn’t going like I originally thought at allGame of Thrones appears to operate on an altogether different narrative wavelength,” the analysis is instead loaded with conditionals:  “this B Story doesn’t fully interweave with the journey of the main protagonist”; “the main story of the pilot episode is structurally the equivalent of just Act One from Blake’s beat sheets”; “many of the storylines weaved over the series often will not simply resolve where their Act 3 would normally otherwise end, but rather they then evolve into a new story.”  Wouldn’t any of that seem to suggest the conclusions of this experiment in narrative reverse-engineering aren’t supporting the thesis?  Not according to this examination, which posits instead that “Blake’s other beats are simply yet to come.”

Here’s the logical (read:  actual) takeaway:  The reason the analyst had such a hard time making Game of Thrones fit comfortably within the Save the Cat! paradigm is because it doesn’t.

Dig the metaphor?

Dig the metaphor?

Blake’s beat sheet—which is just Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” or monomyth, by another name—and his innovative (if entirely misunderstood) genre categories were only designed to apply to narratives in the Aristotelian mode; they didn’t account for the new storytelling form that’s only emerged relatively recently:  postnarrativity.  Stories in this vein include Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Lost, Heroes, Once Upon a Time, The X-Files, The Sopranos, Orphan Black, The Last Man on Earth, Arrested Development, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to name but a handful.

The stages of Joseph Campbell's cyclical "monomyth"

The stages of Joseph Campbell’s cyclical “monomyth”

Unlike the closed-ended monomyth—with its beginning, middle, end, and, most importantly, remunerable moral (the “Return with the Elixir”)—open-ended “postnarrative” stories are “not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible.  There is plot—there are many plots—but there is no overarching story, no end.  There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now, [New York:  Penguin Group, 2013], 34).  (Postnarrativity, for those who haven’t read my previous posts on the subject, is an artistic expression of our anxieties about the Digital Age, in which our collective sense of linearity has been disrupted by the “hyperlinked continuity” of modern telecommunications technologies, but you’re better off hearing media theorist Rushkoff explain it.)  Given that storytelling function—to reflect a world in which events unfold simultaneously, not sequentially—how could the narrative beats of Game of Thrones possibly align with, or the genre conventions conform to, a story model that follows a prescriptive Aristotelian arc, the very type Save the Cat! was formulated to service?

In a prescriptive narrative, we take meaning from the ultimate thematic lesson the storyteller has attempted to impart:  Dorothy learns “there’s no place like home.”  In postnarrativity, though, we take meaning, such as it is, from how all the characters and subplots and “Easter eggs” correlate with one another:  What do the numbers mean on Lost?  Who do you suspect are Jon Snow’s biological parents?  Does the monster-of-the-week on X-Files have a supernatural origin or perhaps a scientific explanation?  Spider-Man shows up in Civil War, thereby exposing a heretofore unexplored dimension of that expansive cinematic universe.  It’s the difference between value extraction—the purpose of the Aristotelian arc—and pattern recognition—the raison d’être for postnarrativity.

To be clear, “postnarrative” doesn’t mean serialized24 is serialized, yet dramatizes a closed-looped “hero’s journey” over the course of a full season; CSI, on the other hand, is the very definition of “episodic television,” yet its agenda of pattern recognition over value extraction makes it postnarrative in nature—it is far more concerned with how the perplexing crime-of-the-week was committed than it is with seeing justice served and law and order restored (which is merely a happy byproduct of all the forensic puzzling).

The difference between the two divergent forms becomes obvious once you know to look for it.  How could all the plotlines and motifs of shows such as Game of Thrones and Lost, with their rabbit-hole mythologies, really tie themselves up in a bow that pays off every character, every subplot, every turn of action throughout the run of the series the way closed-ended analogs like Lord of the Rings and Gilligan’s Island do?  I mean, does anyone really watch The Walking Dead to see how the zombie plague is eventually overcome, or is that irrelevant—and that the point is merely to take pleasure in the very particular postapocalyptic challenges that arise from week to week, for however long they may last?

“The shows are less about what will happen next, or how the story will end, than about figuring out what is actually going on right now—and enjoying the world of the fiction, itself” (ibid., 32).

These stories simply aren’t meant to conform to the familiar, linear three-act structure of Joseph Campbell, but rather to exist in a perpetual stage of Fun and Games (one of the aforementioned Save the Cat! story beats); there’s no All Is Lost or Dark Night of the Soul or Break into Three, because those beats are intended to lead a story down the road to conclusion and catharsis, and postnarrativity is concerned with neither.  Put another way:  What kind of game is the game of thrones, exactly?  One like an online, multiplayer RPG—in which the objective isn’t to prevail, only to keep the game going in sustained perpetuity.  That’s postnarrativity.  On his blog The Incompetent Writer, Daniel Wallace recently illustrated the very never-ending nature of postnarrativity in a clever post entitled “A Quick One-Sentence Question about Games of Thrones that runs over five hundred words before abruptly terminating midsentence with a dash, just like the infamous postnarrative “conclusion” to The Sopranos.  Postnarrativity is simply a different way of structuring fiction, making it an alternative—but equally legitimate—way of viewing the world as the time-tested monomythic arc.

As such, attempting to apply the principles of conventional storytelling (à la Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder) to postnarrativity can be problematic, as the Save the Cat! analysis of Game of Thrones plainly demonstrates.  Unlike the classical “hero’s journey” model, postnarrativity hasn’t yet been codified, so its structural components and conventional criteria can’t be assessed via the tried-and-true metrics of an altogether different narrative schema.  As the STC! analyst himself acknowledges, that’s not to imply there isn’t dramatic structure to Game of Thrones—it just doesn’t adhere to the closed-ended “beat sheet” as Blake devised it, nor to his particular genre classifications.  (I would certainly not designate the plot of “Winter Is Coming” as Dude with a Problem; if anything, it bears closer resemblance to Institutionalized, but again, it would be a mistake to impose one of Blake’s narrative categories—and its corresponding conventions—on a story in the postnarrative mode.)

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and "Present Shock"

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and “Present Shock”

Now, all that said, the purpose of this post is not to school the Cats on the nuances of story structure, but rather to make an impassioned plea for the integrity of the very program they themselves advocate.  I subscribe to these principles, and when I see them misrepresented and misapplied, it diminishes their value—undermines their credibility—as tools of the craft, like a blade dulled from improper use and care.  My great mentor David Freeman once defined writing as the artful application of exact technique to produce something that transcends logic to become beauty (emphasis mine).  Mastering craft is an arduous, years-long, often solitary apprenticeship, made all the more difficult, really, by the endless blogs and self-appointed gurus out there hawking half-baked methodologies and dispensing haphazard, noncodified “tips.”  I can’t imagine navigating that sea of “information” as an aspiring writer looking to learn the craft; I suspect it would’ve filled my receptive mind with a lot of wrongheaded ideas, or, conversely, turned my head around so badly that I wound up dismissing the notion of a methodical, disciplined approach to fiction writing as pure bullshit…

… which many, alas, do.  I know many a working screenwriter who consider any screenwriting instructional to be snake oil, and that the secret, in their estimation, to learning the craft is, quite simply, to read a thousand screenplays.  (Personally, I don’t see how that’s any more effective than watching a thousand movies; it doesn’t make one any more cognizant of the “invisible” techniques at work—those that operate beneath the audience’s conscious awareness, to borrow another observation from Dave Freeman.)  And that’s to say nothing of the scores of Save the Cat! critics who cite its influence on Hollywood’s by-the-numbers approach to moviemaking (and it has been influential, I can testify firsthand, but any adverse impacts are primarily owed to the perversion of its principles by studio executives into a cookie-cutter template for the commercialized mass-production of an ostensibly creative product).  Save the Cat! is already viewed by many as a nostrum, and not, unfortunately, as a remarkable set of tools that can unlock the hidden mechanics of narrative and open up worlds of opportunity for those with the patience to master them and skill to use them artfully.

Save the Cat! is anything but a magic formula, despite being extolled and castigated in equal measure for such a fallacy.  The fact remains, writers that don’t want to take the time and trouble to master their craft prefer to think of storytelling as an entirely intuitive process—an act of sorcery conjured by those with the God-given yet incommunicable gift of talent.  On the other end of the spectrum, scribes that haven’t yet developed confidence in their skills cling to absolutes—“rules” they can follow so they know they’re writing “correctly.”  (Hollywood development execs—the same ones mentioned in the paragraph above—are notorious for their dogmatic devotion to “rules.”)  The truth resides halfway between such opposing misconceptions:  Undisciplined talent will only take a writer so far, and there aren’t any “rules” to writing—just tools, techniques, and principles that can be learned, can be practiced, can be mastered.  A writer with talent and with discipline?  That’s the stuff of creative prosperity and professional longevity.

So, the salient question, it seems, is not whether Save the Cat! is making Hollywood more formulaic, but whether the tools themselves are being applied skillfully and taught responsibly.  Shortly after publishing his third STC! book, Blake Snyder passed away, suddenly and prematurely, and those who inherited his enterprise—which makes its bones selling workshops and consultations—don’t appear, by any evidence, to have his masterful command of the principles he developed; they certainly don’t have his industry credentials.  These days, anyone can anoint themselves an expert on anything—all it takes is an inflated ego and a social-media platform to do so—and the craft of writing/storytelling in particular, inherently a somewhat esoteric field of study, has been subjected to more than its share of false prophets.  To borrow a lyric from Rush’s Neil Peart:  “Fools and thieves are well disguised / In the temple and marketplace.”  I believe in the methodologies of Blake Snyder—I think his stuff on genre in particular is right on the money and truly one of a kind, and should be given serious consideration—I’m just sorry he’s no longer around to safeguard it from those who misapprehend and misapply it so routinely and authoritatively (in his name, no less).  The deconstruction of Game of Thrones offers an invaluable lesson to students of the discipline, if not the one Save the Cat! intended:  Learning this stuff’s the easy part; it’s the mastering of it that’s so time-consuming and tricky.

There are three pillars to basic storytelling:  structure, genre, and characterization.  Anyone looking to learn those rudimentals can spare themselves a lot of wrong turns and dead ends by studying Vogler for mythic structure, Snyder for genre, and Freeman for characterization.  (And those interested in further reading on postnarrativity are referred to the first chapter of Rushkoff’s Present Shock.)  Choose your teachers well—as well as you can given all the shouting voices—and, most of all, keep practicing.  Respect the conceptual tools of the trade, but understand that their use—and eventual mastery—isn’t an end unto itself; nobody gets points for how efficiently they wield a hammer, only how effectively they built the house.  With that in mind, use the mythic form to help shape your narratives, if appropriate, but don’t waste time bending and twisting and squeezing a story (either preexisting or gestating) to fit that prescribed mold beat-for-beat for the express purpose of justifying your faith in the methodology; you do yourself, your work, and the precepts themselves a disservice when you misuse them.  Put the same meticulous care into utilizing the Save the Cat! techniques as Blake invested in developing them; what a fitting way to honor his tremendous contributions to the writer’s toolbox that would be.

4 Comments

  1. Your posts are always interesting, Sean. I don’t mind loose ends. I loved Lost and don’t miss a Walking Dead or Game of Thrones episode, though I do hope they wrap up most of the plot lines before they conclude. Reading audiences still seem to appreciate it when the threads are tied up at the end of a book. It they aren’t, there’s almost an expectation that a sequel will follow to take care of them. I have a feeling that audiences are more tolerant of narrative oddities in movies than in books, and more tolerant of unexplained phenomena in sci-fi/fantasy genres where elements of world building are just taken for granted. Why are there giants in the north of Game of Thrones? Who cares – no explanation required. 😀 Much to think about and so wonderful that storytelling continues to evolve.

    • Well, thanks for reading this one, Diana! You wouldn’t know it, but this was intended to be a simple 800-word rebuttal to the Save the Cat! piece (which, it’s worth noting, they doubled down on this morning), but, as usually happens when I start refining my thoughts on a given topic, I find I have a lot more to say than I initially estimated! Thanks for reading it through; I appreciate the time you took to do so.

      Clearly the immense popularity of postnarrative fiction — be it Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead or the multimedia Marvel juggernaut — indicates it is resonating with us culturally; audiences respond to the fact that postnarrativity reflects the nonlinear, hyperlinked reality of our new millennium in a way the old paradigm doesn’t. The trouble these series run into eventually, however, is that we still carry with us, after over 2,000 years of repeated exposure to the Aristotelian arc, an expectation of closure — and finality of any kind is the antithesis of postnarrativity, which is all about sustained perpetuity, not zero-sum resolutions. (In that sense, it is a very healthy worldview!)

      So, for instance, in this just-published critique from Vox of “No One,” the most recent episode of Game of Thrones (no spoilers to follow), culture editor Todd VanDerWerff seems frustrated by the fact that the showrunners are rushing the various players to hasty resolutions of their particular plotlines in order to move them along toward some inevitable climactic confrontation (“the show is in full-on, ‘Let’s just close off as many storylines as we can’ mode”), yet he holds out hope that said grand finale will be worth the wait (“I remain convinced that [the] end game will prove fairly satisfying, but the maneuvering required to get everybody into position for it has been going on for several books now with no end in sight”).

      No end in sight? That’s the very definition — the point, even — of postnarrative fiction. And given that Benioff and Weiss are starting to “close out storylines” on the TV series, doesn’t it stand to reason the audience is rejecting it? (My wife, who’s read all the books, was similarly critical of “No One.”) Clearly, Benioff and Weiss are ready to move on to other projects — one only has so many productive creative years, after all — and yet the series’ postnarrative engine demands the story keep going (and going, and going, and going…). I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if Benioff and Weiss soon find themselves facing a Damon Lindelof–style backlash as they try to bring closure to a narrative that was never innately designed to accommodate such an outmoded convention.

      But I agree with you: to explain the White Walkers — or the cryptic sequence of numbers on Lost, or the origin of the zombie virus in The Walking Dead, or any of the world-building idiosyncrasies of these shows, really — would be to take the joy out of the viewing experience. We don’t look to these stories for moral guidance (nobody expects a tidy or heartwarming “lesson”); we rely on them instead to give us something to puzzle out — to serve as an exercise in pattern recognition for a culture desperate to find some kind of meaningful signal in the bombardment of constant telecommunications noise; that’s why there are so many “aftershows” now dedicated to dissecting every little Easter egg on GoT, Walking Dead, Orphan Black, etc. When we finally come to understand that the endgame, if there even is one, of these shows is irrelevant, and that they fulfill an altogether different emotional and intellectual need, we’ll learn to adjust our expectations accordingly and stop waiting for one. In a postnarrative world, after all, there is no end to anything in sight — not text messages or status updates, not political gridlock or wars of attrition — and these stories, in their particular way, are here to help us deal with that.

      Thanks, as always, Diana, for contributing.

  2. Thoughtful post with incisive analysis, thanks for putting it together so well. As a writer, I agree with your comments about choosing your teachers well, and combining creative imagination with solid principles and techniques. I was glad to learn about postnarrativity; now I can understand that feeling of incompleteness and intertwined complexities that such works as Game of Thrones produce.

    • Thanks so much for the nice words, Leonide!

      Like the STC! analyst who took on Game of Thrones, I struggled myself at one point to identify the narrative patterns and genre conventions in works like GoT, Orphan Black, Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead, etc. — they just didn’t align with the mythic structural criteria as I understood them. So I spent quite a bit of time researching the matter, and that led me to Rushkoff and his enlightening evaluation of “postnarrative” storytelling. Even if you’re not inclined to read Present Shock, you can get the gist of his thesis from this worthwhile magazine interview from April 2015. He talks about how the traditional story arc stopped reflecting the new digital world we were living in — one in which our attentions are pulled in multiple directions at once, like 9-1-1 operators, by all the pinging and buzzing and beeping of our telecommunications technologies. So, in that sense, the “feeling of incompleteness and intertwined complexities” of shows like Game of Thrones are very much the point of the narrative experience — they are meant to mirror our perception of reality here in the 21st century; the linear “hero’s journey” arc, alas, just doesn’t cut it anymore. But… Rushkoff does discuss in the article how there’s still a need for “prescriptive” narratives, “[i]t’s just that we have to almost consciously reintegrate those stories and understand that they’re just one way of seeing the world.” I think it behooves all writers, regardless of one’s structural/conventional preferences, to be familiar, to be consciously aware, of this newfound storytelling pattern, because — in true postnarrative fashion — it isn’t going anywhere. Please let me know if Rushkoff’s philosophy (’cause I certainly don’t take credit for any of this) changes the way you watch some of those shows…

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Leonide!

Leave a Reply

© 2017 Sean P Carlin

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: