Plotters vs Pantsers: Prior Planning Prevents Proper Piss-offs

I liked the Game of Thrones finale. Fight me.

Much like the last episode of Lost, it couldn’t absolve all the sins of the final season(s), but the episode in itself was satisfying. In my last post, I was critical of the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, arguing that the writers were prioritizing spectacle over storytelling. And now, looking back over how it all went down, it’s really perplexing to me that they didn’t use all this time to better set the ground for Dany’s heel turn.

In a post that’s gone viral, Daniel Silvermint suggests that the series has moved away from the “pantser” ethos of GRRM towards the “plotter” approach of showrunners D&D. Silvermint does a great breakdown of what these terms mean, so I suggest reading it, but I’ll do a brief summary for you: “plotters” are writers who list out the major plot points of a story before they start fleshing it out; whereas “pantsers” discover the story as they write it, they fly by the seat of their pants. Tolkien is often referred to as the ultimate plotter because he designed the maps, languages, and lore of Middle Earth before writing LOTR. Conversely, GRRM is the ultimate pantser because he claims that he loses interest in a story once he learns the ending.

Silvermint lists the advantages and disadvantages of both. With pantsers, the story feels organic and spontaneous, but can eventually become unwieldy. I think that’s a pretty accurate description of GRRM’s journey through his series. GRRM describes himself as a gardener who plots many seeds and sees which ones grow. Certain decisions a character made in the last book can have disastrous consequences in the next. However, the garden seems to have grown into a jungle now and he can’t get it under control. Conversely, a plotter can really stick the landing on the major plot points because they know exactly what’s coming, however the story can feel stiff and the characters slaves to the plotline.

My issue with this distinction is that it is far too simplistic. I’ve never met a pure version of either of these tendencies. Even Tolkien, who’s considered the ultimate plotter, was much more spontaneous than most realize. In The History of Middle-earth, you can see Tolkien’s process (Matt Colville does a great job breaking it down). Sure, Tolkien had a rich mythology that he’d developed prior to putting pen to paper, but most of the time it happened ad hoc. He’d be working through the story, run into a problem, then go back to the drawing board to see how he could make adjustments to the mythology to solve his problem.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, writing is always a process of discovery. You go in with a plan, get turned around, make adjustments, and come out with something often unexpected. That’s part of the fun. It’s like archaeology. You might think you’re digging up a triceratops but turns out it’s actually a stegosaurus by the end of it. Or maybe a dragon 😉


So, what’s my point, and how does this apply to Game of Thrones?

I think the main reason why GRRM and D&D have run so afoul of fans is that they started wheeling out their story before it was fully realized. Sure, they had a general sense of how things would end, but I don’t think they really knew what they were trying to say. One of the big reasons why LOTR is such a masterpiece is that Tolkien took twelve years before he published it. He made sure all his bases were covered before he sent it out into the world. The storytelling was on point. So, when Frodo and Gollum have their moment at Mount Doom, we were completely prepared for it.

This is what I always told students when I was a tutor at university. You can’t write a proper introduction or conclusion until you’ve worked through the body of the essay and come to a strong understanding of your thesis. And that’s what I think was missing in GoT: a strong understanding of the end goals of the series.

Let’s take Dany, which I talked about in my last post. There were a few clues throughout the series about the finale: the vision in the house of the undying (which was different in the books, suggesting that GRRM had told the showerrunners about the finale), and the Azor Ahai prophecy hinting at Jon killing her. These are probably the two strongest examples. However, it didn’t feel right because they hadn’t done the heavy lifting with regards to story and character arc.

Which is a shame because there were some interesting ideas at play. The self-righteousness of so-called liberators. Or maybe Dany has a pathological need for love and admiration, so when the people of King’s Landing didn’t flock to her like the slaves in Yunkai, she turned on them. There were a few options at the writers’ disposal, and yet over the course of two seasons they didn’t use any of them.

Then there’s the Night King. So much build up with no payoff. But I digress.

So, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere between, what really matters is that you have a strong sense of direction. Whether you established that before or after you start writing doesn’t really matter. When you’ve got a strong grasp of your goals and endpoints, you can start baking that into the story. To quote my dad, prior planning prevents proper piss-offs.

Either way, Avatar: The Last Airbender still has the best finale of any TV series.



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