Death’s too good for them!

lorienWhen I was a student I did improv. (That’s the guilty admission out of the way.)

The rules of storytelling are pretty much the same, whether in writing or making things up on the fly with a group on stage. One of the hardest things to get people to do is get on with telling a story, instead of putting off any kind of resolution. (For example, banning adjectives and adverbs is done to stop people -rookie storytellers- dithering, and get on with telling a story. Describing a setting is easy. Describing activities is a stalling action. Coming up with a series of events that tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end? That’s a bit harder! In workshops playing the ‘word at a time game’ in which everyone in a circle must come up with a new word to add to a story, a group of beginners will tend to come up with something like “In. the. big. black. dark. scary. spooky. ominous. graveyard…”, whereas more advanced storytellers might come up with “I. crawled. from. my. grave. seeking. revenge. and. brains…” – Same number of words, but one advances a plot, while the other is a list of adjectives.)

Each scene we performed would end with one of the players slapping their hand on the stage as an audio-visual cue for the tech team to dim the lights and for the audience to clap (half the time, I’m sure it was a Pavlovian response). Helluva responsibility, that; ending a scene.

For a couple of months we got into the bad habit of having whatever character we were playing just die, shoving the duty of deciding when to end the scene onto whichever poor bugger was left standing at the end. Also, they had to generate comedy out of the fact that there was a pile of corpses in the scene. It got ridiculous. It had to stop.

Death can be overdone in storytelling. It’s an obvious way of ratcheting up tension – if one major character is bumped off, then *anyone* could be next! (gasp!)

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the Game Of Thrones TV show there are a number of important character deaths, but the first major character death is shocking because he’s the good guy we’ve been cheering for. But it doesn’t take too long for the law of diminishing returns to kick in. Every time another major character is bumped off – particularly the ones whose stories we’ve been interested in – the dramatic impact is lessened. Sure, some of these deaths are done in spectacular, gory fashion, but none of them advance the storylines; they merely shut them down.

As far as the series is concerned, my interest evaporated around season three, when it became clear it wasn’t going anywhere, and the highlight was a chap stuck in a dungeon being tortured for no apparent reason other than to show what a rotten meanie one of the bad guys was. When all the characters I’m interested in are killed off, what motivation do I have to keep watching? I shall chuck Game Of Thrones in the same bin as X-Files and Lost – shows which also meandered interminably. If I’m going to waste time, I’d like to think there’s either a point to it, or a conclusion. Game Of Thrones started reminding me of those old improv workshops in which people would put off storytelling, preferring instead to churn out an endless series of words because it was easier.

Compared with other shows – Breaking Bad managed to make each death significant and impactful, and benefited from taut, tightly-paced storytelling; Babylon 5 got there too, once it shook off the habits of episodic television for its serial storyline, and with ‘escape plots’ for each character (in case real life caused the actors to leave for any reason), nobody’s future on the show could be certain – and that’s without killing them off.

As Babylon 5‘s Lorien put it:

“It’s easy finding something worth dying for; do you have anything worth living for?”

This is probably as true in life as in fiction.

In any case, I don’t even need to watch Game Of Thrones any more. I know precisely what’s happening whether I care about it or not, from all the spoilers and memes chucked around after each episode is broadcast….

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