The End of a Cultural Touchpoint and Writing for Surprise

It’s over! HBO’s Game of Thrones, one of the last great watercooler shows, the last “appointment TV”, is over. Long live the Starks, Targaryens, Baratheons, Lannisters, and all the other houses we care much less about. The rest of this post is dark and full of spoilers, so maybe don’t continue if you haven’t seen it yet and SOMEHOW haven’t been spoilered by being on… the rest of the internet. But the end of this whole great big phenomenon has me thinking about the last end of a great cultural touchpoint that I witnessed and was impactful to me: the end of the Harry Potter books.

The entire phenomenon surrounding Harry Potter is, if I’m being honest, something that I don’t think will ever be possible to replicate, for books or TV or anything else. To begin in 1997 and end in 2007… those times will never come back. Smartphones weren’t a thing in 2007; the act of communally livetweeting the books couldn’t have been a thing. And yet, podcasts and web forums and fan communities very much existed. To have one but not the other is a time we can’t return to.

I remember the release of the last two Harry Potter books vividly. It included my very first brush with spoiler culture (remember when Half-Blood Prince came out and someone like, got their copy and turned to the camera and revealed that Snape kills Dumbledore?). I turned 12 in 2005 when HBP came out; 14 in 2007 when Deathly Hallows came out. I remember BEGGING my mother to take me to the midnight release party of HBP, but she said I was too young. I was allowed to go to the DH midnight release party, and I am still grateful that I was.

For one thing, midnight release parties for books aren’t a thing anymore and haven’t been since that time. The last one I remember happening was for the last Twilight book in 2008, which I did not go to because I was very much Too Cool for Twilight at 15 (maybe there was one for Mockingjay, the last Hunger Games novel in 2010? That sounds familiar?). Game of Thrones viewing parties have been a thing for years now, and I’ll be interested to see if that trend emerges for any other shows in the near future (is this a thing for The Walking Dead? I feel like it has been?).

The thing that I remember most clearly though was a promotion leading up to the release of Deathly Hallows – something like “7 questions for book 7”. Seven huge, central questions that we were certain would be answered by the last book. And the goal of the promotion was to inspire discussion and debate in diehard fans and casual readers alike, to build hype for the final release. I do seem to remember them succeeding – I think I nearly ended some friendships over the question of Snape’s morality, because I was 13 and ridiculous.

But what strikes me now, as an adult reader with the benefit of hindsight (and having read a lot more books and watched a lot more TV in the intervening 12 years) is how all of the questions WERE ACTUALLY ANSWERED and they were answered in ways that make sense. The questions were things like “what ARE the Deathly Hallows” and “who will live and who will die” and “is Snape good or evil” and “will Voldemort be defeated”. And listen… this is a children’s book series, when all is said and done, that last one should have been a foregone conclusion. But it didn’t feel like it at the time.

Harry Potter had been full of twists and turns, things that legitimately shocked readers at the time, including the aforementioned scene where Snape kills Dumbledore. It’s old hat now, but at the time it felt revolutionary. The death of Sirius Black was the Red Wedding of Harry Potter – no, I’m not exaggerating, no, I’m not being hyperbolic. These things never felt like senseless or meaningless violence because again, children’s series, but there were a LOT of open questions going into the last book and “who lives and who dies” was an incredibly rich topic of discussion.

And readers guessed every answer. All those big promotional questions? The small ones in niche fan communities? In the weeks, even the two years, leading up to the book’s release, I saw every single thing guessed correctly. People were correctly guessing that Harry was the last Horcrux as soon as the concept of Horcruxes was introduced. Did I always believe those when I saw them? No, absolutely not. I went into the last book convinced – CONVINCED – that either Hermione or Ron would die (they did not).

What didn’t even occur to me then – because the culture around consuming media has changed since 2007 and also I was 14 – was that JK Rowling might change the ending because someone had correctly guessed what happened. That’s exactly what David Benioff and DB Weiss have insinuated doing with the final seasons of Game of Thrones, and what George RR Martin has professed to having the temptation to do with the ASOIAF books. Some clever fan figured out their planned twist, and they decided to change it.

For years, the show’s plot development has centered not on what would make sense to happen, but what would shock and surprise the viewers. Game of Thrones is far from the only major property to do this, but it’s the only one that ended last night, so that’s what I’m focusing on.

There seems to be this idea that if your readers or viewers can guess at your ending (or even your next major plot development), you’re being too predictable, too formulaic, and you need to change it. I don’t think that’s correct, or even a reasonable thing to expect when a story is consumed by literally millions of people – someone’s going to guess it no matter what. But here’s the thing: people being able to tell where your story is going is not a bad thing.

Sometimes it means you’re successfully setting up and paying off your plot developments. Sometimes it means you’re working off an established framework, one that people know and love (remember, folks, trope is not a bad word). Sometimes it means people are just paying attention to what you’re doing, which I feel like should be a thing you want.

It feels like ages ago that Ramsay said, “If you think this story has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” My problem with the Game of Thrones ending isn’t that it wasn’t happy or that it was too happy. My problem isn’t that I was surprised by it. My problem isn’t that Daenerys was killed (although that was part of the problem) or that Arya sails into the west (although that was part of the problem) or that Drogon melts the hell out of the Iron Throne (an incredibly symbolically aware dragon).

My problem is that it’s a critical failure of the basic building block of stories: set-up and pay-off. If you want something to have an emotional pay-off, you need to set it up. A failure to set up your conclusion out of a desire to “surprise people” means that your conclusion will be emotionally hollow, as the last episode (and really the last four episodes) of Game of Thrones was. “King Bran” was not set up at all; “Jon kills Daenerys” was set up incredibly weakly and only for about two episodes, in a show that formerly would’ve spent a season working that all out.

It’s not wrong to want to surprise your readers or viewers. But it can’t mean that you don’t set the surprise up; it means that you have to be subtle – something that Benioff and Weiss have entirely failed to grasp.

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