Yes, I’m going to make this absolutely ridiculous claim that spending hours on end playing Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm, Valorant, and so on makes me a better writer, again. It takes a big brain to play competitive video games competently and an even bigger brain to keep track of complicated plot lines.
There’s nothing like large, complicated plots come together in glorious harmony. And there’s nothing like those same plots failing to deliver a satisfying end. I won’t point any little fingers, or give out thrones, because we all know what story I’m already thinking of. Okay fine, I’ll say it, the Underland Chronicles. Suzanne Collins has the knowledge to write a great plot, but certainly doesn’t have the knowledge to end one. I read the series when I was twelve, and I knew the ending was bad. Regardless, I don’t blame anyone for failing at bringing together a complicated narrative. Sometimes plots get away from us and it’s just not possible to tie up all the loose ends or bring it to a satisfying conclusion. There’s no shame in trying, and to me, a terrible ending certainly doesn’t undercut a fantastic beginning and middle.
(GoT Spoilers. Does that still matter? Oh well, here’s the warning.) I guess I have to do this. I can’t help but get into this stupid rant. Oh well, here I go! I know everyone expected Game of Thrones to be the greatest fantasy T.V. show of all time, and the ending was supposed to be incredible. However, when reviewing the show, the writing is on the wall starting from season 6. We should’ve expected the show to end badly, and if Martin gave the plot arcs to the writers of the show himself, then you should also expect the books to end poorly too. (This is related to competitive video games, trust me.)
It all starts when Jon is resurrected from his death, essentially suffering no consequences for his death, Jon giving up the fight on the Wall—which dooms the Wall to fall to the White Walkers since Jon is the only person who cares about that threat—and when an entire cavalry appears out of nowhere to save Jon in the Battle of the Bastards. Those moments are when Game of Thrones goes from a Dark Fantasy that subverts fantasy tropes to a regular old High Fantasy where the heroes always win no matter what. However, the show runners try to appease the old theme handed to them by Martin. In the effort to stay true to Martin’s original story and appease the general audience that expects a “happy” ending, the show drives itself into a corner.
By the end of season 7, the story finds itself at a crossroads, again. The writers kept pigeonholing Cersei into the mad queen arc and had her decide to betray her oath to help Jon fight the Army of the Dead. All because of something about power, ruling the country, blah blah blah, we’ve all heard it and it’s a tired excuse for someone to be so stupid. Anyway, so far the audience had been led to believe the best shot anyone had at defeating the Army of the Dead was for Westeros to band together. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, we have a tiny rag-tag group of fur traders, horse riders, and a lady with a few dragons—who are easier to kill than a single wolf—who all band together to defend the entire world from an unstoppable army of zombies.
At that point, I can only see the writers choosing one of two outcomes. First, the writers could stay true to the original themes of Game of Thrones and let the White Walkers punish Westeros for their selfish nature and unwillingness to set aside petty differences for the sake of the greater good. This would mean the Night King descends from the frigid North upon Westeros and kills everyone. Literally everyone. He wins. Spiky head blue man is the guy who gets to sit on the throne. That’s the ending that makes sense. It plays into what the show has been building to; it stays in tune with Martin’s original themes before season 6 and satisfyingly resolves every single character arc in one swift motion. That is the only way Game of Thrones could have ended and stayed true to the themes building since season 1, considering the decisions the characters made prior to the final season. The second way it could have ended was an ex-Machina appearing and saving Westeros from the Night King for no apparent reason. Then everyone marches to the Red Keep to kill Cersei, someone nice gets to be in charge for a change, and all is well with the world. It’s stupid, it has nothing to do with the plot that was built before it, and it’s exactly what everyone expects out of a High Fantasy story. The story that Game of Thrones was not. Either way, both endings suck. No one wants to see the entirety of Westeros consumed by zombies, especially in a fantasy novel, and no one wants Game of Thrones to just roll over and give into the High Fantasy tropes it’s been subverting since day 1. All because the good guys have to win, right?
And that’s a reason why I think Martin is having such a hard time finishing the damn books. He’s written himself into an almost impossible prison to escape. He can’t end the books the same way the show has ended. We all know how that goes. And he can’t end them by having everyone die to some scourge, that’s just a cheap way out. So he has to come up with something truly brilliant to finish the novels in a satisfying manner that lives up to the expectations he’s set. I don’t doubt that he can do it, but with all the little threads he’s weaved into the tale, there’s an impossible amount of information to keep track of and tie together into a single tapestry. I don’t envy the job he’s given himself.
This may seem out of line with the point I’m trying to make—which as always is arguing that playing Video Games makes me a better writer—but here’s where I’m going to tie it all together. I just wanted to show that keeping together a plot as wildly complicated as Game of Thrones is no easy task at all. There are at least three major plot lines dispersed through the story at all times, and tons of little side plots that are all relevant to one of the main plots. Keeping track of all those at one time is an incredible feat when done well. So, when the writers cannot do so in Game of Thrones, it’s no surprise to me. They took on more than they could handle, and that’s okay. At least they tried. And those are the same thoughts I have about both myself and my teammates when we cannot win in a competitive team-based video game.
A team based competitive video game is not unlike a complicated narrative. For continuity’s sake I’m going to stick with a Heroes of the Storm comparison. In a game of Heroes of the Storm, you always have one primary objective—destroy the enemy’s core. But in order to do so you must fight your way through minions, forts, and cannon towers to get to the enemy core. All while trying to stop another player from doing the same thing to your own core. That’s the main ‘plot’ to a Heroes of the Storm game.
However, it’s a lot more complicated than that. This isn’t a fighting game where there’s only one player on each side. No, this is a team game where two five player teams must play to simultaneously attack and defend objectives. A single game of Heroes of the Storm has at the simplest level, 10 sub-plots—one for each player—that continuously progress to decide the outcome of the game. In order to effectively reach your desired outcome, destroying the enemy core, you must become intimately familiar with each of these sub-plots. You need to know where you and the 9 other players are at all times in order to make the right decisions. On top of those sub-plots there are plenty of minor plot points as mercenary camps, minion waves, experience soaking, map control, cool down management, resource management, laning, talent builds, and major map objectives. With all these occurring simultaneously it’s easy to forget about one while attending to another.
Every symbol on the mini-map means something, and every symbol holds at least some importance to furthering or hindering your objective to destroy the enemy core. The players who are best at this game take in all this information, process it at inhuman speeds, and then make split-second decisions based on that information. They’ve practiced and played the game so much, that these decisions and management of information becomes almost second nature to them. While at the same time they put in the effort to find out where they went wrong and then work to correct it the next time around. They know exactly what the story of a Heroes of the Storm game should look like and how to get that story to a satisfying conclusion.
To successfully craft a story, a writer needs to manage the enormous piles of information that bleed from the narrative. You need to keep track of where each individual character is in their arc, in the overall plot, and in their relationships with other characters. While you’re in the thick of it all, the battle is raging, your characters are traveling in ten different settings, and you’re foreshadowing for events that won’t be revealed until book four, it’s all too easy to forget what’s truly important. It’s easy to forget the words a mentor gave to a protagonist that were important at the time, but then never came to fruition later on in your story. Just as in a game of Heroes of the Storm where you get so caught up in the minor details you lose track of the primary objective, a complicated narrative can lose track of its own plot.
The skills developed from playing a game of Heroes of the Storm are not unlike those needed to manage a complicated plot. The fundamental difference being a game of Heroes of the Storm is played out over 15-25 minutes and writing a story can take anywhere from a few months to several years. To succeed at both, one must be able to keep track of multiple threads of information simultaneously, even if one of those gives you much more time to process that information.
Though you have more time, managing the threads of information that make up a story isn’t straightforward. While the show runners for Game of Thrones tried to bring the show to a satisfying conclusion, they got caught up ‘pushing top,’ so to speak. Unfortunately, when we set out to create a narrative, we aren’t just given the tools to manage that narrative. We have to find those tools on our own. Heroes of the Storm provides the tools to navigate the narrative of the game right on screen, the mini map, the talent screen, player stats, death timers, etc. All these things give a player a keen look into where the game is going and what adjustments need to be made.
Personally, I use a haphazard mix of lore documents, outlines, summaries, and event webs to keep track of my own stories. I never go into a writing a long form story without first writing a summary and then translating that summary into an outline. That outline serves as my mini map for the story. I know exactly where everything is, where it’s all going, and what state my story is in before I even write it. Then I use that outline to guide the ideas I put into a clean first draft. After I finish the draft, I create an event web to make sure that each scene progresses the plot and leads to another. I use that web to decide what scenes stay and which one’s go, or if more need to be added. This process helps me create stories I’m proud of.
Your process might look different, or very similar. It doesn’t matter what your process is, as long as it works for you. Finding a system that gets that crazy idea that’s been floating in your head for four years into a cohesive narrative someone else can consume is a tremendous accomplishment. Your system might be more like a game of Heroes of the Storm, where it’s structured with mini maps, a game wide stat screen, and a death recap. Or your system might look more like Escape From Tarkov, with a minimal HUD with almost no information aside from some bright red and grunting sounds. Find the tools and inspirations that drive you to finish your stories. Then do everything you can to close them out within way you’re satisfied with.