limit your options to stick your landing

After Game of Thrones sounded the full depths of its creative nadir in May, society collectively scrambled for its next narrative diversion from the crushing daily grind of surviving the Darkest Timeline, i.e. everything that’s happened since the Large Hadron Collider started up on September 10, 2008, unleashing forces that accidentally shunted us into a parallel reality where hope for humanity’s future burned inexplicably bright before all of it was suddenly and utterly extinguished with stunning, tragicomic force.

Didn’t realize you were in the Darkest Timeline? I hate to be the one to break it to you. Your best clue is always the sudden appearance of facial hair. Case in point: prior to 2008 I was clean-shaven. Post-2008, I have a beard. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Darkest Timeline.

Don’t ask me. I only speak Pig Latin.

After the GoT finale, I was ready to watch anything that might take my mind off the culmination of disappointment that had been mounting in me since the end of season 3. Yes, it was only after the episode with the Red Wedding when the real bloodbath started, as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss started gleefully murdering everything that was good about George R. R. Martin’s books.

Breathe, Dave. Just breathe.

“Don’t worry,” I’d think to myself after every illogical and unmotivated twist and turn of the narrative. “Benioff and Weiss will pull this out of the dragon-fire by the finale. We’ve learned from Alias, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica. Nobody would take an epic start and write themselves into a corner like that ever again. David Benioff wrote City of Thieves. He can tell a story! They’re definitely making choices here.” If God doesn’t play dice with the universe, Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t dare play darts with A Song of Ice and Fire.

After struggling to digest season 7, I told myself, “This must be why they’re taking such a long break before Season 8. They’re busy writing.”

In the end, nothing was pulled from the dragon-fire. Not even the Iron Throne.

You can blame HBO, mucking about with a winner in their desperate attempt to hold on to half their subscribers. You can blame the showrunners, already hard at work on a new Star Wars series. You can blame the unrealistic expectations of the rabid fan base or the harsh realities of production, casting, and all the other factors that inhibit good TV storytelling. But that wouldn’t be the whole answer.

Why is it so hard to end anything properly? Information theory. That’s right: Mathematician Claude Shannon is making a cameo appearance in a discussion of an episodic television series about ice zombies. Nobody does middlebrow like the Maven Game.

If you’re not up on Shannon’s work, read James Gleick’s The Information, one of my favorites, or settle for this excellent essay by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman at Nautilus.

A telegraph, an email, a book—these are all messages. The difference between signal and noise, the measure of meaning in any message, is defined as information:

The real measure of information is not in the symbols we send— it’s in the symbols we could have sent, but did not. To send a message is to make a selection from a pool of possible symbols, and “at each selection there are eliminated all of the other symbols which might have been chosen.” To choose is to kill off alternatives. Symbols from large vocabularies bear more information than symbols from small ones. Information measures freedom of choice.

In a coherent message, every bit limits your options for the next bit.

This applies to sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, too. If your character dies in chapter one, you’ve made a choice and limited your options. If she then gets married in chapter two, you have some explaining to do. Typically, the decision to kill your character precludes future nuptials. Is she a zombie? Is there time travel involved? Necrophilia?

Every choice you make in a book limits your subsequent options. If you side-step these limitations, accidentally or perversely, you’ve introduced a degree of nonsense into your message. Unless absurdity is your goal, your introduction essentially determines your conclusion. That’s what distinguishes a message—a coherent book, television show, film, any creative work—from whatever Game of Thrones turned into. Narrative noise.

Joyce Carol Oates often says, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence has been written.”

All of this is just as true of nonfiction. That’s why I begin the discussion of every book project with my client’s objective. What will your career look like after this book is published? On which stages will you speak? To which conferences will you be invited? With the end in mind, we work backward to the book itself.

GoT was unusual compared to most TV shows in the sense that George R. R. Martin actually gave the showrunners a sense of how he planned to resolve the books. Turns out you need a little bit more than the final sentence to build out a story of that scope. Sticking the landing from the start isn’t easy even if you know the precise spot you’re aiming for. For example, Robert Jordan’s widow gave Brandon Sanderson the late author’s intended ending for The Wheel of Time series—written at the very beginning of the process—but completing the series after Jordan’s death still took Sanderson three full books to bridge the gap properly.

As authors, we might benefit from writing entire books backward, a.k.a. “Merlinating”: Start with the last sentence, figure out the only possible sentence that could lead to that last sentence, and go from there. How else to do any of this properly?

At the very least, however, begin with the end in mind and make sure every choice along the way limits your options until your ending is the only one available.

Speaking of proper endings: It seems like many of us have escaped from the wreckage of GoT by watching Chernobyl and Fleabag. What perfect narrative antidotes. Both works, good to the last frame. All I’ll say is, watch both series through to see how a narrative is built with the end in mind.

Craig Mazin, writer of Chernobyl, previously wrote a slew of abysmal sequels: Scary Movie 3 to The Hangover Part III to The Huntsman: Winter’s War, among others. As someone pointed out on Reddit, his Rotten Tomatoes scores range between 6 percent and 35 percent consistently before spiking to 95 percent with Chernobyl. If that doesn’t inspire you to keep working, what will? God bless you, Craig Mazin.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer and star of Fleabag, didn’t have quite as rocky a creative start, being more of what you’d call a legit goddamn artistic genius of the first order, but still, she made her way over the hump like anybody else.

In this interview in The Guardian, Waller-Bridge discusses struggling through her twenties as an actress and only breaking through once she started writing proper material for herself. Crucially, she befriended Vicky Jones, who went on to be a key collaborator:

Jones and Waller-Bridge instantly connected creatively. “Everything began to make sense in my life,” she says. They encouraged each other to write, mentored each other, drove each other on, eventually co-founding the DryWrite theatre company. After Waller-Bridge had written a number of short plays, including a 10-minute vignette of Fleabag, it was Jones who made sure they were performed. 

Find your tribe, people. Nobody should wander the Darkest Timeline alone.