Game of Thrones and the Art of Infodrinking

So Game of Thrones is pretty awesome.

I’ll admit that, despite my fondness for mead and Renaissance Festivals, I’m not usually much of a fan of high fantasy. I’m a bit of an impatient reader, and nowhere do writers lose me quicker than during heavy-handed, action-stopping world building scenes, which abound in most sword-and-sorcery novels. Often these infodumps occur as our brawny hero marches over the pastoral wilderness (which has already been explained to us through end paper maps), musing internally on his or her past life as a paladin or starving child or whatever. I lose my patience in these long stretches of internal monologue–even worse if it’s a stretch of exposition. Some writers attempt to avoid this by including historical documents spread throughout the text (often offset in italics), but even these often wear thin on me, restless reader that I am.

Because of this, as a writer, I’ve long been a fan of what Jo Walton deems incluing, which is treating the world like a mystery, dropping in small, unexplained hints and letting readers piece it together from scattered bits. But this really only works for certain types of readers, as Walton explains–genre readers, specifically. Writing in YA, I can’t guarantee that every reader will have patience for that either. And when it comes down to it, no matter your reader’s favorite genre, there comes a time when you really just need to explain things to them.

Which is something that the televised version (I can’t speak to the novels–I haven’t read them!) of Game of Thrones has done really freaking well.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Sunday’s episode, “Baelor,” which included a scene that I understand wasn’t in the books. In it, Tyrion Lannister, a prostitute named Shae, and Lannister’s bro Bronn hang out in a tent and act like a bunch of teenagers, drinking and doing that-thing-where-you-hold-a-cigarette-against-your-arm-to-see-who-is-tougher (only with a candle). Eventually, their conversation gives way to a drinking game–a proto-version of Never Have I Ever. I was understandably psyched by this development. Never Have I Ever is the only drinking game I can really stand, and this scene was an excellent illustration of why; it’s really more of a facilitation of conversation than anything else, a scaffolding on which to hang real, human interaction.

Game of Thrones has raised some ire with similar (newly constructed for the show) scenes of background infodumping/exposition before. In a previous episode, “You Win or You Die,” brothel owner Littlefinger discussed his ambitions while tutoring a prostitute in the art of, uh, that-stuff-that-prostitutes-do. I enjoyed the scene–I think the juxtaposition of sleazy sexuality against Littlefinger’s speech was quite effective. But some viewers dubbed this Sexposition, and found it tiresome (I saw one commentor refer to it as “assplay,” which is appropriate). But I wonder if they’d say the same for Sunday’s scene.

Because it was a brilliant little piece of writing. For me, the drinking game scene in “Baelor” succeeded in three ways: it was interesting, it was well-integrated, and it was informative.

  • Interesting – This is the first fundamental way that a lot of high fantasy world building/exposition fails for me. It’s just too damned dry, focused entirely too heavily on imparting background knowledge whether or not that knowledge is engaging. The drinking game scene consists of three people with a great deal of chemistry hanging out and teasing each other. This kind of stuff is fun to watch in-and-of-itself–particularly because one of the characters is a new-comer, and a bit of a mystery. We’re as engaged as Tyrion with uncovering Shae’s mysterious past. What’s more, the entire scene has a fun, flirtatious thrust that keeps us riveted to the end.
  • Integrated – The problem with, say, end paper maps and our rugged heroes visiting children to sing to them (in iambic pentameter, usually) of their histories is that it requires that the action stop utterly and completely, and that we all sit patiently for the story to start again. This contributes to glacial pacing, something often already problematic with 1000-page door stoppers. But this scene did not feel off-set from the central thrust of the episode. In fact, it exists because of it: Tyrion and Bronn are going to war the next day, and so they plan to celebrate a bit first. Though the tone is a bit lighter than what comes after, eventually core character insecurities are revealed as well–insecurities that help explain what got him into this situation, being sent to the front line by his father, and all. So really, nothing stops for the scene. It’s an integral part of the story. Which makes us unlikely to fast-forward past it.
  • Informative – The stuff revealed in this infodump? It’s not a long narrative history of the Lannister family line. It’s not an explanation of family trees, or a dry exploration of Westeros mythology. It’s the story of the first time Tyrion ever fell in love. Aw. It’s an incredibly sad story, but one very important to understanding Tyrion as a character. And it’s engaging from the way Tyrion tells it (his body language, the delivery–someone please give Peter Dinklage an Emmy?) down to the little details. It’s just a brilliant piece of writing.
  • And all part of a silly drinking game.

    I think this is good stuff to remember when you’re seeding background information into your text. Does the scene fit with the rest of your book? Is it not boring? Is the stuff you’re saying interesting?

    It better be, or else readers like me–fickle, impatient, capricious–are just going to skim right past.