Exposition Techniques in Game of Thrones
With spoilers for: Game of Thrones – Seasons 1 – 3
Try to put yourself in the place of Weiss & Benioff 5 years ago. Your job is to establish and illustrate a vast, quasi-Medieval universe – its characters, geography, politics, history, technology, weather patterns and the manner in which all of these things correspond to one another. This has got to be one of the greatest expositional challenges in the history of drama. And to top it off, the screenwriters had the balls to attempt it all without a single voice-over or flashback. So how did they do it? Here are a few ways…
Part of the brilliance of Game of Thrones lies in how it embeds its exposition into the vocabulary of its characters. This means that background information is often revealed through a range of literary devices, such as exaggeration – as found in the recurrent simile “rich as a Lannister” and in S02E04, when Renly denigrates Stannis:
The Iron Throne is mine by right. All those that deny that are my foes.
The whole realm denies it, from Dorne to the Wall. Old men deny it with their death rattle and unborn children deny it in their mothers’ wombs. No-one wants you for their king.
By far the most abundant technique in the series, the argument refers to any instance in which characters ‘show their working’, pointing to evidence that reinforces their beliefs. A classic example of this comes from S02E01, as Tyrion gets reacquainted with Cersei.
Both characters are already well-aware of the points Tyrion is making here. However, because he’s using them to justify his newly-appointed position as Hand of the King, they sound like part of an authentic conversation – rather than some clunky recap of Season 1.
I should add that this technique is often misunderstood to mean that exposition should be the product of two people fighting – smashing plates and dredging up the past in a bid to score points against one another. It’s more general than that though. Take the scene between Renly and Loras, where Loras is convincing Renly that he would make a good king. Here we have the argument technique in action; Loras is giving evidence to support his argument. However, it clearly isn’t the case that the two of them are having an argument.
Everyone already knows about this one, but I might as well mention it anyway. The newcomer works by creating a character with the same level of knowledge as the audience. Thus, when other characters are explaining stuff to her, they’re really explaining stuff to us – but in a manner which is relevant to the story. This often comes across as rather lazy storytelling – however, because Daenerys and Jorah are two well-made characters, and because this is just one of a rainbow of expository techniques, GoT definitely gets away with it.
People are more likely to state superfluous information if tradition compels them to do so. We see this in the first episode, where Ned Stark chops the deserter’s head off.
In the name of Robert in the House Baratheon, first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. I, Eddard, of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, sentence you to die.
Everybody present already knows who Eddard Stark is (except, maybe, for the guy who’s about to be executed – but Ned’s not exactly introducing himself to him.) However, because his words have a kind of ceremonial weight to them, they sound appropriate for the occasion, whilst covertly establishing the social standing of the Starks and the Baratheons.
We’ve all met people who tediously trundle on about their Oxford scholarship, their place on the national rugby team, the fact that they were featured on WordPress a while ago(!). Make a character proud of something and the fact that they keep banging on about it comes naturally. This is epitomized by the unspeakably boring Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who follows Daenerys around Qarth, trolling her with reminders of how much money he has.
Similarly, you can turn the boast trope inside-out, by making backstory a source of humiliation for a character. You can see this with Ser Jaime Lannister ‘The King Slayer’ and Jon Snow, whose niveous surname acts as a constant reminder of his illegitimacy.
The breather technique is basically a form of ‘infodump amelioration’. Open with a few minutes of solid, intense action – then, when the lengthy expositional scenes arrive, they’ll be a welcome break from all the commotion.
The very first scene of Game of Thrones counts as an example of this, in which a white-walker decapitates a ranger and terrorizes a man with horrible lips, all before any of the main characters have been introduced.
Jokes are another nice way of divulging information, because the set-up or punchline almost always contains info that its audience already knows…
It’s all fallen on me.
As has Jaime repeatedly, according to Stannis Baratheon.
There are some scenarios in life which allow exposition to flow thickly and freely. One of these is the lesson, beautifully done in S01E05.
One thing I especially like about this scene is that Luwin’s fairly confident that Bran already knows a few of the facts he’s testing him on. But, for the sake of completeness, he still asks him to recite them.
The Drinking Game
Another such scenario is Tyrion’s drinking game, because it turns background information into a matter of competition. Thus, when Tyrion is trying to show off his people-judging skills, we have an interesting way of learning something new about each of the characters. (Well, apart from Shae.)
The most notorious one of all, sexposition is the art of delivering exposition over a backdrop of naked bodies, to appease the otherwise bored and angry audience. It’s an oft-cited method – sometimes under names like ‘Pope in the Pool’ – but I’m sceptical as to how effective it is. Take the infamous Littlefinger scene…
I think the idea here is that you take note of what Petyr Baelish is saying whilst the resident prostitutes liven things up a bit. However, rather than listening to any of the dialogue, it’s more likely you become distracted by the non-verbal goings-on at the other side of the room. Yeah, set your viewers’ amygdalas alight with flashes of sex or violence and I wouldn’t expect them to listen to much.
In fact, Game of Thrones has shown me how useful this technique could be as an anti-exposition device: Divert attention with some arbitrary displays of naked flesh, then reveal a chunk of information integral to the forthcoming twist. In all probability, the audience will be too distracted to digest what they’re being told, meaning that the impending climax will come as more of a surprise.
Pretty obviously, the title sequence provides a much-needed geography lesson for those unfamiliar with the books. There’s not much to be said about this really, other than it’s not completely original; Arrested Development does a similar thing, in which the opening explains how all the main characters are related to one another.
People sometimes state things in order to ‘get them off their chests’. Usually this is to someone naive to the other’s misdemeanours (as above) – but this isn’t necessarily the case; I can think of a more ‘culty’ sort of context, where people repeatedly vent their wrongdoings as a means of purging them. A bit like the church scene in There Will Be Blood.
When I first started watching GoT, one of the hardest things for me was keeping track of who was who in Westeros. Perhaps with this in mind, the writers have made it more socially normal to greet people with their name. You can see this in S01E03, as the Seldom Sean Bean greets by name each member of the Small Council.
Coined in a previous post, the knobhead is a character who incessantly explains the obvious to people, because he believes his wisdom to be so superior to theirs. It’s a rare technique – and I couldn’t actually think of a cinematic example of one when I first wrote about it – but Grand Maester Pycelle sometimes qualifies.
Did you know that Lord Varys is a eunuch?
Everybody knows that.
I noticed this method recently when a friend was making fun of one of his professors. Unlike a real impression, which may be subtle and realistic, the pseudo-impression usually amounts to a listing of traits associated with the target of ridicule – a kind of summary of how that person is. Seen in S03E06, as Ygritte torments Jon Snow (a bit more).
* * * * *
I realise there are some who’d be shocked that anyone would want to study the exposition in Game of Thrones, and I feel I should address their criticism here. One complaint is that it makes the series too difficult to follow – partly due to the sheer dearth of information behind each storyline; partly since it’s almost never told visually. But this is exactly what I like about the series, because it makes it proper television: something to be watched intently and repeatedly – not as a side-show to eating lunch and texting. In fact, the unfortunate irony of this is that it makes Game of Thrones ideally suited to a cinema release, more so than almost any film these days.
Similarly, the show respects that its audience can find things out for themselves. Even Andrew Collins, editor of the Radio Times, admits to having used the GoT Wikipedia since Episode One. In this age of forums and search engines, losing the plot has never mattered less. Actually, with the number of spoilers out there, it seems the real problem isn’t ‘not enough information’, but too much.
A second complaint is that the show constantly tells the audience stuff, rather than showing them it. I can appreciate this criticism to a degree (I’ve always found Sam’s monologue as to why he’s joined the Night’s Watch a bit cringeworthy – and the bit where Tyrion uncharacteristically bullies Theon because of his father’s actions.) However, it seems to me that this complaint stems from a misunderstanding of the Show; Don’t Tell principle. All it means is that facts should be demonstrated to the audience, rather than flatly asserted. It doesn’t mean that action always trumps dialogue when it comes to exposition. In fact, Game of Thrones features one of my favourite examples of S;DT.
Finally, there’s the issue that Game of Thrones introduces a lot of information to us before it’s become interesting. (Stannis is discussed one season before he appears on-screen; King Robert’s devotion to Lyanna Stark is revealed before we’ve had the chance to question how anyone could be unhappily married to Cersei Lannister.) I agree that this can make bits of Game of Thrones quite dull on first viewing, but I also see it as key to why the series is so enjoyable to watch again. Each time, your mental portrait of Martin’s universe becomes embellished and refined. You notice fragments of history, tiny decisions which would have lethal repercussions a season later. Basically, every episode feels slightly new with each viewing, because it’s impossible to take in everything the first time round.
Anyway, I’m digressing. Bottom line is that you hear talk of ‘burying your exposition’ in a number of screenwriting manuals – but this is poor advice. People state things that they mutually know all the time. Learn to identify these instances and channel them into your writing, and you’ll find that exposition isn’t the impediment that it’s been made out to be.
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