This post does contain spoilers through the episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones that aired Sunday, August 20, 2017 (Season 7, episode 6: “Beyond the Wall”), so read accordingly.
GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS FOLLOW:
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones—I’m there, with bells on, every Sunday at 9:00 pm then watch that week’s episode at least one more time during the week between. This is not going to be any kind of review or condemnation of Game of Thrones. Nor am I, believe it or not, one of those people who insist on picking gnat shit out of pepper on every last detail of any TV series, movie, or book to find the tiniest mistake or inconsistency. Frankly, I don’t even do that as an editor. I not only accept but fully embrace a Story First philosophy in which fudging the occasional bit of lore is a lesser sin than telling a boring story.
And it’s with that in mind that I’ve overlooked a bunch of stuff in Game of Thrones, like the infamous question mark of Melisandre’s necklace. Does it magically make her look young and beautiful? Does she get all old and ugly when she takes it off in season six as the show seems to indicate? Because if so, she would have been old and ugly when she was in the bathtub, sans necklace, talking to Selyse in season four—but she was young and beautiful. I noticed it, but it didn’t ruin my experience of the show one bit.
But then this Sunday we had some timing issues that were, for me—and apparently, I’m not alone—a bit tougher to overlook since the implications in the story were so much greater. This was a huge escalation in the war with the white walkers and in the relationship between Jon Snow and Daenerys . . . just a big, pivotal moment in the ongoing story.
And when I said I’m not the only one to notice, I started seeing it in my circle of friends pretty much immediately, like this Facebook post from author and game designer Keith Baker:
Last night’s episode was FILLED with things that simply make no logical sense at all: by appearances, within a day one person ran the distance it took them at least a day to cover on foot; a raven flew halfway across the seven kingdoms; and then, what happened next happened. IT WAS AN AWESOME *SCENE*, and frankly, I’m OK with the fact that it makes absolutely no sense and was simply a way to hand a major weapon to the Night King… But we’re definitely in the “don’t think too hard about it” territory. I doubt this is how the books will handle things, and that’s OK.
I’m hardly abandoning the show or anything, but for me, it’s not quite as okay. And it also looks as though a fan reaction is being heard, at least enough to prompt one of the principle creatives involved in the episode to speak to Variety, as quoted in the article “ ‘Game of Thrones Director Alan Taylor Breaks Down Timeline in ‘Beyond the Wall’ ”
“We were aware that timing was getting a little hazy,” Taylor told Variety. “We’ve got Gendry running back, ravens flying a certain distance, dragons having to fly back a certain distance… In terms of the emotional experience, [Jon and company] sort of spent one dark night on the island in terms of storytelling moments. We tried to hedge it a little bit with the eternal twilight up there north of The Wall. I think there was some effort to fudge the timeline a little bit by not declaring exactly how long we were there. I think that worked for some people, for other people it didn’t. They seemed to be very concerned about how fast a raven can fly but there’s a thing called plausible impossibilities, which is what you try to achieve, rather than impossible plausibilities. So I think we were straining plausibility a little bit, but I hope the story’s momentum carries over some of that stuff.”
Fudge the timeline as necessary. I’m okay with that, but I agree with Keith Baker, who told me:
Some people are suggesting that they were supposed to have been stranded on the rock for days waiting for Dany; if that’s the case, we needed more scenes establishing the passage of time, like at least one more night scene. Whether it was their intention or not, as a viewer it FELT like it was all happening in an afternoon.
Felt like that to me, for sure.
And that interview with Taylor was picked up by Germain Lussier for iO9.com in: “The People Behind Game of Thrones Admit This Week’s Rescue Timeline Didn’t Quiet Work”
Hey, at least he admits it. There are probably people out there who would vehemently defend the timeline no matter what . . . But Taylor’s reasoning at least feels honest. Either you were entertained and didn’t care, do care and were annoyed, or are somewhere in between.
For the record, I did care but was entertained.
But for all of us writing fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror, let’s take this as a good example of what happens when we play even just a bit too fast and loose with our own rules.
Let’s leave the world of complex, expensive, and time-crunched TV series production out of this for the rest of this post and fall back to prose fiction. In a novel or short story, you don’t have to worry about your effects budget, time on location, pressure from the network, etc. You have the time to stop and think before you set your rules, stop and think about how you’re following your rules as you’re writing, stop and think about when and how you want to change your rules as you’re writing, stop and think about what you’ll have to go back and revise to accommodate that rule change . . .
You have time. You’re smart. These are your rules, and you’re in charge of them. So stop and think and do the work.
Because plausibility—not realism, and I’ve hit you over the head with that often enough—does matter. I took at least one movie (Legion) to task for that here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and belabored the point in both The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters.
How far is it between Eastwatch and Dragonstone?
How fast can a dragon fly?
It’s entirely up to George R.R. Martin to decide these numbers. The distance between two purely fictional places is entirely up to you to decide in the course of your worldbuilding. Write that down, and once someone travels between those two places—once it actually matters in the story—that’s locked in until you decide to change it and revise accordingly. But once it’s in print in Chapter 2 it has to be the same in Chapter 3.
How fast can a dragon fly? I don’t know; dragons are pretend. I can’t look that up. You tell me. But again, once you’ve told me it’s that fast. Is there some magic item that can make them go faster? Sure—but establish that early enough so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Could they fly through some kind of magical gate that jumps them forward a hundred miles in a flash? Of course they can, because this is fantasy and in fantasy everything is possible if you establish it properly and it functions consistently within the context of your created world.
How fast does a raven fly?
Now you’ve stepped out of your fantasy world and into the real world, because unlike a dragon, a raven is a real animal—I see them in my neighborhood up here in the Pacific Northwest all the time—and we can all look up how fast they can fly. And not unexpectedly, it appears I’m not the first person to Google that in the last couple days. According to DinoAnimals.com (you have to find it in the comments, since ravens aren’t one of the ten fastest birds), they max out at 31 miles per hour.
This is the thing you can’t fudge.
Unless you show us the fudge.
Show us the little ring around its ankle that imbues it with magical speed.
Show us that these are bred from the ancient speed ravens of yesteryear.
Show us something that will take them out of the realistic and into the plausible.
But Game of Thrones never said these were magical ravens—just unusually well-trained ravens.
And Gendry wasn’t wearing boots of speed. Usain Bolt’s been clocked at “nearly” 28 mph, and that was only in a 100 meter sprint.
If this episode shows us that a dragon can fly, say, 100 miles and hour, okay—that might be uncomfortably windy for Daenerys, but okay.
The best I could find online is that it’s as far as 1900 miles between Eastwatch and Dragonstone, so that’s at least 62 hours, one way, for the raven, which is sent after some unknown number of hours of Gendry running, and if a raven could fly for 62 hours straight at maximum speed (and I’m sure it can’t), and the dragon goes 100 miles an hour or 19 hours back to Eastwatch, further ignoring the additional distance they walked north of the Wall, we get 81 hours not including Gendry’s run that they stood on that rock, surrounded not just by dumb zombies but the zombies’ clearly sentient commanders, who didn’t realize the lake had frozen over again.
Roughly estimating Gendry’s run, let’s call that four days.
If it took the raven twice as long, which is much more plausible, it’s actually more like six days.
Just standing there.
Maybe we can get Alan Taylor to take my next online Worldbuilding course. It starts Thursday.
P.S.: But then there’s this: Is the Night King holding off on purpose? Waiting six days knowing, or at least hoping, that Daenerys will come and bring a dragon for him to kill and reanimate? That will probably be how they fix this—showing us it was all part of his master plan—but that still doesn’t show us those guys were stuck on a rock for at least the better part of a week.