What Makes A Story Disappointing

If you’re breathing, chances are, you’ve encountered, over the last week or so, on social media, at the water cooler, or even standing on a street corner, someone who was upset about the way the HBO drama, Game of Thrones ended.

For a decade, a large percentage of America invested itself in the TV adaptation of George R. R. fantasy novels, Game of Thrones — a premium cable series featuring medieval machinations, copious violence, lotsa nudity, and the occasional dragon. Everybody dug it.

Until they didn’t.

Last week, the show gave us it’s finale. As you can imagine, the people who had previously invested ten years of their lives into the show, had a lot of emotion tied up in how the story would end.

Here’s my shameful confession. I’m dumb. Okay, not really a shocking revelation, if you know me. I’m a story guy. I study it, teach it, and talk about it for a living — but I rarely put on my story guy glasses when watching GOT. Why? Too dumb. Tracking the progress of multiple characters and plot lines across ten years of 8 to 10 hour-long installments was too much work. I loved the show and loved watching it — but less for the growing story and more for the violence, nudity, and dragons. Sue me. Simple pleasures.

Many people were not so easily entertained it seems. Many people were HEAVILY invested in the plots and characters. So much so that when we finally saw the finale, it left a lot of them disappointed. Let down. Like the creators had betrayed them and they had wasted a large chunk of their lives.

Why?

Well, I have some ideas. I’d like to tell you about them. But they include spoilers and probably require something of a working knowledge of the show. If you haven’t seen the finale yet or have never watched the show — go take care of that. I’ll wait here.

All caught up?

Game of Thrones was a show with multiple heroic characters. Multiple protagonists. No matter who you are or what your taste in leading men or women is, you had someone to choose from.

Daenerys Targaryen — a fierce young idealist with three pet dragons, a claim to the queenship of the seven kingdoms, and a fiery temper.

Jon Snow — a bastard (the technical kind, not a dick), raised by nobility, skilled in fighting, and also possessing a claim to the throne.

Tyrion Lannister — a drinking, womanizing dwarf, hated by his family but almost always the smartest guy in the room.

Arya Stark — a tomboy turned killer who wandered the seven kingdoms with a list of all those who had ever wronged her.

Besides multiple heroes to root for, there were also multiple victories to be won. An army of evil zombies, called The White Walkers, had to be defeated, Cersei Lannister, an evil queen, had to be deposed, and someone had to take control of the seven kingdoms.

This was a show with a lot of loose ends to tie up.

How did they do it? Well, Arya defeated the zombies by killing their king, Daenerys had a run of bad luck, went crazy, and used a dragon to kill a bunch of innocents, Jon Snow killed Daenerys and was exiled for it, and Tyrion became the advisor to the new king of the seven kingdoms (a magical kid named Bran, too much to get into here…)

There’s been a lot of angst over these happenings. So much that petitions have popped up demanding that HBO remake the final season of the show.

DUMB!

I stand strongly behind the POV that when you pay for an HBO subscription, all you are entitled to is what HBO gives you. You are guaranteed no catharsis or contentment. If you want those and don’t get them, cancel your subscription. Or if, like most of America, I imagine, you’re using a friend’s HBO login so you don’t have to pay for it, just keep your mouth shut and be glad HBO hasn’t figured out a way to kick you off, yet.

Lotsa people don’t feel that way, though. A lot of folks are really upset about how this show ended.

Why?

I think it’s because we all are born to be heroes. Every one of us. Maybe we’re not all born to kill dragons or run into burning buildings to rescue puppies — but we all are born to plant the flag of our own uniqueness in a world that seems dead-set on making us conform. This world will try to punish you for being true to yourself. To be who you were meant to be is a heroic act.

Despite being destined for such behavior, few of us engage in it. Most of us find a quick easy way to fit in. A way to not rock the boat. A way to not stand out. To be good. To be normal. Get a job, start a family, and doze off every night in front of the TV.

And, even though a lot of us live that way, we know it’s not what we were meant for. And so, not willing to take chances in real life, we scratch that itch for adventure by watching fictional characters take risks.

We love Game of Thrones, The Avengers, John Wick, and Star Wars because they allow us to be the thing we know we’re meant to be — but vicariously.

And most shows, most movies, most books, most adventures, give us exactly what we want — a compelling, engrossing story where the hero (us) unequivocally wins in the end.

But… when the victory isn’t what we pictured, isn’t what we wanted. When the bad guy gets defeated but at too great a cost to the hero, that’s… well, it’s frustrating. A process we know, love, and have become used to, gets interrupted. We don’t get to be the hero we’re supposed to be. It’s not just that Daenerys or Jon Snow were denied their rightful place as clear heroes… we were too.

We have a complicated relationship with our fiction. We tend to think of it, primarily as entertainment. But that’s never really been all it is. It’s actually a framework for experiencing and making sense of the world. And, when it fails to make sense to us, when it doesn’t do what we expect, it can really knock us for a loop.

What doe all this mean for your business or brand?

Glad you asked. Your ads, your marketing, hell even the services you offer your clients are telling them a story. And despite what you might have spent some time thinking, you are not the hero of that story. You and your product or service do not exist to ride in on a white horse and save the day.

Your client is already the hero of their own story. Your job is to be a guide or a mentor for them. An Obi-Wan. A Dumbledore. A Gandalf. You make sure they have everything they need to win their own battles.

If you don’t do that, then, like Game of Thrones, for some fans, you rob them of their catharsis and resolution.

If you try to be the hero, if you don’t give them an adequate tool for overcoming their problems, then you deprive them of the opportunity to be a hero.

If you don’t want your customers to walk away from their time with you feeling let down or disappointed, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. Let them be the hero. It’s counterproductive. You want to swoop in and rescue people. That desire doesn't make you a bad person — as a matter of fact, it makes you a good person. But you’re not here to rescue, you’re here to train and to teach. What can you teach your customers that will help them solve their own problems?

I guarantee, if you do these three things, with every customer, you won’t leave them feeling cheated or disappointed. No one will start a petition or ask for a redo. Instead, they’ll keep coming back for more.

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