Soap Opera and the Modal Cluster

The Importance of Predictability

[...] a serial drama on television or radio which features related story lines about the lives of many characters. The stories usually focus on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.

Wikipedia's definition of a soap opera

In the summer of 1997 I had a babysitter, Kelly, who didn’t like to give up the remote, so I became an expert in the soap opera Sunset Beach. Aside from a classic tsunami storyline, it was pretty standard, with murder, paternity disputes, and evil twins. The other thing I remember about it – and this is our major point of contact with ASOIAF – is how much characters talked about their plans.

In some sense this is the real meat of a soap. The cartoonish elements of the plot, the evil twins and attempted murders, exist only to prompt a fresh round of discussion, argument, and social maneuvering. In AGOT, the attempted murder of Bran by the evil twins Cersei and Jaimewho are of course responsible for a major paternity dispute in Westeros is the thing that kicks off the game of thrones. The elements of that scenario (incest, disability) are not of real thematic interest (except to the extent that they verge on Martin’s major theme, Identity), but it gives people something to plot about. And that’s really what the game of thrones is – discussion of the metagame.

It’s usually impossible to find this sort of thing with a computer, but we’re lucky in this case, because all these scenes have something in common. Modal verbscan, cannot, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, won’t express potential, probable, necessary, and impossible actions. That’s exactly the material that fuels the game of thrones. So if you scan through the text of AGOT two hundred words at a time, and pluck out any chunks that contain, say, 7+ modals, you get a great sense of the novel’s plot, and a lot of its key scenes. Here are the “modal clusters” from the beginning of the novel:

If you’re a writer, you may not be doing enough of this sort of scene. I’m working on a novel that’s almost as focused on social machinations as ASOIAF, and a few major character decisions are not discussed in advanced. As I revise, this is starting to feel like more of an error. I left it out because none of these decisions are so bizarre or implausible, but that’s not the point of these modal clusters. Readers pay attention to what you show them. If your story is about characters answering the question, “What should I do?”, then why would you deprive the reader of that moment?

And it can be disorienting to leave out these modal clusters. They are the connective tissue that prevents scenes from feeling disjointed. If characters talk about what they’re going to do, then do it, the reader doesn’t have to worry so much about keeping track of everybody’s goals at every moment. The reader can relax, knowing the destination, and enjoy the story as it unfolds.

I suspect this is a major ingredient in ASOIAF’s readability. It’s easy to know what’s going on and what’s at stake in every scene. That’s valuable for a page-turner. And as a final bonus, all this talk of the future gives the writer another avenue to mess with the readers, and Martin obviously takes advantage of that.

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