Intimate or Epic

The internet has been abuzz with pieces about Jane Austen (commemorating her early death 200 years ago) and Game of Thrones (which, after a long wait, launched its seventh season). They’re both important story “franchises.” Jane Austen is every other person’s favorite writer, and time has only enhanced her appeal. Game of Thrones is HBO’s most popular show ever, enthralling audiences across the globe.

It strikes me that they inhabit opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum.

Jane Austen’s stories are intimate dramas, primarily concerned with romantic and family entanglements. Is Mr. Darcy really a callous cad or is he more of a decent fellow?  So hangs the plot of Pride and Prejudice. We seldom hear what’s going on in the outside world—nary a mention of the Napoleonic Wars rocking Europe at the time.

Game of Thrones is an epic tale about fighting, conniving, and striving for control of the Realm. Last season ended, thrillingly, with Queen Daenerys sailing for Westeros with a massive fleet and her three gigantic dragons soaring overhead. She’s hoping to overthrow Queen Cersei, who famously says, “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.”

Are you drawn more to the intimate or the epic? Two different views for a storyteller to consider.

Of course, it’s also interesting when the storyteller finds a way to mix the two extremes.

Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie is pure domestic drama—about a mother, son, and daughter jangling each other’s nerves in a cramped St. Louis apartment in the 1930s. But the son, Tom, occasionally addresses the audience (ala Shakespeare); at one point he goes on the fire escape for a smoke and tells us about a dance hall across the alley. At the end of the speech, he brings the world, briefly, into the story, referencing the brewing of World War II:

Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You would see them kissing behind ash pits and telephone poles. This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure. Adventure and change were imminent this year. They were waiting around the corner for all these kids. Suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden, caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella. In Spain there was Guernica. But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows…All the world was waiting for bombardments!

That’s all we get of the world at large. The only bombardments we see are in the apartment, but, for me, these lines add a magnificent dimension.

Alex Steele

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