showrunners 017: Analyzing the Witcher

Reminder: Please watch The Witcher TV Series before you listen to the following episode. We not only give away spoilers, but we talk about the global story and it’s just more valuable for you if you know what we are talking about because we reference a lot

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Initial Observations

Randy: Interesting, but no game of thrones. One word: confusing

Mel: Wonderful portrayal of The Witcher by Henry Cavill, but my one word for this TV series: disappointing.

Parul. A good example of how a great idea is lost without structure and world-building.

Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff to sum up what was the story of The Witcher

Beginning Hook:

Geralt of Rivia is a principled monster hunter, killing monsters in exchange for money.  After saving Duny from being killed, he becomes connected to Ciri through the Law of surprise.

Inciting Incident: Cursed Duny is attacked when he asks for Pavetta’s hand in marriage.

Turning Point: Geralt claims the Law of Surprise and Pavetta is with his child.

Crisis: Does Geralt take responsibility for the child or not?

Climax: He does not.

Resolution: Mousesack is scared that Geralt not accepting his destiny will release great calamity upon them all.

Middle Build:

Yennefer rises to power as a witch and Geralt has more adventures, building to a quest to kill a dragon for different reasons.  Yennefer is trying to regain her ability to have children and Geralt has fallen for Yennefer.

Inciting Incident: Geralt risks his life to save Yennefer from the Genie (and his last wish)

Turning Point: Geralt sees that Yennefer is on a quest to kill a dragon

Crisis: Does Geralt join the quest or not?

Climax: Geralt joins the quest

Resolution: Both Yennefer and Geralt end up defending the dragon eggs and Yennefer suspects that the two of them are together because of magic and so chooses to leave Geralt.  Finally, Yennefer makes Geralt realize his destiny is to save and protect Ciri.

Ending Payoff:

Yennefer assists in the defense of Sodden Hill against the Nilfgaardians, eventually realizing her gift of incredible power and disappearing. Meanwhile, Geralt realizes his destiny is to find Ciri, gets poisoned during a fight with a monster, has delusional dreams, and finally finds Ciri.

Inciting Incident: Cintra falls, Ciri runs, Geralt is captured and restrained

Turning Point: Nilfgaardians attack Sodden Hill, the key to the North

Crisis: Does the council of Mages intervene?

Climax: they do

Resolution: Yennefer saves the day after an epic battle that includes lots of innovative magic.  Ciri and Geralt finally link up

Parul: As a viewer, the beginning hook (episodes 1&2)  is out of chronological order. We simply know that Geralt’s destiny is the girl in the woods and that he wants to be left alone, he doesn’t want power. At the same time, we see Yennifer’s rise to power and her desire to have the confidence and strength she hasn’t had so far. Ciri escapes but is on the run.

Middle build is episodes 3-6 – lots of scenes where Geralt is fighting monsters. Ciri is accepted by the Dryads. We understand Geralt’s object of desire better now (he’s linked to Ciri via the law of surprise). More importantly, we see Yennifer’s object of desire to have a child – to be fertile. Distractions/ progressive complications: fighting dragons.

The ending payoff is across episodes 7-8. We finally get clarifying information about Geralt’s link to Ciri and see Yennefer make a decision to fight for someone other than herself (Tissaia).

Mel: It’s evident in the ending payoff that The Witcher Series does not consider Geralt of Rivia as its single main protagonist. Since I had only seen the trailer before and read the comic book by Dark Horse I expected this man to be the hero. The single main protagonist and Ciri and Yennefer as his sidekicks.

But my disappointment started already in the second episode.

It was hardly about the witcher at all. His storyline was only there for further exposition about the problem with the Great Cleansing that killed so many elves. And he wasn’t in real danger even though he was captured. It was clear he would not be killed by three elves and a goat-man. So that was rather boring.

The main story in the second episode was all about Yennefer.

It was then that I suspected, we have multiple protagonists once again.

And in the ending payoff, it’s so evident that this story failed to include Geralt as a hero. Yennefer becomes the hero. She’s fighting the big battle. Geralt was imprisoned and then he was badly wounded and on that cart in his own delirium. He was out of the picture.

I did not like that.


Genre

Action – Man vs monster?  Man vs Society

Mel: We as editors ask about what’s the genre because it helps us determine if the story worked or didn’t work. Genre sets expectations. And if the promise to the reader or the viewers is not kept, the story was not only disappointing but it also just didn’t work.

So this TV series was disappointing to me. And Genre is one of the reasons.

So I was struggling to say with certainty what genre the global one was. The one the entire story revolves around.

Yes, in the trailer we were promised an action story.

In action stories, especially man vs. monster, the monster is defined to be an animal – like the shark in JAWS or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. But we literally have monsters in this TV series. But this story is no horror story either. In horror stories, we have a single, non-heroic protagonist who wants to save his life. This is true for Ciri, but she’s not the one who has to deal with monsters. It’s Geralt of Rivia. But he’s very much capable to fight monsters. So this series has elements of horror, but it is no horror story.

Now the first episode’s purpose is to establish the Genre.

If we look at how the story started, we have Geralt killing a kikimore in a murky swamp. That’s action. Perfect. I was happy as I saw it because that’s what the trailer promised. But then the first episode shifted to the crime genre (Assassin for hire) to love and Betrayal (Renfri and Geralt) and to war (Cintra and Nilfgaard).

So I was very confused about the genre because there’s so much going on in the first episode already. They didn’t take the time to establish one genre first.

If we look at the last episode, we have this huge battle scene. So I’m guessing we could also make a case that The Witcher Series belongs to the War Genre.

Here’s why:

At its core, a War story must have soldiers on a battlefield with the possibility of death. But not every story must be set in a time of war. It has to build and lead to a big battle, which is the equivalent of the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene for an Action Story or the “proof of love” scene for a Love story.

Shawn Coyne, our mentor says:

“The War story is an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey) or mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre that culminates in the big battle event in which the combatants fight righteously and prevail or crumble and die in disgrace….War stories, like Society stories, use tightly confined plot trajectories to represent global power struggles. Even the epic war stories focus on deeply personal and specific human conflict.”

So war stories focus on the protagonist’s changes as a person and the brutality of war. The story is as much about a person as about a battle.

And we do have that in The Witcher. A mini-plot story with three main protagonists: Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer.

Parul: I agree with you here. Another way of looking at this is that the Core Event does not match the object of desire for the protagonists, nor does it match the inciting incident. 


Obligatory scenes of the global genre

Action:

  • Hero Sidesteps Responsibility to Take Action: Geralt refuses to return to claim Ciri
  • Forced to leave the ordinary world, the Hero lashes out: /
  • Discovering and Understanding the Antagonist’s MacGuffin: Nilfgaardians want to take over the continent, capture Ciri
  • Hero’s Initial Strategy to Outmaneuver Villain Fails: Geralt ignores Ciri
  • All Is Lost Moment: Realizes in a delusional dream that Ciri is his destiny
  • The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain Scene: The Core event of the Action story, this is the moment when the hero’s gift is expressed:
    Missing. Geralt is at the mercy of the monster’s venom. Misses the last battle scene.
  • The Hero’s Sacrifice Is Rewarded Scene (extrapersonal, intrapersonal, interpersonal): Finds Ciri


War:

  • An inciting attack that challenges the morals of the protagonist. It must put them under pressure. – At the marriage feast thrown for Calanthe’s daughter Pavetta, Urcheon (half-man, half-hedgehog) claims Pavetta by the Law of Surprise which is not honored and soldiers start fighting him. Geralt joins in.
  • Protagonist(s) deny the responsibility to respond. In overtly refusing the call to change, the protagonist expresses inner darkness: Calanthe wants to reward Geralt after saving Pavetta from a spell. Pressed into making a decision Geralt claims the law of surprise and Pavetta vomits. She’s pregnant, but Geralt does not want to have a bond with that child.
  • The protagonist’s refusal of the call complicates the story and the call comes a second time but in a different form, usually as a requirement to fight for someone or something else. Geralt sees the Nilfgaardian army approach and he returns to Cintra to bring his daughter to safety.
  • Forced to respond, the protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy: Geralt tells Calanthe he will return when Ciri is in danger, which means he does not follow her command to stay away from Cintra.
  • Each protagonist learns what their antagonist’s object of desire is: Ciri knows the Nilfgaardian want to capture her but she’s still not quite sure why. Yennefer knows that Nilfgaardians want to take over. Geralt wants to save Ciri from a fate of death or capture.
  • Protagonists’ initial strategy to outmaneuver antagonist fails: Geralt is thrown into prison. Yennefer can’t hold Sodden with the other mages. Ciri runs away and gets captured.
  • There is a clear “Point of No Return” moment, when the protagonist accepts the inevitability of death: Geralt gets bits by a zombie-like creature and admits defeat. Yennefer is prepared to die by summoning all her chaos in the big battle scene. 
  • Protagonists, realizing they must change their approach to attain a measure of victory, undergo an All Is Lost Moment. The All is Lost in a war story is usually cathartic, a moment of acceptance of fate that either compels madness or resignation: Geralt accepts that the girl in the woods is his destiny because his mother left him in the woods all by himself. And he doesn’t want that fate for his daughter Ciri.
  • Big Battle Scene—the Core Event. This is when the protagonist’s gifts (usually the gifts of all the team members) are expressed or destroyed. They discover their inner moral code or choose the immoral path. Yennefer fights Fringilla at the battle of Sodden.
  • The protagonists are rewarded with at least one level of satisfaction for their sacrifice. They gain honor or dishonor. – Even though we don’t know how it turns out, Yennefer has definitely earned her honor.


Love 

  • The lovers must meet: Geralt & Yennefer meet because Geralt needs to find help for his wounded bard.
  • At least one of the lovers denies the responsibility to respond to love and/or the antagonistic force, creating conflict for the characters.
  • The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver antagonistic force or character fails: Yennefer puts a spell on Geralt. He falls for her.
  • There is a confession of love by one or both lovers. Intimate Moment in the tent before they go to the dragon.
  • The lovers experience a first kiss or intimate connection together: Bathtub Scene.
  • The lovers’ break-up or are forced to separate: Yennefer wants to break the bond of Geralt’s wish and breaks up with him.
  • The all-is-lost moment is usually the break-up or a scene that shortly follows the break up where the lovers are miserable without one another and certain they will not reunite: /
  • The big climactic event of the Love story is the proof of love scene where one lover sacrifices for the other without any expectation of receiving something in return: /
  • The lovers reunite after the break-up or forced separation. The protagonist is rewarded with at least one level of satisfaction (external, internal or interpersonal) for their sacrifice and/or growth. They gain love or lose it. /


Conventions of the global Genre

Action:

  • Hero: Geralt of Rivia/ Yennefer? Unclear.
  • Victim: Princess Ciri
  • Villain: Nilfgaardians, Fringilla. Unclear.
  • Hero’s Object of Desire: Geralt: Kill Monsters and save Ciri; Yennefer: find meaning. (The problem here is that Geralt doesn’t truly want to save Ciri until the last two episodes, which weakens the story I think) 
  • Division of power: One man (Geralt) / one woman (Yennefer)
  • Speech in Praise of the villain: There are many types of monsters in the world; Nilfgaardians are zealots


War:

  • One central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that character’s personality traits: the central character should be Geralt of Rivia. Offshoot-Characters are Ciri, the bard and Yennefer.
  • Big Canvas: Fantasy World of The Witcher.
  • Overwhelming odds … The War itself is a seemingly impossible external conflict. The protagonist confronts overwhelming odds. Often, their team is substantially outnumbered: After the fireball attack, most of the mages run away and Yennefer and a couple of others are left to fight over 50.000 soldiers by themselves. Geralt of Rivia is fighting alone almost all the time.


What’s the point of view?

Yennefer, Ciri, Geralt

No clear hero, which isn’t a problem, Game of Thrones did it well, however, in only 8 episodes we are introduced to 3 main characters and scores of minor characters, but aren’t 100% invested in any.  And the 3 characters are connected in the end, that’s obvious, but the connection is slow in coming.


What are the objects of desire?

Geralt: Find the girl in the woods, turns into keeping the surprise child safe, changes to find Ciri (although note that Geralt always wants to save everyone innocent like Reacher)

Yennefer: Be strong and beautiful, turns into having a baby, turns into saving Cintra for Tissisia

Ciri: Stay safe, find the Witcher


What is the controlling idea/theme?

Action:Life is saved when 2 people (Yennefer and Geralt) are willing to sacrifice themselves.

War: Honor is gained in war when a soldier (Yennefer) sacrifices for their fellow soldier, regardless of victory or defeat in battle.


Did the Series match the Trailer?

Randy: Yes, definitely – monsters killed, check; Magic used, definite check; reluctant hero, check; Good fight scenes, check.

Mel: I completely disagree. Sorry, Randall. 

I’ve talked with others and some of them told me that the series didn’t hold their interest and they stopped watching after the first episodes. And we know why. We’ve watched the trailer and expected way more action and struggling characters. But episode 2 was hardly about the witcher at all. Maybe Parul was right that it is a society story but even to that they didn’t commit to the fullest. 

It’s the same with The Walking Dead. Many I know only watched until Negan showed up. Then Walking Dead, in season 7 and 8, wasn’t as much about survival anymore and killing zombies. It became political and the action scenes got less. 

So even if you’ve got an established series, changing the primary genre to something completely different has to be done very carefully and not that drastic. After all, who out there wants to see a story about power shifts and political struggles when life and death scenes are more engaging to them and the reason they wanted to watch the series in the first place.

And I wanted to watch The Witcher for the promise of getting an action story. And that’s what it didn’t first and foremost deliver.

Parul: The trailer promised action, the film delivered action and war


List of why the story did not work:

Genre: The story was promised to be an action story. I can only speak for the comic books, and Randall probably for the video games, but they are much more about action and monster slaying. 

Protagonist: Geralt wasn’t the main protagonist which I thought he would be, so I was discontent that I had to spend so much time with other characters when I wanted to see some great monster-slaying fights and him on his quest to find his destiny. The smaller, self-contained stories, especially if they involve Geralt hunting a powerful monster, are far more compelling. And in the last episode, he didn’t save the day. Yennefer did. Geralt was just weak and hurt while there was another big battle going on. And that for a climax episode to have the supposedly main protagonist not participating. 

Yennefer: She seems like the most important character because she has changed the most. And for her, there was the most at stake.

Anthology: The beginning of the series feels like an anthology. There was no overall picture to be seen. All you could hold on to were your expectations set by the trailer: So I was waiting for Geralt and Ciri to meet because that was promised to be his Call to Adventure that he refused. And right in the first scene, Ciri ends up in the woods. So is Geralt. So I expect that they meet. But I had to invest 8 hours into the show until they met. Meanwhile, Ciri is in the woods the entire season. And what has worked as a form of narrative drive before to keep the viewer engaged, was used so much, that it became almost boring and ridiculous.

Non-Linear Storytelling: This story wasn’t told in a linear way. It’s okay to use non-linear storytelling, but if you end up confusing the viewer who loses his sense of time, don’t do it. It was so confusing since I didn’t know that Geralt’s and Yennefer’s story started in the past to the recent event of Nilfgaard’s attack on Cintra. Suddenly dead people were alive again. I was totally confused by the time shifts. I had no clue what was going on. If a confusion gets so big that it throws the audience out of the experience because they start to wonder if they’ve missed an important detail, then that causes unhappiness.

Destiny sounds more like deus ex machina: Ciri ran one way and Geralt after her and suddenly she must have turned 180 degrees and runs directly into his arms. I know they wanna highlight the destiny part, but that is just too far fetched and a rather unspectacular first encounter. After all, their meeting was not only promised to us in the trailer, but it was set up in the very first episode and we had to wait for all 8 episodes for it to finally happen.


Observations:

Randy: The real enemy might be Fringilla, manipulating the Nilfgaardians, but she is an underdeveloped villain.  Cahir, leader of the Nilfgaardians, could also have been built up to be a bigger villain, but we don’t really know his motivations except “to get the center of it all”.

Who is Vilgefortz?  He kind of comes out of nowhere and fights like a ninja.

Why is the titular character laid out for the whole finale?  Was that smart?

Witcher tries to reach Game of Thrones Heights but doesn’t quite achieve it.

Mel: With so many people loving the world of the witcher, do they feel unhappy now that it isn’t a pure action monster-slaying story or rather happy to see this fantasy world’s trouble on a larger scale?

Randy: The Witcher fans seem to like it because they know all the back story.  The timelines didn’t confuse them as much as newbies like us apparently.

Parul: This is like Game of Thrones but with not enough information about who the houses are, and where their loyalties lie. 


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If you want to learn more about writing a story using the Story Grid methodology, go to the Story Grid Webpage to find free videos and articles on how to implement the methodology.

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For an example of how these techniques are used, read Jane Austin’s The Pride and the Prejudice with annotations by Shawn Coyne.

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