Hollywood’s Secret Sauce of Slow-Burn Storytelling

Dragon Eye from Game of Thrones

Written by Madison Daniels
Images courtesy 
of IMDB Slow-burn

What is the secret sauce that great shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones and Amazon’s The Expanse have in common with cinematic juggernauts like Marvel and Quentin Tarantino? What is the common thread that runs through shows as delightfully silly as Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe and films as powerful as The Shawshank Redemption? It is my argument that the secret sauce they all share is slow-burn storytelling.

What exactly is slow-burn storytelling? Here’s an example: the first scene of Game of Thrones sets up the conflict between humans and White Walkers. But it isn’t until season 8 that this conflict will ever reach its conclusion. Usually taking eight seasons to deliver on the promise made in the first minutes of the show is an indication that the showrunners don’t know what they’re doing. However, there is a subtle difference between being aimless and burning slowly.

white walker kids
The emaciated forms of Game of Thrones fans waiting for Season 8

An aimless story meanders through its narrative with no end goal. While they may set up and deliver on minor promises, there is no narrative end goal the show is working towards. There have been many TV shows like this that have been met with as much success as Game of Thrones. I would say most crimes dramas and comedies fit this bill.

And to be sure, categorizing these stories as being aimless is not meant to degrade the story they tell. Star Trek is a great example of a show that transformed the world while not working towards some narrative end goal. The mission of the Starship Enterprise was to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The bedrock of the Star Trek mythos is exploration. The audience hears at the start of every episode not to expect some grand overarching narrative.

However, having a narrative end goal does not necessarily imply a slow-burn story. There are many stories that know where they’re going and get there at a fast pace. Hell, I genuinely love stories that move like this. They are able to cover a lot of narrative ground quickly by being light and agile. I would put the Mission Impossible franchise in this category. Sure they’re all connected but only sort of.

While most slow-burn stories also have a narrative end goal, they take their time getting there. You can’t set up a promise in the first scene of the show and deliver on it in eight seasons without doing a great deal of meandering. But slow-burn meandering serves a larger purpose. And in so doing can take its time developing characters, the setting, and the plot. Game of Thrones couldn’t have had Battle of the Bastards, one of the most widely acclaimed episodes ever without taking its dear sweet time developing the characters involved.

The Expanse, another slow-burn story, almost didn’t hold my attention in its first season. But season three rocked my world and left me wondering what the hell SyFy was thinking in canceling it. Luckily Amazon swept in to save the day (praise be to Bezos).

The other common thread between Game of Thrones and The Expanse is that they are based off a series of books. No doubt, this aids their capacity to tell a thrilling story with patience — most of the narrative work has already been done. But there are many shows that move slowly that aren’t based on anything. My favorites happen to be cartoons, but that doesn’t disqualify them from being brilliant: Steven Universe and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Obviously, TV has an advantage over film in creating slow-burn stories. As a format, TV simply allows more time to tell a story. A typical season can span anywhere from 6-20+ hours per year on one story. Multiply that year after year and you can end up with hundreds of hours of storytelling. Film doesn’t have this luxury.

Cinematic Slow-Burn

However, that hasn’t stopped film studios from utilizing slow-burn storytelling to massive success. Anyone who has seen a Quentin Tarantino film knows that he takes his damn time telling a story. The opening scene to Inglourious Basterds is over 20 minutes long. That is almost a full third of some movie’s entire runtime. But in that 20 minutes, Tarantino lays the foundations of the film with masterful patience.

Slow-burn storytelling is all over Hollywood. The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, and The Godfather all build their stories with great and slow care. There are many more but I want to look at one studio in particular who has fundamentally altered the cinematic landscape: Marvel.

thanos titan
“I hope they remember you,” Thanos says to every non-Marvel movie ever

The wild thing about Marvel is that it is telling a slow-burn saga using individual fast-paced firecrackers. I could not say that a single Marvel movie is a slow-burn. Most of them open en-media-res and only let off the gas pedal for some softer emotional moments. But, at least for the last six years, they have known exactly where they’ve been going narratively.

Anyone who has read the comics knew the moment Thanos first flashed his pearly whites in 2012’s The Avengers mid-credits scene that it would culminate with him snapping his fingers. Though we had no idea Marvel would take six years to do it. If Marvel had given us that snap of the Thanos’ fingers without first making us care about each hero it effects, it wouldn’t have landed with such potency. Marvel knew in 2012 where their narrative needed to end up and took their time getting there.

This patience paid off in 2018’s Infinity War which has made over $2 billion so far. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Infinity War, and the untitled Avengers 4 are monuments to slow-burn storytelling. Other movie studios have tried and failed to replicate Marvel’s success by attempting to create cinematic universes of their own. What sets Marvel apart from DC or Universal is patient slow-burn storytelling.

Crafting a slow-burn story isn’t always necessary or needed. There are lots of great stories that are beautifully fast and well paced. But in our world of increasingly fast-paced of lives, soul-sucking commutes, and a 24-hour bad-news cycles, we need stories that remind us to take a breath. Take time getting to know a character, a world, or the varied consequences of a plot device.  And most importantly, we need to learn patience. It is the key to happiness and the key to quality.

Want to read more? Check out our review of Dan Reynold’s new HBO documentary Believer!