Writing Lessons I learned from Game of Thrones
When a show is as wildly popular as Game of Thrones, it’s most likely because of excellent writing. From GoT’s first episode, it pulls you into the world of Westeros and you never want to leave. My wife and I came late to the GoT party, but we binged all eight seasons in about two months and watched the finale with the rest of the world (and were disappointed with everyone else, too). As a writer, I watch every television show from a writer's perspective. So what did I learn after pounding episode after episode of one of the best television shows ever made? A few things...
(Obviously, spoilers ahead)
#1) Character is King
Which writing element sits on the Iron Throne? Well, that would be Character. Character is the single biggest reason GoT became a global phenomenon. Never has a show created so many memorable characters. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you cared about the characters on the show. Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Cersei, Jaime, Arya, Sansa, and Ned (for as long as he still had a head). It was so easy to get invested in these characters and their power struggles. They had well-defined characters and clear motivations. That's effective writing (and good acting).
And the secondary characters may have been even better! Davos Seaworth (the ultimate wingman!), Varys the eunuch, creepy Little Finger, The Hound, Jorah Mormont (Khaleesi!), Brienne of Tarth, Melisandre, Bronn! Too many to mention. It was fun watching them all interact with one another and the best part of Season 8 was seeing strange character combinations we had never seen before. Still, there were a few pairings that hold a special place in my heart. To me, “Arya and The Hound” should have been its own spin-off series. And the true ending of the show was when Jaime and Brienne finally hooked up. End of series. Roll the credits. GoT is a masterclass in character development. I loved them all! Except Sansa. Sansa sucked.
#2) Take Your Time...But Hurry Up!
GoT is known as one of the best television shows of the modern era...except for Season 8. Everyone hated Season 8. Instead of the usual ten episodes, the writers thought it would be a good idea to wrap up dozens of story threads in just six episodes. What we're talking about here is a problem with pacing. Not often discussed, pacing can destroy the quality of an otherwise well-written narrative. Like a fine red wine, a story needs room to breathe. That didn’t happen in Season 8. The writers spent seven seasons telling us Dany was a force of good in the world - the breaker of chains! - and then TWO EPISODES converting her into a murderous tyrant. It was clear that was always the endgame but pump the breaks! Take your time. Show us the transition from light to dark. Make the heel turn make sense.
On the other hand, the “Martin Years” (when the show still had the books to use as a framework) were plagued by just the opposite problem. During the seasons that followed Martin’s books, the narrative was often aimless and meandering. Characters wandered across Westeros like drunk college students trying to make it back to the dorm after a night at the bar. Remember Season 5? The excursion into Dorne? Or how about the fact King Bran spent an entire season inside a tree? Enough said.
#3) Twists Need to Play into the Endgame
GoT is known for its cruel and violent plot twists (Red Wedding, anyone?) and shocking deaths, but many of those twists turned out to hurt the narrative in the long run. The Red Wedding was shocking, yes, but it also destroyed several narrative threads that would have been interesting to see play out. We never got the showdown between Rob and Tywin Lannister on the battlefield and we never got the reunion between Caitlyn and her lost children, which to me was unforgivable (I'm aware her fate is different in the books). It also made it painfully obvious the Starks would win in the end because they took such a beating in the first few seasons. Joffery’s death was anticlimactic and ultimately unsatisfying. He was such a great bad guy and I really wanted to see Arya cross him off her list. Instead, we got an unsatisfying Tyrell subplot that ultimately led to nothing besides sending Tyrion across the sea where he instantly became incompetent.
Losing Tywin Lannister on the shitter at the end of Season 4 was even worse. The show never replaced him as an antagonist. He was Cersei’s obstacle to overcome, not Tyrion’s! Instead we got the High Sparrow bullshit. Sure, the ending of that story thread was cool, but the getting there was painful and boring. Oh, and did anyone else notice that Jon Snow being a Targaryen amounted to absolutely nothing besides some constipated looks from Daenerys? That’s a twist that has to pay off in a big way! Have Dany try to execute him via Drogon in a fit of rage and when the smoke clears, there’s Jon Snow still standing in the flames...and then everyone knows. They realize the truth. They’ve been following a pretender to the throne. How cool would that have been? Then what happens?! Wait! I have a better idea! Just send his mopey ass back to The Wall after Drogon melts the throne in one of the most over-the-top, hammer-over-the-head examples of symbolism in television history. Awesome! Let’s go make a Star Wars trilogy!
I enjoyed GoT as a viewer, but I respected it more (at least the early seasons) as a writer. When it was good, it was great. When it wasn't...it wasn't. Effective writing makes for excellent entertainment. HBO knew what it was doing with Got...unlike Westworld. Westworld is shit.