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All The Write Moves: 'Game of Thrones'

May 6, 2019
6 min read time

Now that Game of Thrones is back for its big finish, audience engagement has reached an all-time high, as demonstrated by series-best viewership numbers and those countless memes of Bran Stark giving stink eye, Westeros-style. The show’s return offers a new opportunity to consider what makes Game of Thrones so compelling­­, especially since there are a zillion reasons why the show shouldn’t be a megahit. For starters, it’s a fantasy. It’s also difficult to follow because it has so many characters and plotlines, and it is extreme in terms of sex and violence... but fans can’t seem to get enough.

Some of the elements that have helped Game of Thrones wow audiences and critics are obvious after watching only a handful of episodes. The production value and special effects are spectacular, the cast is populated by distinctive actors who render consistently vivid work, and the show’s political themes are, sadly, relevant to the current state of the real world.

Yet, the show’s most important strengths stem from its strong writing.

A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin book series upon which the show is based, represents an extraordinary feat of world-building. Just as significantly, the TV adaptation created by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, plucks elements from Martin’s books that translate well to cinematic treatment. It also integrates bold new elements generated by Benioff, Weiss, and the various writers who have staffed on the show since its 2011 debut.

Some of the show’s tropes work every time—whether it’s the eeriness of the White Walkers or the sweetness of Samwell Tarly scenes—and others become grist for the Internet mill by dragging on too long (here’s looking at you, Arya’s never-ending Faceless Men training). But even with some bumps and lulls, the overall Game of Thrones experience connects with fans in powerful ways. Here are some thoughts on techniques that other TV writers can emulate.

Solve the Puzzle, Win a Prize

Most TV show creators concentrate on building an effective starting point for their series, pushing the question of how to end the series into the future. After all, a pilot is a sales tool used to lure both studios (when in script form) and audiences (when in broadcast form). Moreover, it’s rarely possible for TV show creators to know how long any given series will run (unless it’s planned for a limited number of episodes), and that makes it impossible to preordain an ending.

Like Vince Gilligan’s brilliant Breaking Bad and its clever spinoff Better Call Saul (which Gilligan co-created with Peter Gould), Game of Thrones solves this conundrum by planting the seeds for an ending into the pilot episode.

Gilligan’s pitch for Breaking Bad was “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” referencing a beloved teacher character and an infamous drug-dealer character. The pitch suggests a feature-type structure instead of a conventional TV structure. If Mr. Chips becomes Scarface, then the story can only end one of three ways—the dealer gets caught, gets killed, or gets away with murder. Watching the series becomes a suspenseful guessing game. The same is true for Better Call Saul. Concurrent with prequel material set before Breaking Bad, the series includes present-day sequences showing the main character forever on the verge of getting caught by authorities. Implied by the Better Call Saul structure is the promise of a definitive resolution.

In this context, consider the weight of the three words that haunt every single episode of Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.” It’s the title of the first episode, and the phrase recurs again and again throughout the series. That’s one tool Benioff and Weiss use to hook audiences—stay with us all the way to the end, because as bad as things look now, they’re going to get so much worse. We promise. Sure enough, winter—meaning an invasion of monsters from the snowy territories north of Westeros—arrives at the cliffhanger ending of season seven, teeing up the now-underway season eight. The show kept its promise.

An even bigger hook is built into the show’s title. Who is going to win the game? One could get more nuanced than that, embellishing the question to, for example, “Will someone win the game in time to prevent winter from destroying Westeros, or will petty power struggles doom everyone?” But even with added dimensions, the storytelling lesson is the same. If you, like Gilligan (and Gould) or Benioff and Weiss, can bake into your pilot episode a slow-burn story element that, by design, cannot pay off until the final episode, then you will have the means to establish a binding contract with your audience.

The terms of that contract? As long as every episode represents forward motion toward the big climax, viewers will keep watching.

Takeaway: Applying feature-style storytelling to TV can help boost viewer loyalty.

More Than Meets the Eye

By some counts, Game of Thrones has more than 50 major characters, even though it presents short seasons of just 10 hour-long episodes, with some seasons containing fewer than 10 episodes. That’s a lot of traffic management, especially as compared to a standard 22-episode network show that might have only six or seven major characters. How do Benioff and Weiss successfully juggle so many fictional people? An argument could be made that they don’t, and that their failure to do so actually helps the show.

Take Benjen Stark, a secondary but important character played by Joseph Mawle, who has appeared in six of the 69 episodes aired thus far. Despite his formidable impact on the show’s overarching story, Benjen is completely absent from seasons three and four. When he reappears in season five, other characters provide helpful dialogue to refamiliarize the audience with the long-lost Benjen, but it’s safe to assume a fair percentage of viewers had forgotten he existed. That’s a gap. And it’s not the only one in the show’s epic narrative. Clearly, Benioff and Weiss made a strategic decision that viewers would participate in the storytelling process by filling these gaps.

Some viewers do so by reading Martin’s books. Others do so by reading episode recaps or participating in online conversations. Still others fill gaps by talking about the show with fellow fans and hypothesizing what, for instance, Benjen Stark was doing for the two seasons in which he did not appear onscreen. All of these fans reward Benioff and Weiss’s gamble that viewers will become so engrossed in Game of Thrones as to tolerate glaring narrative omissions.

But what of the casual viewer? Isn’t that person completely lost when Benjen turns up in season five? Yes, because perfunctory dialogue isn’t sufficient to replace the deep knowledge that superfans have. No, because the characters who observe Benjen’s return are supposed to be surprised by his appearance. This is the even riskier bet that Benioff and Weiss placed—an assumption that viewers won’t mind being periodically disoriented by Game of Thrones.

The lesson here is that if your show is about building a world, then build a world—not to create deliberately confusing pilots. It’s virtually impossible for any single viewer to grasp every aspect of Westeros, in the same way that it’s virtually impossible for any single person to grasp every aspect of real life. To navigate real life, we create community with other people. And so it goes with the Game of Thrones fandom. Even if it’s just a matter of asking the person on the couch next to you what such-and-such scene meant, the frequently opaque style of Game of Thrones demands that viewers leap from the isolation of individual interpretation into the shared experience of collective interpretation.

Takeaway: So long as your main plot makes sense, viewers enjoy parsing the mysteries created by dense storytelling.

Nature vs. Nurture

The preceding remarks address a common reaction that skeptical newcomers have to Game of Thrones: “I can’t follow this show because there are too many characters.” Another common reaction gets triggered by the show’s graphic violence and semi-explicit sex scenes: “Why do I want to watch a show about awful people doing awful things?” If the sly practice of asking viewers to play interpretive games speaks to the first reaction, then the eternal philosophical consideration of nature vs.nurture speaks to the second reaction.

Take fan-favorite character Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage). By nature, he should be a monster, since everyone else in the Lannister clan is deadly and treacherous—or at least that’s how they appear when they are first introduced. By nurture, he should be irrevocably embittered, because all of his relatives except one sibling regard him as an aberration due to his dwarfism. Right from the beginning of the series, however, Tyrion captured viewers’ imagination through empathy. Even as he displayed superior intellectual powers and a dazzling vocabulary, Tyrion self-medicated with liquor and shielded himself from insults with self-deprecating remarks.

This gets to why effective dramatizations of the nature vs. nurture debate resound powerfully with audiences. We all wish to believe that life is a meritocracy—that the rewards of happiness and love and wealth are not exclusive to people who are born into privilege. We also wish to believe that we can overcome flaws baked into our DNA, whether it’s addiction or depression or some other heavy burden. In short, we don’t want to be slaves to our nature.

With regard to nurture, we wish to believe that the right environment can help anyone rise above their worst instincts. For Tyrion, the affection he received from his brother, Jaime (played by Nicolas Coster-Waldau), counterbalanced the hatred Tryion received from his father and sister. Through nurture, Tyrion made strides toward vanquishing his nature.

In any ongoing dramatic series, the nature vs. nurture debate is vital because it provides a means of exploring whether people can change. Are we defined by our predecessors? Are we instead defined by the environment of our formative years? Or do we continue transforming as we move through life? Can gaining knowledge of our flaws, together with our perspective on morality, compel us to become someone other than who our DNA predisposed us to be?

At their best, dramas like Game of Thrones create narrative circumstances that force multidimensional characters to wrestle with exactly these questions.

Takeaway: To generate strong drama, trap characters in situations that require difficult choices rooted in personal identity.


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