Throughout its six seasons, the fantasy epic has managed to keep us emotionally engaged for a few important reasons.
[Note: GoT season six spoilers ahead.]
Game of Thrones will be kicking off its seventh season this Sunday on HBO, cementing its place as one of the greatest television series of all time. The show has certainly been revolutionary in a number of ways, but when you examine its success, it's one of the most traditional writing fundamentals that really contributes: Those writers sure know how to craft a scene.
As Robert McKee defines in his classic screenwriting book Story, “A scene is a story in miniature…no matter locations or length, a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.” In the case of Game of Thrones , a single scene can come to define the plotline for an entire season. Lessons from the Screenplay’s video essay first highlights last season’s reunion of Jon Snow and Sansa Stark as an example.
Sansa’s desire is to go back home to Winterfell, so she takes the action of attempting to convince Jon to try and take it back. When Jon resists, this leads to conflict and finally, we see the narrative change as Sansa reveals she will be trying to retake her home with or without her bastard brother.
For the famous “The Battle of The Bastards” episode, all of these points are heightened. Jon Snow’s desire is to defeat Ramsay and reclaim Winterfell, the action he takes is going into battle, the conflict is the battle itself, and the change comes when he is ultimately victorious and re-takes his home.
"When the plot takes the audience through a change in emotional values, we become engaged in the story and experience emotion."
To heighten the stakes even further and keep the audience from tuning out of a twenty-three-minute long battle scene, the writers employ a concept known as the “Transition of Emotional Values.” McKee defines this concept as “the understanding of how we create the audience’s emotional experience begins with the realization that there are only two emotions - pleasure and pain.”
The real payoff comes when pleasure and pain are reversed, or when the two emotions jump back and forth and keep an audience on their toes. “As audience, we experience an emotion when the telling takes us through a transition of values,” McKee explains.
This can be seen as we follow Jon through the ups and downs of his own struggle throughout the battle. As LFTS describes, “All of this demonstrates how critical it is for story to have an emotional ebb and flow. When the plot takes the audience through a change in emotional values, we become engaged in the story and experience emotion.”
Throw in a healthy amount of misdirection and toying around with audience expectations through the use of various cinematic tools, and you have a compelling show that keeps us guessing who will take their place as the rightful heir to the throne, and makes us care about their journey along the way (for as long as they remain alive anyway.)