Be a Maester: 10 Writing Lessons from 'Game of Thrones'
It's hard to believe we're in the last season of Game of Thrones. We have eight years of the best writing on TV, so it's time to recount the lessons we got along with the entertainment.
We're living in the Golden Age of television. There's been an embarrassment of riches of shows, and all of them come with their own lessons. We recently ran an entire series on how to write a tv pilot and a lot of the reactions to that article wants us to go over some of the greatest tv series of all time. We touched on The Office last week, and today we want to highlight ten writing lessons you can get from Game of Thrones.
10 Writing Tips from Game of Thrones
I remember watching the Game of Thrones pilot and being astounded at the number of characters and story threads the show set up. Now, in Season Eight, I feel like a relative authority on all the famous families, their lineages, and house sigils. That could just because I am a super nerd. But it could be that the show's writers, DB Weiss and David Benioff, have put extra thought and care into making sure George R.R. Martin's novels have been faithful adaptations and an exciting ride.
While each week's surprises and action seem expected now, it wasn't always that way. It's been so interesting to see these writers learn from their mistakes, break character and seasons in front of us, and take it all to an emotional conclusion.
So what have we learned from Game of Thrones?
1. Crack on paper
The original Game of Thrones book was published in 1996 to critical acclaim. It was a page-turner that kept all its readers on the edge of their seats. When you're looking for something to adapt or even looking to make your writing pop, you have to tell a story that encourages your reader to keep the pages turning. While this lends itself more to some genres than others, think about how you can keep the audience guessing and keep them interested. Writing is hard, but reading can be tiresome. Your audience can tell if you're having fun on the page. Hook them early and keep them coming back for more.
2. Explore the largest version of your story
DB Weiss and David Benioff were worried about getting Game of Thrones to HBO because many people had already explored the books for film adaptations. Those familiar with the books, and the author himself, always thought the books lent themselves to television, but it took DB Weiss and David Benioff coming in and pitching it that way for people to see the story that way. When you come up with your logline, think about where that story belongs. Is it truly a pilot or can you sum it all up in just a movie?
3. Know the details
As the legend goes, DB Weiss and David Benioff took George R.R. Martin out to lunch to woo him on the project. At the end of the lunch, Martin's final test to both of them was for them to tell him who they thought Jon Snow's mother was in the story. The writers answered correctly, and television was changed forever. When you set out to write a TV show, you need to think seasons in advance. Things set up in the pilot matter throughout the series. We want to know what problems characters will have to deal with in the future as well. Those details matter to the audience, too. And if you're reading, those details should hit your notes when adapting. You never know who will ask about them.
4. Be okay making mistakes
DB Weiss and David Benioff admit that they weren't producers when the show began. They had to learn that job on the fly while balancing the story. Recently, they even addressed the time jump situations that happened in Season Seven. Whether you hated that choice or not, these guys make choices. There are lots of wishy-washy showrunners out there who make choices and take things back or push their characters forward without real obstacles. If you're writing from a fearful position, then you're not challenging yourself, and your audience will get bored.
5. Mash your genres up
We have been watching movies and reading different genres for a century. People are tired of something straight-forward. Get creative, get weird, and add things together like family drama, fantasy, and science fiction. Mash-ups keep your writing chops fresh. They keep the audience excited and guessing as well. Game of Thrones feeds multiple hungers, and that helps them attract such a diverse array of fans.
6. Explore new twists on old tropes
This goes hand in hand with #5. If you mash-up your genres, you get a whole bowl full of tropes. These tropes are the tired and predictable results of people manufacturing the same beats over and over. So how can you change them? Let's say a character chooses to marry for love and not an alliance? Instead of a happy ending, you can kill them and their entire family. It's not just shocking moments like that, Game of Thrones turns damsels in distress into strong queens and lets usually reliable dragons become wild beasts that are as unpredictable as they are dangerous.
7. Character comes first
We know that the best stories and screenplays are built on character development and arcs, and Game of Thrones is no different. Each character has an overarching goal; get them or someone they love on the Iron Throne. But they all have personal goals like respect, power, and killing all the names on their list. These goals keep characters relatable to the audience, even when the world they live in is more magical than ours.
And these characters aren't easy to write. Look at George RR Martin talking about the hurdles he has writing them in the video below.
8. No one is perfect
Good versus evil made sense when you're a kid. But nowadays, it seems like we are living in shades of grey(joy). One of the essential lessons in GoT is that every person has motivations that we understand and that none of them are true heroes. They all do the wrong thing at some point. This makes them feel human, makes us ready for any possible outcome, and creates an atmosphere that feels elevated. We get invested emotionally and yell at the TV when Dany fries the Tarleys. And sometimes we cheer when Cersei blows up the sept. These are actions that blur the lines between good and evil and make the show must-see TV.
9. Kill your darlings
This applies to characters and favorite scenes. Weiss and Benioff have been great at keeping the best parts of the novels but not getting bogged down by every detail. They also aren't afraid to make you fall in love with a character to kill them seconds later. Even some of their "bottle" episodes take chances. Remember when The Hound joined that peaceful cult? Be weird, be unexpected, and don't be married to one idea. Push forward.
10. Break your story out loud
The term "showrunner" became synonymous with "singular genius" in the early 2000s and it continued late into the oughts. But what DB Weiss and David Benioff have done with great aplomb is talk about how they rely on each other. Seeing these guys work through every episode has been especially exciting and inspirational. Knowing that they read aloud to one another, that they bounce ideas off their staff writers, and that when their pilot was in the trash, they brought in their writer friends to give them extensive notes and help them salvage the big swing, makes me believe in an egoless approach. Listen and do anything to get better.
What's next? Explore writing lessons from The Office!
The Office is one of the most successful shows in recent memory, due in large part to its excellent writing. Whether you're writing a short film script or a TV pilot, the challenges you have to face are...challenging. You've got character development to think about; you've got story structure to work out, you've got about a trillion other things to rework and reword and reconfigure until you have something that kind of looks like a final draft of a script.
Click the link to learn more!