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What I Learned About Storytelling from Game of Thrones

I’d like to put this out there right now.  I am NOT cool. I’ve often longed to be cool, but after 40 years on this planet, I recognize that if I do something that seems cool, it probably started out as someone else’s idea, or it was an accident. And so it goes with my recent obsession with Game of Thrones – the HBO TV show.  My husband put the first disc in his Netflix queue and I happened to be in the living room when he popped it in the DVD player. However, the reason we watched the whole disk and then haunted the mailbox until the second disk showed up was that it is so, sooooo good.  And also, fortunately, we discovered we can watch it with HBO-Go, so now we don’t have to maul the mailman every third day, for which he and the USPS are very grateful.

With the first episode in Season 3 to air this weekend, I feel like one of the “cool kids” because I know what all the hype is about and I share in the excitement – and not just because there are suddenly all sorts of random commercials with baby dragons.

In case you haven’t watched Game of Thrones, (In the words of Inigo Montoya) “Let me esplain… No. There is no time… Let me sum up.” Game of Thrones the TV show is based on a fantasy series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Fire and Ice (which, for the record, I have not read.  All observations are based entirely on the TV Show). The series  takes place in a medieval-fantasy/alternate-reality universe that’s filled with a crazy amount of intrigue and so many twists and turns you need a deep breath and an elephant tranquilizer after every episode. (If you want more details than that, you can check out HBO’s Game of Thrones website.)

So here’s what I have learned about compelling storytelling from Game of Thrones. (Note, if you have not seen the series, Spoilers will be given below. Stop reading if this will upset you.  You have been warned.)

Break the Rules/Be Unpredictable

As romance writers we are told that there are absolute rules that you should never (ever) break! See if some of these are familiar to you:

  • The hero should be a good guy. Even when you think all hope is lost for him, he will get the good he deserves in the end.
  • The antagonist should be a bad guy. Even when you think he’s gotten the best of the hero, he should get what he deserves in the end.
  • Pets are sacred and if one dies, it should only be of old age and he/she should slip away quietly in his/her sleep.

Because most of us operate “within the rules”, (and so do most TV Shows) it leads to a sense of predictability.  In a recent episode of one of my favorite TV Crime shows, the lead agent gets shot in the chest and he has blood coming from his mouth and I KNEW it couldn’t be real because they wouldn’t sacrifice the hero. Game of Thrones is so good because it is completely unpredictable and follows NO rules.

While there are a number of storylines going at once, in season 1, I’d argue that the “hero” was Ned Stark, Patriarch of the Stark clan, Lord of Winterfell, King in the North, and Hand of the King of the Seven Kingdoms.  In one episode (by order of his King [Robert]), Ned kills his daughter’s pet wolf. (Not heroic, but you can see the agony with which he performs the task.)

In another, “The Mountain” a knight with serious anger management issues, gets angry at his stallion who reacts badly to a mare in heat during a joust and BEHEADS him. With. A. Sword. Umm… what happened to protecting our pets?!

In seasons 1 and 2, the antagonist is the new King [Joffrey], a vicious, spoiled child, who I sincerely hope gets what he deserves. (And I hope he gets it in a particularly gruesome way and I know just how I’d like to see it happen, and who I’d like to see deliver the fatal blow) But he’s rained havoc for two seasons and he has received exactly one rap on the knuckles thus far. Joffrey had all of the children of his “father”, King Robert, killed in order to avoid any messy claimants to the throne. This included a baby in his mother’s arms — and I was certain somehow someone would save the baby… but alas, no. Joffrey also had Ned killed and his head displayed on a pike. (There is no being able to “fake” that one in order for Ned to get the good he deserves in the end!)

When you recognize that ANYTHING can happen, a story becomes significantly more unpredictable.

Let every Character be well motivated (GMC)

I would argue that the only 2-dimensional character in Game of Thrones is Joffrey who, I might have mentioned, is a power-addled, evil, sociopathic child whom I would like to spank. (Seriously. I hate this kid.  But he’s a pretty awesome villain for that reason.)

The rest of the entire cast are richly 3-dimensional.  Even when you realize that they are doing bad things – things that cause great harm to other characters – you can still understand what motivates them, even if you don’t agree with it.  The writers have done a great job of weaving sympathetic aspects into almost every character.

King Robert (who is way more interested in drinking, hunting, and whoring than running his kingdom) might have been completely unsympathetic, except for a conversation he has with Ned Stark about the “good ol’ days” when they were idealistic soldiers protecting the realm. When you find out that the love of his life died, and he ended up married to a (fairly horrible) woman out of royal obligation, then you suddenly understand why wine, women, hunting and song are the ways he copes with the loss of his dreams and his lady-love.

Break stereotypes

It might be a strange choice, but my favorite character in the series is Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, and brother to the Queen. It occurs to me that there are not many really good, meaty roles for dwarf actors. I would say that Peter Dinklage completely lucked out, except that he is such a brilliant actor (in a such brilliant role) that it’s hard to attribute the success of the character or the actor to “luck”.  Tyrion is smart. I mean, super-super smart.  In fact, I’d say he’s playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers… and he’s playing about 10 plays ahead of his opponents.  And you get glimpses of such deep emotion in him that you regularly forget that he’s the Imp.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in Back Story

The writers are brilliant at dropping a little info here and there without any awkward, “As you know, John, the wildlings of the north will kill you just as soon as look at you” exchanges. (Yes, I’m looking at you Clive Cussler).  Now that I’ve seen both seasons, I kind of want to go back and re-watch them both just to figure out how they drop back story in. I don’t ever really remember them doing it, and yet I know a lot of stuff that happened before the TV show began!

I could go on and on about other things I admire about this series, but I’ll save that for another post.  What have you learned from Game of Thrones… and what are your predictions for this season? Will Joffrey get what he deserves? How will it be dealt to him and by whom?

40 responses to “What I Learned About Storytelling from Game of Thrones

  1. LOVE this! I’m not a watcher of GAME OF THRONES, but I will have to join the ranks. Either way, however, I think your lessons are ones to live by. Let’s hear it for breaking the rules!!

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Jenn — I highly recommend it. (Obviously).

      Though i will say this show is awesome in many regards, it would NOT make a good romance. Romance readers read romance because they want to believe that good triumphs evil, heroes are good guys, puppies and horses and babies will never die (particularly not gruesomely) and the bad guy gets it in the end. So being THIS unpredictable probably wouldn’t fly in a romance novel. Or a Hallmark Movie. Or anyplace where the reader/viewer requires a certain level of “following of the rules”.

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  2. Jenn! says:

    Wow. Now I want to start watching the show. Great post, Liz.

    Jenn!

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  3. Sienna says:

    First, I love this blog (and the Inigo Montoya quote).

    As for GoT, I would argue that the men (and women) from the Iron Isles, at least at this point in the show, are also kind of flat.

    My favorite characters at this point though I think are Robb and Arya Stark. (For those who aren’t watchers, King Robb has recently disobeyed his mother to marry the girl he loves, despite the political ramifications, and Arya, who is still a young girl, has recently killed off her enemies with the help of an assassin.)

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Sienna,

      Arya is easily my second favorite character. And it is my prediction (and fondest wish) that Arya is the one to do in King Joffrey, and that she do so by sticking her trusty sword, “Needle”, right into his black and evil little heart… This is what will happen if there is ANY justice in the GAME OF THRONES world.

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  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    I don’t watch the show yet – I have it in my Netflix queue – but I have long found Peter Dinklage utterly freaking HOT.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Tammy,

      If that is the case, then you will LOVE the last couple of episodes of the 2nd season. Without trying to give TOO much away, you see him as a super-powerful leader of soldiers, and then see him get wounded and think he’s lost everything, and then a super vulnerable, romantic moment when he realizes he’s not lost the most important thing of all. It’s… amazingly acted, amazingly well-written and just… wow.

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  5. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Liz.

    Man, are you right about the dog thing. In the Great Bedroom War, while my heroine believed someone had an intruder in her home, I had her THINK she should’ve let her ex get the dog her daughter wanted–something like a vicious pit bull with razor sharp teeth.

    I had a reader write to me (who LOVED my previous book), and she said when she saw this in the Look Inside she decided she was never buying another of my books again because I unfairly characterized pit bulls as vicious. I got a full page lecture about how owners make dogs vicious and that they are not inherently a vicious breed.

    I was like, WHOA! I never said they were BORN vicious.

    My heroine has a dog phobia and sees ALL dogs as mean, but she learns to LOVE a dog by the end of the book.

    I was left shaking my head.

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    • Diana Layne says:

      LOL guess you pushed a button. My pit is actually a big lap dog, but you know many cities here in Texas ban you from owning pits (totally crazy) and owners have had to put their dogs in shelters which meant they would be put down. My town is getting pretty crazy, but it hasn’t gone that far-if it does, I’m moving. 🙂 She’s probably encountered something like that.

      A not-so-funny story though, while we were at my mom’s funeral, my daughter’s Dane, which is still a puppy but the size of a small horse, somehow got our gate open-we’d left the dogs outside to play-and they were apparently running the neighborhood having a good time. Someone called the pound, and my son got home before we did the guy from the pound had my pit loaded and was reluctant to unload her from the truck. My son insisted he give the dog back-so ultimately instead of getting a warning, which we really should’ve gotten, my dogs are house dogs, they’re no trouble, I’ve never had complaints, they didn’t bite anyone, tho I’m sure a horse-size dog runnign down the street was disconcerting, we got a ticket. Now, it’s off to court.

      Totally off subject, sorry, Liz, lol, but you just never know what buttons you’re gonna push when you start stretching the rules. 🙂

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Laurie,

      I have found in my work with authors’ websites (and thus being right in the middle of the fray between authors and their [sometimes rabid] fandom) that if a reader is passionate about something, and an author treads upon that passion, it will cause a visceral and sometimes hostile reaction! (Though I will also say, Romance Readers are some of the nicest people in the whole world, and these occasions are few and far between)

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  6. Lila Gillard says:

    Yes, I love this post! I have devoured the entire Game of Thrones series (6 books so far). The single reason for the hook is the unpredictability of the characters. I listened to an interview on NPR with George R.R. Martin once and he said grey characters interest him the most. A bad guy who does something startlingly kind. Or the hero needing to do questionable things in order to survive.

    Also Jon Snow is one of my fictional boyfriends. Sigh….

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Lila – Have you watched the HBO Series? How does it compare?

      I can totally see GRRM’s love of the “grey” character. None of the characters are Black & White good or bad. (Except Joffrey…) Even Arya (who is the closest to a fully good character) had three of her enemies killed — so I think that ship sailed.

      Thanks for joining us today!

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  7. Wow, Liz, I can feel your passion for this show and its characters and it makes me want to get my hands on the first season right now!

    I particularly love what you said about motivations being key, and how it pulls the reader into the story (whether you root for or against that character).

    As to breaking the rules – they killed a baby on screen?! When I saw your list of romance’s nonbreakable rules, I thought killing children would be on there (because, despite the fact I write a serial killer series, I’ve stayed away from that in my books). And then, sure enough, you said it happened. Wow. I tip my hat to the GoT writers.

    And I just had a thought – I think some shows who try to break the rules end up looking like they went for the “shock value” when they incorporate a twist. But when writers can tie the actions and plot into the character motivations, you avoid that. Hmmm….

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Anne Marie — Yeah. The baby being killed was a shocker. (I think this was especially horrifying as the baby R was sleeping in my arms at the time)

      The horse being beheaded was a shocker.
      A) because… WHO DOES THAT?
      B) because it happened ON SCREEN and
      C) because… Do you know how thick a horse’s neck is and how hard that would be to do? And this horse appeared to be at least part draft, so even thicker than a regular horse’s neck.

      There’s also a lot of semi-shocking gratuitous nakedness and swearing (which generally doesn’t bother me personally, but could bother some).

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  8. Can’t wait for Sunday! Love this series but hadn’t thought much about the writing until your blog, Liz. Thanks! It is totally unpredictable, and I LOVE that. Hoping Joffrey has a terrible time this season…

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Yes indeed. I want to see Joffrey completely powerless and NO ONE COMING TO HIS RESCUE… and I want to see Arya stick it to him. (literally)… This character makes me feel very bloodthirsty, and I’m not sure why I feel so passionately about it. 😀 But I do.

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  9. Diana Layne says:

    This is cool. I think Holly Lisle used this book in one of her classes. As for breaking rules, I’ve gotten dinged on a few reviews of The Good Daughter as the hero, ahem, hasn’t always been heroic. Some readers do not like that, no indeed.

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  10. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great post, Liz!!

    I didn’t INTEND to watch Game of Thrones (I don’t have time to watch anything), but my husband and daughter were watching it via Netflicks, and I got sucked in. I came in somewhere in Season 2, I think (a few episodes before Ned died…which I knew about in advance, so I wasn’t too shocked), and now I can’t stop watching.

    The idea that ANYBODY could die makes it so, so suspensful (after one episode, I had to take the trash out to the curb, and I was just SURE there were going to be assassins laying in wait in the bushes).

    And the motivations of even the nasty characters…yes, they’re FABULOUS!!! Tyrion is my favorite character, too. I just got to the scene before the first battle with Robb’s army when he and his “squire” and the mysterious foreign prostitute he seems to be starting a relationship with play that drinking game in which they try to guess things about one another’s pasts…. OH, my goodness!!!! So much depth there. (And I’m guessing the prostitute is the daughter of royalty from somewhere…but who the heck knows.)

    Anyhow, it’s gripping. Our latest disk arrived in the mail yesterday…we can’t watch it until the eight year old goes over to a friend’s house. I think we will all be shoving him out the door Saturday morning.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Elisa,

      Sounds like you were still mid-way through season 1. When you started. I won’t judge you if you say, “Dear 8-year-old. Please go play in traffic. Mommy wants to watch child-inappropriate television.” 😉

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  11. Vivi Andrews says:

    I love the show and have read the books (the two have stayed reasonably close to one another so far) and I have to wonder if some of the broken rules you’re talking about are a function of genre differences. Epic fantasy doesn’t play by the same rules as romance (though killing off a POV character is still pretty outside the box). Martin is playing a long game. It’s fun to watch. 🙂

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Vivi,

      I’m sure a lot of the differences have to do with genre differences… But you have to admit, the only time a main character dies on a regular television show is when an actor/actress wants to go on to bigger and better things. 🙂

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  12. Kate Parker says:

    I haven’t seen Game of Thrones, but I loved your summation, Liz, as to the lessons for us writers. In fiction I can kill off children but not pets. I don’t think I could watch a show where they behead a horse. Fortunately the horsehead in the bed in the Godfather was shown so quickly I didn’t have time to get upset.

    Real life is different, but in fiction, I like the idea of not knowing what will come next for any of the characters.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Yeah… oddly I have a much harder time with animals being killed on screen than with people. As for children… In fiction, I think it’s non-shocking if a child is killed and THAT’S THE CRIME THE HERO/INE IS SOLVING… but it’s rare that you’d kill a kid on screen/on the page just to further the story.

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  13. Hope Ramsay says:

    I not only have watched Game of Thrones, I’ve read the books. I gobble up fiction like this. It’s, by far, my favorite genre.

    And I have to say that one of the things I love about fantasy fiction is that it affords an author the opportunity to create seriously ambivalent characters, who are neither good nor bad. In these books characters can be redeemed or they can fall spectacularly. And that is the stuff of real life. It’s utterly compelling.

    If you love characters like this, I would recommend reading the books of Sarah Douglass, another fantasy author. In her books the bad guys are often redeemed and turn into the heroes. Her Wayfarer Redemption series is one of my favorites. Filled with completely flawed characters that you both love and hate.

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  14. June Love says:

    Liz, this was a great post. My husband watches GoT and I semi-watch it. My first episode was the last one with Ned and I was shocked and upset. That is a testament to the writing that his character’s demise could have me react in such a way after seeing him in only one episode. I agree with you about Tyrion playing chess when others are playing checkers. I love him and his character. As with everyone else, I’m waiting for Joffrey to get his due. Btw, he’s not really the king’s son, is he? Does he know that? Like I said, I semi-watch. I’m too much of a romantic and some things do bother me for me to immerse myself in it, however, I will say it is very well-written.

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  15. Elisa Beatty says:

    Liz–We did indeed get the 8-year-old out of the house, and watched THE EPISODE WHERE THE BABY GETS KILLED.

    I’m actually really glad I had that spoiler so I knew to brace myself!!!

    Oh, and Joffrey getting slapped by his mother, and then telling her it’s punishable by death….yaaaaah. That kid definitely needs to get spanked.

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  16. Debbie says:

    If you haven’t read the GoT series, you should. My son’s BF in HS loaned him the first of the then three books. He was turned off by the heft of the pages and offered it to me. I inhaled all three and my son got caught in the excited discussions his BF and I were having and read the series and then my husband caught the fever. Right in the beginning when Jaime pushes Bran out the tower window, my husband almost quit reading. Jaime is one of Martin’s best developed characters and a perfect example of redeeming a villain.

    Speaking of villains, Joffrey’s reaps what he sows. Too bad Arya didn’t send the faceless man for him. Viserys is another viper; it staggers the mind to think what horrors he’d perpetuate if he’d had Joffrey’s power or those dragons. Still there’s a greater villain – one who I suspect pulled the first thread to unravel the peace and start the entire civil war.

    The murder of children isn’t restricted to Robert’s illegitimate children. Craster’s sons, the Unsullied training, Cersei’s refusal to bear Robert’s true born heirs, the Targaren Prince Rhaegar’s children, the butcher boy, and let’s not forget those two burned bodies haunting Theon.

    And while the series is fantasy, love – or the loss of that love – is at the core of many of the characters’ motivations: Robert, Jaime, Tyrion, Katelyn, Daenerys, Petyr, Robb, Jon, Samwell – even Cersei. It apparently was Rhaegar’s kidnapping of Lyanna Stark that sparked the previous rebellion. I have my suspicions about that relationship.

    After those first three books, I waited the six months for the next and then years for the fourth. I’ve stuck it out a decade determined to find out just who is Jon Snow’s mother, who will be the three dragon riders, and who and what is Cold Hands?

    Loved the post, Liz 🙂

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