Game of Thrones is television’s biggest pop culture phenomenon. Want to know how they do it?
This is the second in a series of “How to Write” articles.
Congratulations! You’ve just been hired as one of the writers for Games of Thrones‘ new season. As you shake the hands of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, you’re equal parts ecstatic and terrified. You’re about to be a part of media history: shaping an episode of the biggest show on television. People will be talking about that plot twist for weeks – but will the reaction be positive or negative? Writing the characters of Westeros can be a daunting task.
But don’t worry! We’ll let you into a little secret: writing a Game of Thrones episode is a walk in the park. All you have to do is follow a few simple rules that every single installment adheres to. Stick to our guide and your episode will delight your bosses, critics, and the most avid book readers.
Disclaimer: This article is written by a genuine fan of Game of Thrones, and though it pokes plenty of fun at the show, it does so in a loving way. Honest!
Step One: Sexposition
INT. SOMEWHERE. Boobs. Boobs everywhere. Oh, and some talking. The truth is, the budget is being saved for this season’s dragon set-piece, and there’s no money left for your episode. But you know what doesn’t cost too much money? Nudity! What’s more, people love sex. So make sure you litter your episode with plenty of bare flesh. But the most important one is the sexposition scene.
“You want a good girl but you need the bad pussy.”
Game of Thrones practically invented sexposition, and it’s a great way to get across all of that boring, rich, world-building detail that no one cares about. Instead of worrying about visual metaphors and subtext, you can literally tell the audience exactly what they need to know, and they won’t even notice. They’ll be too busy looking at boobs. Now’s the perfect time to tell the audience about Littlefinger’s backstory, or set up the travelling forces of a bannerman who will rush in and save the day later on in the episode. This is where you do all the hard work – while the audience get, well, hard.
“Should I explain the meaning of a closed door in a whorehouse, brother?”
Step Two: Swords
Now, we’ve already given the audience part of what they expect from your average Game of Thrones episode, but we’ve still got a few things to tick off. Next up, swords! Nothing too grand, mind you. Most of the battle budget is being saved for the epic culmination of all that build up in episode 8 or 9. Just keep it small. And largely insignificant to the overall plot.
“Take him alive. Kill his men.”
Jaime has cornered Ned! Jaime is fighting the Sand Snakes! Brienne is fighting Knights of the Vale! Jon is fighting the Night’s Watch mutineers! It’s all good. Now, despite the show’s reputation, this is NOT an opportunity to kill off a main character – that comes later. Feel free to kill off a generous amount of extras though. And perhaps a bit part player. Y’know, that guy who’s always in the background? Yeah, that one.
“You know what’s wrong with honor? This.”
Step Three: Unfair Odds
Game of Thrones is set in a gritty, realistic world where there are real consequences to people’s actions. That’s what they say, anyway. But it’s not true for everyone. There are a few characters who are immune to the terrors that the dark night is full of. Tyrion and Daenerys are the obvious candidates. The former has faced two trials (then subsequent trials by combat) and several attempts on his life, among other things. The Mother of Dragons, meanwhile, is the victim of an assassination attempt in just about every episode. The important thing is, they survive.
“I demand a trial by combat!”
But they’re not the only ones who are immune. Take Ramsay Bolton, for example. With Joffrey dead, the former Bolton bastard is the only source of psychotics that the show has anymore. So, you can’t be killing him off in your episode. Just give him 20 good men, remove his shirt, and he’ll survive anything. Greyjoy break in? No problem. Sabotaging a huge camp while surrounded by an army of Baratheon soldiers? Again, no problem. He can just burn their food supplies and get away with no one noticing, and without Mellisandre predicting it. The show is all about shades of grey – but it also makes sure that those characters which are either completely good or completely evil stick around. It’s more fun that way.
“I don’t need an army, I need 20 good men.”
Step Four: Book Divergence
Game of Thrones is based on the critically acclaimed series of novels by George R. R. Martin, famed for its rich characters, beautiful description and intricate plots. Audiences understand that sometimes, things need to be changed to translate the work to screen. But this show is all about ‘shock value’, so it’s encouraged that you actively break from the source material for literally no reason whatsoever. Send a character to the other side of Westeros, or invent a minor inconvenience for a few episodes to keep them busy.
“I deserved everything. I deserved to be Reek.”
If you have a character or plot that you’re not really sure what to do with, David and Dan have a great formula for working out what to do. Just randomly pick one of the Three S’s: sex, swordfights, or suffering. The first two are self-explanatory, but the third has a few more intricacies to it. Sansa is often a prime candidate for suffering, so feel free to negate four years of character arcs just for the sake of a quick controversy. It could be that your character gets beaten, or loses a family member. If you’re feeling risky, feel free to include a gratuitous rape scene. Audiences won’t have a problem with that, right? No! They love stuff like this!
“I’ll tell you what. I’m going to give you a present. After I raise my armies, and kill your traitor brother, I’ll give you his head as well.”
Step Five: Infuriating cliffhangers
And so we come to the final, most essential ingredient of a successful Game of Thrones episode: the jaw-dropping shock! After spending nearly all of the episode building up to a big climax, you’ve come to the best bit! It’s time to leave the audience’s jaws on the floor with a rug-pulling cliffhanger!
“Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!”
Ned’s being beheaded! Dragons have returned! A White Walker army is on the loose! Another main character has been killed off! You know how it goes. This is where you completely change the whole dynamics of Westeros, and the twist will have a profound impact on all of the show’s plot lines. Every story line has a cliffhanger each season, and the Jons, Danys, and Tyrions of the world get two. This is the lifeblood of Game of Thrones, and the thing that will get fans buzzing on social media afterwards.
“For the watch.”