As many would be aware, the teaser trailers for Season 4 of Game of Thrones have started coming through. It’s exciting to have the show return, but the pending disappointment of having to wait so long when the season ends always lingers, bittersweet. As I was watching the latest teaser, I tried to think over what makes Game of Thrones so good. Sure, the acting, the sets, there are a lot of factors involved in making the show what it is, but it started from a book series – it’s core strength is in it’s writing. So here are five elements that I think are George R.R. Martin’s greatest storytelling cornerstones in Game of Thrones – the keys to it’s success, and the lessons writers, can take from them.
1. It constantly subverts expectations. The most refreshing thing about Game of Thrones is that it doesn’t go where you expect. I remember the first season, with Sean Bean up on the platform about to be killed. I remember his daughter weaving through the crowd, the tension rising. And I remember thinking ‘Sean Bean’s the biggest star on the show, they’re not going to kill him off’. But they did. It was so great, so amazing to have my expectation smashed, and I’ve found this over and over again with GOT – as soon as you think you’ve got it worked out, that this person or that one is going to come out on top, they’re gone. Killed, maimed, chained up and mutilated. There’s a whole science to why police procedurals are so popular, that it makes people feel more intelligent when they can work out the details of each case. GOT is almost the complete opposite, and it succeeds by switching up on you every chance it gets. It’s exciting storytelling, and hard to do in the modern era, where everyone has theoretically seen every story before in some form. GOT does this better than any other show I’ve seen. The takeaway for writers: Subvert expectation, don’t go down the well-worn path. Think about what you can do that will surprise and excite your readers.
2. It’s honest to the reality in which the characters live. As a writer, you’re only true obligation is to be honest to the story and world you’ve created. You can do whatever you want, so long as the actions and consequences are honest to the rules you’ve established for the world you’re writing about. GOT does this really well – if there were a medieval type world where the strongest ruled, generally by brute force, then there wouldn’t be the usual fairytale romances and maidens in towers. The key to success in that world would essentially be a willingness to do what others would not. Backstabbers and liars would rise, those willing to kill would seize power – it would be a pretty unpleasant place where you’d have to constantly watch your back (or resign to the life of a peasant). It somewhat aligns with the first point, but in GOT, the bad guys, more often that not, win. Because they don’t have the morals, the ethics of the hero. They’ll do what they need to take and maintain power. In the reality of that world, that’s how it would be. It’s that authenticity, that conceptual depth, that Martin has harnessed so well. The key note for writers is to stay honest to the reality you’ve created. Think through the impacts to ensure things don’t jar or stand out as obvious plot devices which don’t fit into that world.
3. The story develops organically. Or more accurately, the story feels like it develops organically. Martin has created such deep, true to life characters that every action has a reaction, every step resonates with someone else. And you pretty much know how each of the characters is going to respond. There’s a real logic and humanity to each of these interactions and no one ever gets away with anything, nothing is ever confined to one plotline. The characters respond as you’d expect real people to, and that changes their story arc. Someone who was once hell bent on one course of action can be swayed by emotion, and that change shifts the entire scene. It doesn’t feel like anything is planned or set in stone, which again, adds to that unpredictability. As a storyteller, the note to take away is to consider every action, not only from a core storyline standpoint, but for how it will ripple through to the rest of your fictional world. This attention to detail will add an important layer of authenticity to your work.
4. The characters are deep. I noted this in the previous point, but it’s a key one to highlight. The characters in Game of Thrones all feel like they could have a mini-series of their own to explain their back story. Martin knows each one very well, has got into tune with who they are and what they want. All of them have a level of humanity that is tangible, allowing the audience to be taken in by them. Well, except Joffrey, I guess. The key point – you need to know you’re characters. Not just ‘he was sixteen with brown hair…’ you need to know them, know where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced, how those things have affected their world view. Once you do, once you can conceptualize a character to this level, the writing gets a heap easier. Because you know how they’ll react, what they’ll do in response to any action. Knowing your characters is key to writing great stories – research them, understand them. Even if you do all that work and a lot of it never makes it to the page, you’ll know it and your writing will be better for it.
5. Very little of Game of Thrones is revealed in exposition. I’m talking about the TV show here, not the books (which I haven’t read) but on the show, there’s very few sections of blatant exposition – characters delivering monologues on the reasons why things have come to be in this world. This is pretty rare, particularly for these fantasy realm stories, where you need to set up the parameters. GOT pretty much throws you into the politics and lets you work it out. And it’s much better for it. I liken this to something like ‘The Wire’ – when I first started watching The Wire I had to re-check I started on episode one, cause I had no idea what was going on. But four episodes in, I was totally immersed by it. Not knowing the detail made me concentrate harder and take in more to catch up. Of course, you don’t want to make it so complex that the audience doesn’t understand, but there’s definitely something to be said about writing a story that’s lived in, where things are how they are. Your characters wouldn’t, in their reality, sit down and go over the details of why things are how they are, and often you don’t need to, and shouldn’t, do this in your writing. People are smart, they’ll work it out, just give them what they need to make them want to turn the page and you’ll have them. It’s the old ‘show don’t tell’ principle – don’t spell it out, allow your readers into it, let them see it with the characters, engage with the story in a more organic way.
Game of Thrones is an excellent example of storytelling, and there’s a heap for writers to learn from it. Keep these elements in mind as you watch, try to work out how they utilise storytelling elements – and more importantly, how you can use the same tricks in your own work.