Roy Peter Clark: 12 things I learned (or re-learned) about storytelling from watching ‘Game of Thrones’

June 5, 2019

I have watched all 73 episodes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” many more than once. I have read the first four novels by George R.R. Martin that inspired the series. During this final season, I have read, watched or listened to countless summaries, analyses, prediction podcasts and reaction videos.

I watched the show for entertainment. But because I am a writer and a teacher of writing, I have other purposes. In a final soliloquy, the character Tyrion Lannister makes the case that a good story is the most powerful force of all:

What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? (long pause) Stories.

There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it.

No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken?

I am not sure if Bran has the best story, but to the rest I say “aye.”

In that spirit, I have listed 12 lessons about storytelling learned or relearned from GOT. You will not have had to watch a single episode to appreciate these narrative strategies. I will make reference to key characters and important scenes. If your plan is to watch the series at some future date, know that I will be giving more than a few things away.

1. Make the unpredictable predictable.

Reading is about making predictions — what the next word will be. Experiencing stories is about predicting what will happen next. Those of us who like Hallmark holiday movies — count me in — enjoy their predictability. There will be a kiss at the end, with happy snow falling in the background. How different the experience of “Game of Thrones.” I watched the first episode and remember the moment when Jaime Lannister pushes young Bran Stark out of the tower window. I stood up in shock. I did the same during the final episode of the first season when Ned Stark was beheaded. “This author,” I thought, “is ruthless.” No character was safe. In such a narrative environment, no reader or viewer is safe. Best not get too attached to any particular character, especially with a dragon lurking nearby. As a writer, you must decide when to fulfill your reader’s predictions, and when to violate them.

2. Create a big arc, supported by smaller ones.

As with the Harry Potter series, “Game of Thrones” has one great narrative arc, and then a series of smaller ones. For Harry, the arc extends from his being a helpless orphan sleeping under the stairs to becoming the world’s most powerful wizard, the only one who can defeat the evil Voldemort. For GOT, the arc leads the children of Ned Stark on a journey of discovery, with each one finding a distinctive path to power, influence and fulfillment. The story is so vast it needs other big arcs, such as the ascension to the Iron Throne and humankind’s fight with the Night King and his army of the dead.

The scope of the story requires each of the main characters to follow his or her own arc. Writers and directors must also pay attention to the arc of a particular season (there were eight), and even an individual episode requires a sequence of scenes in which tension builds, often leading to a moment of fear, suspense or triumph.

Cliffhangers have become the standard strategy of serial storytelling, but not so much with GOT. In key episodes, the showrunners often give us the startling or dramatic moment earlier in an episode, rather than later. In the epic Battle of the Bastards, we don’t have to wait until next week to see the cavalry of reinforcements arrive.

Endings are used for consequential events, not teases:  Sansa feeds her rapist to the dogs. Arya kills the Night King. The treacherous Littlefinger is exposed and executed. We return next week for more to discover the consequences of such actions.

3. Move the camera back as far as it will go, then close enough to poke the dragon in the eye.

As the seasons progressed in “Game of Thrones,” the visuals became more breathtaking and apocalyptic. This required the cameras moving way back to reveal the widest landscape.

It is night and the Dothraki ride their horses toward the army of the undead, too far in the distance to be visible. The riders all carry flaming swords. But as they move in a fiery phalanx farther into the night, we see, to our dismay, the flames being extinguished, line by line.

But the camera can also move close – very close – to reveal an eyeball of a single corpse, or a charred toy horse held in the hand of a child, incinerated by dragon fire. As a storyteller, I too often get stuck in a single distance from the subject matter. I have to remind myself, especially when I am in the field, to move way back but also to get up close.

4. Vary epic expanse with intimacy.

This strategy is a corollary of No. 3. Moving back gives a story that feeling of epic breadth, that sense that something grand is about to happen. We see King’s Landing from the point of view of Daenerys and her dragon, viewing the flaming and ruinous consequences of her attack on the city.

But when Jaime and Cersei die, they do not fall from a high tower into the flames. Instead, they embrace in the claustrophobic lower confines of the Red Keep, the dust and stones of the tower falling upon them. In a like manner, during the great Battle of Winterfell, we cut to Tyrion and Sansa in the crypt of the castle, engaged in encouraging discourse before the fighting resumes.

5. Let key characters talk and talk some more – in pairs.

In narratives, dialogue is not explanatory. It is a form of action, something experienced – overheard – by the audience. We think of “Game of Thrones” as a medieval fantasy adventure, in many ways an homage to Tolkien. But for a series known for its action, much of what we get, and appreciate, is talk, talk, talk.

Some of the talk scenes are remarkably long, up to 15 minutes. Almost every conversation between Jaime and the warrior knight Brienne of Tarth — especially the one in the medieval hot tub — turns in to a therapy session that enriches both characters.

No one talks more that Tyrion the Imp. Although there is group chatter in pubs and brothels, the key characters pair off: Tyrion and Bran, Tyrion and Sansa, Tyrion and Jon, Tyrion and Daenerys, Tyrion and Jaime … and Cersei, and Tywin, and Bronn, and on and on. Whatever Tyrion was drinking, buy yourself a keg. It will make you a better talker.

6. Plant seeds, water them and harvest the most meaningful. The great Ben Yagoda wrote a recent piece about the narrative technique called the “callback.” That phrase is used by stand-up comedians to describe a technique in which a small, funny bit is introduced early in a routine, but is then repeated later to great hilarity.

Here is the challenge with callbacks: You may not recognize them until you see an episode for a second time. In an early episode, Ned Stark talks to his daughter Arya about how when she grows up she will become the great lady of a great castle married to a great lord. “That’s not me,” replies the little warrior princess. In this final season, Gendry falls in love with Arya and asks for her hand in marriage and to become his lady. “That’s not me,” she replies. Easier to spot is a moment of action, when the slight Arya is sparring with the towering Brienne. Almost overcome, Arya wins with a nifty dagger trick, a version of the same move she will use to defeat the Night King.

7. Offer a good balance of round and flat characters. The key distinction between flat and round characters was drawn by E.M. Forster in his book “Aspects of the Novel.” In general, few stories can tolerate a full cast of round characters. Some will be flat, meaning that they will stand for one virtue or vice.

Dickens gave us both Scrooge and Tiny Tim, one to play The Miser, the other The Suffering Child. By contrast, a round character changes, sometimes unpredictably, throughout a narrative. In GOT we have the twins, Cersei and Jamie, devoted incestuously, born together and together in death. For most of her reign, Cersei is flat, evil in her role as Queen, devoted to family and especially her children. Jamie shows a greater range of moral capacities, from violent cruelty (he pushes a child out a tower window) to bravery, loyalty and compassion (one hand cut off, he rescues Brienne and will one day elevate her to knighthood).

8. Bring characters together in ceremonies.

My mom loved to watch soap operas, and she taught me how to enjoy them. “Be sure to watch on Fridays,” she said, noting that something dramatic would happen that would carry you over the weekend. “And pay close attention to weddings and funerals,” because that’s when the key characters are likely to come together.

“The Godfather” begins with a wedding and ends with a christening, punctuated by a series of Mafia hits. From coronations to trials to executions to weddings (especially the Red Wedding) to funerals to victory celebrations, GOT has guided us to moments when key characters come together and interact, sometimes comically, but always with the potential for murder, revenge or something even more horrible.

9. Depend on families to mess things up.

From the beginnings of literature, families were there to create the kind of turmoil that could be transformed into story. After Adam and Eve came Cain and Abel, and somewhere in the line of begetting came Noah and his dysfunctional family. From human experience, we learn that no one can be crueler than a member of a family, or more loyal. The world of GOT is dominated by families – royal and otherwise – from the Starks to the Targaryens to the Lannisters to the Greyjoys and many more. Each family has its own saying, its own flag, its own tendencies recorded throughout history; but each family also has members divergent in their passions, virtues and vices. Did two brothers ever hate each other more than the Cleganes?

10. In the end, deliver the goods, but not all the goods.

When you spend more than 100 hours over most of a decade immersed in the same story, you crave a payoff at the end – which does not require what is called a Hollywood ending. Some serialized fiction delivers the goods, like “Breaking Bad.” The vague ending of “The Sopranos” worked for me, but not for many others. The ending of “House of Cards” just sucked and made me regret having watched the final season.

In this last season of GOT, the dark turn of Queen Daenerys ignited great emotional distress and moral outrage. Who would sit on the Iron Throne at the end? Many hoped it would be Dany and Jon. Those folks wound up disappointed, but other key characters found a place of fulfillment that left many viewers contented.

11. All key characters must want something.

That wisdom comes from Kurt Vonnegut, and it makes great narrative sense. There is great wanting in GOT. It can lead to murder or heroism. Dany wants to sit on the Iron Throne and rule the Seven Kingdoms for the greater good. Tyrion wants the love and respect of his family, and others, in spite of his dwarfish countenance. (He also wants wine. Lots of wine.) Jon, raised as a bastard son, wants to fulfill his greater destiny through the virtues of honesty and loyalty. The Night King and his Zombie army want to destroy humankind – including its memory.

Vonnegut also preaches the virtues of taking likable characters and doing horrible things to them “to see what they are made of.” There’s a lot of that in GOT.

In shining a light on these strategies, I do not want to ignore criticisms – some of them passionate – of the writing in the final season. Viewers of the series will recognize some of them – the flatness of Bran as a character and his unworthiness to ascend to the throne; the sharpness of Dany’s unanticipated turn from liberator of slaves to murderer of children. These and other criticisms spin from the same cause: that the showrunners ended the series too quickly. They were, the argument goes, in too great a rush to tie up the many threads left hanging from more than 70 episodes. The main evidence is that Season Eight ran for only six episodes – not eight or 10 – which would have established, say the critics, a more plausible narrative pace.

Let’s restate that phrase as the final narrative strategy:

12. Establish a plausible narrative pace, one that focuses on the needs of the audience. This requires you to give Dany more time and space for what they call in professional wrestling her “heel turn.” But it also means giving less time and space to that sadistic bastard (that’s a description, not an insult) Ramsay Bolton. We don’t need dozens of acts of torture. A handful would do. We get it, he’s evil. Feed him to the dogs, for the sake of the gods. To his dogs!

Bonus Strategy: Pay attention to the names of things.

I do not believe we ever get the names of Ramsay’s killer dogs. But we do get the names of almost everything and everyone else. The three dragons have names. The dire wolves rescued by the Stark children have names, and, happily, we see Jon Snow reunited with Ghost at the very end. To the earliest days of heroic literature, great weapons have names, such as Excalibur. Arya receives the gift of her first sword, Needle, and carries it throughout her journey. “Stick him with the pointy end” becomes her whimsical mantra. The story takes us beyond names to nicknames: Jaime Lannister is known as the Kingslayer. The Clegane brothers become the Mountain and the Hound. Dany is the Mother of Dragons.

A final thought. At a climactic moment, the Red Witch asks Arya: “What do we say to the God of Death?” To which she replies, “Not today.” I have adapted this to my comic teaching purposes for writers as “What do we say to the God of Deadline?” “Not today. But check in with me tomorrow.”