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We haven't had a TV for years now, but in the last few months, we've watched the whole series, glued to the drama of Westeros and the battle for the Iron Throne.
As a viewer, I have been addicted to the story, and as a writer, I bow my head to a master story creator and world builder. It must be the ambition of every creative to see their work loved as widely as Game of Thrones now is. The adaptation to screen is fantastic, creating new fans outside the realms of the fantasy genre and drawing more into the books.
Even if you haven't watched it, here are my lessons learned from the fantastic books and TV series.
(1) High stakes = excitement, anticipation and addiction in your audience
The stakes can't get much higher than those fought over in this saga, and it keeps viewers hooked as the plot ratchets up each episode. The stakes include:
- Control of the Iron Throne which guides all the battles. Who will rule the Seven Kingdoms?
- Life and death. The body count is truly incredible, with no character safe from the executioner's axe. Each character is fighting for survival – against the other families, against the cold and the supernatural forces of the north, against their own kind. Favorite characters are killed off all the time, and the shock of their deaths makes the uncertainty of existence ever more real.
- Family honor. What use is your life if you haven't upheld the honor of the family?
- Religion. As the Lord of Light seems nascent, the followers of the Seven, as well as the Old Gods still fight for their believers.
(2) Take the audience out of their lives for a time
Life is hard, and in Westeros, life is even harder. To watch, or to read, is to live vicariously in a world where most die by the sword, or by the hand of famine, or war. To be immersed in this story is to leave behind a mundane commute, a row with a partner or child, a hated job and financial worries, even for just an hour.
Adding a supernatural element enhances this ‘other-worldliness.' Who doesn't like dragons? and particularly cute baby ones who emerge from the flames on the beautiful naked body of Daenerys?
How about a demon shadow assassin born from the body of the Red Woman? Or the White Walkers, the undead?
(3) Give everyone a character to root for
There's a character for everyone in Game of Thrones, whatever your gender, age or sexual appetite.
I write about kick-ass women in my own fiction, so I was thrilled to find lots of strong women in the saga. Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, is much more than a pretty blonde. ‘Drakarys,' she says, and men are burned to dust. Arya Stark and Brianne of Tarth, feisty women who fight. I even find Ceisei Lannister, the evil Queen, fascinating, unflinching from murder, incest and lust.
There are interesting characters like Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, a dwarf whose arc moves from being a lecherous drunk into running the kingdom, loving and being hurt. I've read more of the books, so I won't say where he ends up …
(4) Create humorous breaks in the carnage
The audience needs time to breathe, a moment of calm and a smile in between the bloodshed. Shakespeare did this so well in his tragedies, and George RR Martin does the same, creating funny interludes when things are getting too dark. The jokes often come out of Tyrion's mouth in the TV adaptation, with Bron as a sidekick, although I have noted in the book that there are fewer quips. One such moment is the squire Poderick's sexual prowess, despite his innocence in bed.
(5) Evoke emotion
Game of Thrones has it all.
The loving father murdered in front of his daughters; the girl who loses her beloved pet; the beaten and abused wife; the mother whose sons are murdered; the fighter who loses his sword hand and his whole reason to be; the mocked outsider.
The emotional roller-coaster of the series hooks you in – and the TV show more than the book because it tightens the action and enhances it, cutting out the long lists of tourneys and the conquest of knights. The theme music even evokes a Pavlovian response in devotees. At least it certainly does for me now! I heard it played recently in the London Underground by a busker with an electric guitar, and I gave him some money because my heart swelled and I wanted more!
Are you a Game of Thrones fan? What have you learned from either the books or the TV series? Please join the conversation in the comments below.
I love the books and the show. However, reading the books is slow going for me. I’ve been at it for 2 years now. I sometimes read it for weeks, but then it just get all too depressing, too much, and I have to read something lighter.
I think what I learned is that people are going to read really long, convoluted books. There were times when I heard articles about how people didn’t want the really long ones anymore. The series proves that if the story is engaging enough, they will. Though I do confess to skipping the odd description. Like once they were going up a hill, and it took them so long, I skipped to the part where they were on top.
I’m not a fan of indiscriminate character killing. Of course, since I write for young adults, I really don’t feel death should play a prominent role in those stories. Although I suppose Marcus Zusak proved me wrong with The Book Thief. Of course, reading about Nazi Germany, one expects death on every hand.
I have read all four books in this series. I prefer the books because there is less of what I don’t enjoy (sex, nudity and innuendo) and more characterization. I’m a fast reader so even the most descriptive scenes are quickly waded through. Also, HBO has made multiple changes in these early stages that will affect how the story can play out later.
Still, in all of this, I watch it and try not to become too involved with any one character because they will meet their doom shortly thereafter. Since I want to care about the characters, this makes the story off-putting to me. I agree that death is the highest of all stakes and thus builds dramatic tension, but it can also be an easy way out. It takes more skill to weave a tense plot without killing main characters in random abandonment.
Katherine James says
I am a fan of the TV show (I was about to start reading the books, but I didn’t want to stumble across spoilers).
One thing GoT (tv version) does brilliantly is keep the pacing of the story up throughout each episode.
However I know (from having read some forum comments about the differences between the tv show and the book) that GoT has embellished certain scenes, to help keep up the tension.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yydcG9woWA – This is a great rendition of the theme music I stumbled over whilst season 3 was airing. Every time I hear that tune it gives me the shivers.
I love Game of Thrones: the entire world is so well constructed down to the tiniest detail I feel, and I’ve never read a series with such a variety of characters, all of whom are so believable and, despite their motives and actions, in some way likeable/relateable. Everything seems to be so gritty and brutal in a way that really resonates in a deeper way than epic fantasy normally does (for me, anyway).
The TV series I think really brings it to life – as you say it cuts out the boring stuff and attacks the jugular of the action every single episode (it’s rather an exhausting watch at times!). Add in excellent casting, locations and costumes on par with LOTR for attention to detail and my inner geek = in heaven!
The only thing I dislike is the fact he just won’t stop killing people off…! I’m just not that brutal of a reader/writer.. I like a little light at the end of the tunnel! How do you feel about the impending sense of doom for everything and everyone? I do wonder if anyone makes it out alive… or whether the 7th book will ever be released! Perhaps we’ll all be left in the lurch about the fate of Westeros…
My sister insisted me to watch the show, now I’m hooked. It is good to know why people love it so much. I like to watch it, but also I put my writer goggles and see the character development and story arcs.
I’m glad you are a fan of GOT and Doctor Who ,Joanna,
Joanna Penn says
and Torchwood 🙂
I loved the first three books, but was disappointed by the fourth, and after wading through the fifth swore that I would not buy/read the next one. I was MAJOR disappointed. I find the books are getting darker and more depraved, and the cast of characters keep on growing to such numbers that it’s almost impossible to keep track of. The last book was close to 1000 pages with many of the best characters barely mentioned and little progress made with the story. I felt cheated; it left me totally fed up. I felt as if the book could have used major editing (read that as deleting/condensing) and was left as is because he’s reached star status.
What I’ve learned: when you reach a certain stage of success, you can get away with anything.
I haven’t even started with the tv series.
I couldn’t resist reading this post because I love watching the series too. I think the idea of creating humor to allow for a calm moment is a good idea. And those female characters are fierce! I’m very excited to see how the “Outlander/Cross Stitch” series from Diana Gabaldon will be translated to the screen when it comes out in the fall. I hope the characters and world is as well constructed as GoT!
One of the things I admire about the books is Martin’s deftness with character voice. Bran doesn’t sound like Ned Stark, Arya doesn’t sound like Catelyn, etc. After reading a lot of first person stories, I was happy to see that there’s still an audience for a multi point of view third person story (ies).
And the fact that Martin writes interesting, strong women is also admirable. I’ve never read fantasy but Martin’s work has really drawn me in. The supernatural is well grounded in the realities of the characters. Makes me realize that you can do almost anything as long as the characters themselves are believable.
Joanna Penn says
I love the strong women characters – they are generally far more varied than the men. Brienne of Tarth is one of my favorites, as is Arya Stark, and Daenerys.
Oh I’m so glad someone wrote about Game of Thrones. I bought season one (no tv here either!) and then leapt on season 2 and 3 when they came out. I’ve loaned them out to at least 5 people at work who are now all salivating for season 4.
I admit when I watched episode 1, season 1 that the show wasn’t for me. Nakedness everywhere! murder, mayhem! I’m all about romantic comedy. It didn’t take long to hook me in though.
Plot twists. Oh my holy cow. Has anyone ever seen such plot twists? I’ve read about how to write plot twists, I’ve even read actual plot twists, but to SEE one in action has made a HUGE difference on my writing. I was complacent before, thinking oh, that’s a nice little twist.
GoT does plot twists that make you scream at the tv. Make you shout obscene words. Gasp. Cry. Throw your arms in the air. It all just …works. And as a writer, I appreciate that and I want to learn from it.
Now if I could just find out what happens in season 4 before all of my friends……=)
I am a HUGE fanatic of Game of Thrones show AND the books so much so that we are going to a comic-sci-fi conference just so I can go to a banquet just so I can meet George RR Martin. Ecstatic about it. I am blown away by his master story telling, by his power of focus and concentration to create this work (even though he’s gotta finish it still ;)) and by the grey characters that make you question black and white / good and evil / at every turn. Thanks for this post, Joanna.
Joanna Penn says
You’ve definitely got to post the photos when you go see George 🙂
Joanna, I am writing my GRRM blog post and I SAT NEXT TO GEORGE AT DINNER! It was ridiculous 🙂 Plus the readings, the photos, and the Q&A. I didn’t get my books signed as the lines were too long but hey, I sat next to him at dinner, I think that is a line I’ll be using a lot 😉 He is the most gracious man you’ll ever meet. Simply Delightful, hilarious and no-nonsense all the way. We love a good thing for a good reason :)!
Joanna Penn says
OH WOW! That’s awesome! I’m so glad you managed that – he does seem a lovely, cuddly man for such a dark mind! x
CD Coffelt says
I have another take from GOT: kill off too many characters and your readers will abandon you.
After bonding and investing time in a character, I lose patience when too many die. Why bother?
The last book in the series killed my interest, partly because of a favored character and because too many scenes described meals. Blah. Get on with it.
I am a huge fan of The Dance of Ice and Fire series myself and the TV series Game of Thrones! I have read all the books twice and I don’t miss an episode of the show! I think it’s amazingly written and has inspired me in my fantasy series that I’m writing. I wish the 6th book would come out already, I’m dying to read it! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have written a series like this and know millions are waiting for your next book or your next show on TV?! I can’t imagine how wonderful that would be! It’s my dream, that’s for sure!
Great post Joanna!
The killing off of characters is what makes this show so different from almost everything else in literature and tv. Whilst it is easy to say the killing off characters is an “easy cop out” for the author, whenever a main character is killed off in this series it never seems rushed or poorly executed and every death always has massive ramifications. It can even stand out from rival shows such as “the walking dead” because whilst that show may kill off characters in abundance, the idea that you would lose more than 1 or 2 main characters in one episode of that show remains unlikely whereas game of thrones tends to kill off many characters at once. For me, the entire show can be summed up in the iconic scene between Littlefinger and Cercei, where cercei has numerous swords pointed and Petyers throat and simply says that “power is power”. The thing to remember throughout the entire show is that anyone with influence or followers or simple skill with a sword can kill off anyone else, regardless of how much influence, followers or skill with a sword the deceased party happened to have themselves.
Anita Renaghan says
I really liked the Game of Thrones book series, which I started reading after HBO introduced me to the series. I listened to all of the books on my commute, and I really enjoyed the series and look forward to the last book. I am sometimes ‘shocked’ by the sexuality or killings, even as an adult, but that must be from my Catholic upbringing.
Martin is the master of the story though. I am writing the 2nd book of what I intended as a trilogy, and some of my fans want me to make this a 4 or 5 book series, but even writing a trilogy seems daunting to me. I love the work, but there are other books I want to work on too. My hats off to Martin, and to you Joanna, for doing the work!
Joanna Penn says
From PK Hrezo http://pk-hrezo.blogspot.com (comment left behind in server move)
Oh totally! I listen to the soundtrack all the time while I’m writing. I think GOT just reaches out and takes you by the throat–and the worst possible outcome–the one you think won’t really happen cuz who could make their audience squirm and groan like that–does!!
That’s what keeps me coming back. It’s a story that makes no apologies and does not hold back at any cost.
Fiona Ingram says
I started off not being able to get past the first TV episode – too dreary, too grey, too depressing, all that mud. However, I tried again and then loved it … BUT … as the series progressed, although I just adored the dragons, the political machinations and Peter Dinklage’s amazing character (he has the best lines), I found dark and unsettling elements that were getting in the way of the already excellent story, that in my very humble opinion, did not need the sensational overload. Here’s what ruined it for me: excessive killing – does everyone have to die?; gratuitous sex scenes, or else sexual elements that did not really add to the scene being played out, and this includes the sexual sadism displayed by young Joffrey, which I found unacceptable; levels of violence and displays of cruelty that again actually distract from a very compelling storyline. In a recent article the author defends his use of the above-mentioned elements by saying that’s what life was like way back in those times (Dark Ages/medieval), and my reply would be, yes, it was, but we know that – tell us something we don’t know, tell us a fantastic story. For me, this shows that although these sensational (and sometimes titillating) elements attract wide readership, and Martin deserves his success for writing such a vast and magnetic storyline, I would not copy these techniques for the sake of it. The way the author has used his choice of elements has worked for him in terms of readership but I will not be watching the remaining series, and this I say sadly because the over-arching story is great. I just can’t watch more throats being slit and women being raped. I don’t want to read the books either, and for the above reasons, not because of the length.
Um, there’s MUCH more humor in the books that I feel the show is severely lacking in…notably Dolorous Edd.
In a scene of Game of Thrones that includes, in no specific request, a tyke killing a roomful of men; The Hound, appearing to have confidence in something; Sansa Stark getting a charge out of a mind-set that borderlines on merry; and, it must be said, an eccentrically dada set piece themed around fecal issue,