Game of Words: Writing Lessons From TV

My name is Barbara, and I’m an addict.

I’m addicted to Game of Thrones. That’s not all; I’m also hooked on Bates Motel, and recently I kicked Downton Abbey, not through any effort or willpower of my own, but because the supply dried up.

The Game of Thrones trouble began with the George R. R. Martin books. I was writing A Dangerous Fiction at the time, and was in search of a bit of light reading as a palette cleanser.  I started reading the first book in the series, and several million pages later, I looked up blearily from the last and realized that three weeks had passed and I hadn’t done a lick of work. The TV series only made the situation worse. I started out watching each new episode on Sunday nights. Before long I was mainlining repeat showings two or three times a week.

I’m not proud of this. When I was younger, I took an elitist view of television. I owned a set, of course, because not to would seem like snobbery, and besides, TVs make great babysitters. But I rarely watched it. I am a writer; I read.child reading

I still don’t watch many shows, but those I do follow, I watch with a writer’s eye. I ask the same questions I ask when a book floors me: What makes this story so compelling, and where can I get me some?

MartinIn the case of Game of Thrones, I recognized all the basic ingredients of good fiction. Great characters? Check. High stakes? The highest: life or death, honor or disgrace, the fate of kingdoms. Interesting settings? Fascinating and vividly imagined. All sterling qualities, and enough to make any story compelling, yet I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then, as I watched a recent episode, the answer finally dawned on me. The scene was one in which Cersei visits Tyrion in his much diminished quarters to suss out what he plans to tell their father. Tyrion, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. It’s not an action scene; there are no dragons or swordplay. Yet the scene is terrifically tense. The dialogue shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a vital agenda, and those agendas were perfectly at odds.

What I realized at that moment was that the same could be said of nearly all Martin’s scenes. The man seems incapable of framing any scene that is not full of conflict and hidden agendas. In scene after scene, his characters use manipulation, intimidation, flattery, violence, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

I was drawn to Bates Motel by its two stars, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, who are both outstanding, but I stayed because the story wouldn’t let me leave. It sent out tentacles, first implanting questions in my mind (“What happened to Norman’s father?” is a big one), then taking its own sweet time answering them: an old writer’s trick.

And even when answers are provided, they are only as reliable as the character providing them, which in the case of Bates Motel means not at all. The unreliable narrator is a useful literary device that works because readers initially trust the narrator’s version of events. Their gradual realization that a particular narrator may be lying or deluded casts a whole different light on the story. The Remains Of the Day, Gone Girl, and Shutter Island are excellent examples. Usually the device does not work as well on film, because it’s harder to keep up the illusion when readers can see events with their own eyes instead of through the narrator’s. But Bates Motel manages it beautifully in the death of Norman’s father.

We see two versions of that death, which takes place before the start of the story. The first is Norman’s memory of discovering his father’s body. In that version, he is shocked and heartbroken, while his mother, Norma, is clearly not surprised at all; the only emotion she shows is pity for her son’s distress. Viewers are led to the supposition that she staged the accident.

Many episodes later, we see the death from Norma’s point of view. In that version, Norma casts herself as victim and protector. But since viewers know by now that this is how she justifies all the crazy things she does, they still can’t be sure about what happened and who did what. Both Norman and his mother are quite mad. He suffers from blackouts and hallucinations, while she has a major personality disorder or three. That makes them classic unreliable narrators, which allows the real narrators—the series’ writers—to play all sorts of tricks on viewers. We can’t trust anyone, and that uncertainty keeps us watching. In stories, as in music, it’s the unresolved chord that draws us onward.

Now, I’ll concede that writers are adept at justifying bad behavior in the name of art, including addictions to worse substances than popular TV. Nevertheless, I will maintain that my affliction has its beneficial side; indeed I’ll go so far as to recommend it to any writer interested in improving his or her craft.

From Game of Thrones, writers can learn to seek out our characters’ hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of those conflict; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene. Bates Motel, is a masterclass in the use of unreliable narrators and delayed gratification to enhance suspense. Lessons worth learning, I’d say, whatever the price. Besides, when I said I’m addicted to these series, I was taking poetic license. I can stop watching anytime I want to. Really I can.

Reprinted from a post on

5 thoughts on “Game of Words: Writing Lessons From TV

  1. I haven’t read these yet, therefore I haven’t watched them yet. But of course that dialogue and conflict lesson could apply to all writers!

  2. Hi Barbara. These are good points. My thought is that there is a higher art, storytelling, that embraces both fiction-writing and TV writing. Interestingly, while students of screenwriting are taught storytelling techniques, it seems that fiction writers are still left to their own devices. I’ve long believed that good storytelling is the foundation of literary art. And the new TV dramas is where the some of the best storytelling is being done.

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