What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones


My name is Barbara, and I’m a Game of Thrones addict.

MartinI know I’m not alone. George R. R. Martin has millions in his thrall, captives of the TV series and/or the books on which it is based. For me, it started with the first season. I watched an episode or two, enough to realize that there was no way I was waiting years for the series to play out. So I started on the books; and several thousand pages later, I looked up wearily and realized that three weeks had passed.

After withdrawal, I was left with two questions. What makes this series so compelling, and where can I get some? I’m a novelist myself, and I teach writing, so I recognized the basic ingredients. 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 attributes in a novel, and enough to make any work compelling, but I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then last week, as I watched the latest episode, it 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. Tyrian, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. The dialogue between them, brilliantly written and acted, shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a strong agenda, and those agendas were 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, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

Sometimes the conflict is on the surface, and other things are going on underneath. Brianna and Jamie Lannister are clearly at odds as she attempts to deliver him safely to Kings Landing in return for hostages and he attempts to escape. That’s in the foreground. In the background, hardly noticed at this stage, is a growing affinity which adds depth to their scenes.

Other times, the conflict is hidden behind a veil… but it’s always there, animating the scene. Even when the primary purpose of the scene is to convey necessary information, Martin (and the series’ screenwriters) find ways to bring out the inherent conflict. For example, there is a scene in which Catelyn Stark and her son, Rob discuss the death of her father: not a particularly dynamic passage. But as they make plans to attend the funeral, Caitlin is in chains, and Rob has not forgiven her treachery. They love each other but they are at odds, and that strife bubbles to the surface of the scene.

Now, none of this is groundbreaking fictional technique. Good writers strive for maximum tension in their work, and conflict is one of the best ways of producing tension. Better writers know that all their characters, including the secondary ones, have agendas and act on them in one way or another. But only the best writers execute these principles consistently in scene after gripping scene.

So this is what I’ve learned from Martin: to seek out those hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of conflicts between those characters; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene.

How about you? Have you read Game of Thrones, or watched the TV series? What do you take away from it?


DangerousFictionHC_jacket2My latest mystery, A Dangerous Fiction, is coming out in July 2013 with Viking Books. It’s available now for preorder in hardcover and e-book, with a large discount on preorders of the hardcover. Also, please check out my other titles, newly available as Simon and Schuster e-books: Suspicion, Hindsight, and Rowing in Eden