Storyville: Kill Your Darlings—How 'Game of Thrones' Can Change Your Writing

NOTE: THERE WILL BE MAJOR 'GAME OF THRONES' SPOILERS BELOW

(Also, forgive any spelling errors, these names are insane.)


When I think of the phrase “kill your darlings” in relation to fiction, I think of cutting a sentence, or paragraph, no matter how beautiful it is, or how much you love what happens on the page, if it doesn’t serve the story. But today we are going to use the drama, surprise, and emotion of one of the hottest television shows running, Game of Thrones, to illustrate just how you might be able to keep your audience on their toes, how to play with plot, utilizing twists and turns to avoid predictability, as well as create, maintain, and elevate the tension in your writing. What we talk about today can be applied to longer work, such as a novel, but also to short fiction—but don’t overdo it. Remember that the television series is based not on a singular story, or even a novel, but a series of novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin). Spread out these techniques and epiphanies over time, so that you don’t overwhelm your readers.

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF 'GAME OF THRONES'

For those that haven’t seen the television show, Game of Thrones, or read the books, I’ll try to give you a quick synopsis. “Set in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the series chronicles the violent dynastic struggles among the realm's noble families for control of the Iron Throne…The novels and their adaptation derive settings, characters and plot elements from much of European history,” such as the English Wars of Roses (1400s), as well as Isabella, the “she-wolf of France” (early 1300s), the fall of Rome, the legend of Atlantis, Icelandic sagas of the Viking Age, and the Mongol hordes.

Don't be afraid to kill your darlings—the phrases that you love, the scenes that really shine, even the characters that drive your story. You never know what will happen after that.

THE FIRST SHOCKING SCENE

As we get to know the various clans, the Lannisters (the “bad guys”), the Starks (the “good guys”) and other families that lie between—the Baratheons, the Targaryens, and of course the Night’s Watch, noble men (as well as punished riff-raff) who guard the Wall, the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms—we are set up to believe that this will be a typical epic fantasy story, similar perhaps to Lord of the Rings. But it doesn’t take long for things to go quickly awry. At the end of the very first episode, we see that Jaime Lannister and his sister, Cersei, are lovers. That is the first major shock as I see it—incest. We know that this is a story about class, the rich living luxurious lives, the poor struggling to eat and survive, and that there will be wars, major battles, violence and sex—but when the young Bran Stark witnesses their coupling, Jaime pushes the lad off the ledge, which ends up crippling him.

I think what’s great about this end to the first episode is twofold—one, we see that there is incest here, which in and of itself is fairly shocking; and two, we are shown that the Lannisters will do just about anything to keep their secrets. While there will be many other moments to come, to start the series off this way, we know that there will be lots of surprises. They don’t hold back on the drama, they hit you with it early on in the story, and show you that you should be prepared for sex, violence, and the unknown.

SEASON ONE

As the first season unfolds, we witness a lot of drama. In addition to the crippling of Bran Stark, we spend time getting to know all of the major characters and clans. We witness Viserys Targaryen essentially give his sister, Daenerys, to the savage Dothraki warlord, Khal Drogo, in exchange for an army. Ned Stark is selected by the King, Robert Baratheon, to be the King’s Hand (his confidant and bodyguard). We learn about the “White Walkers,” essentially, a frosty version of zombies—the undead. In an act of extreme violence, we see Viserys get his golden crown, when Drogo melts down gold and pours it over his head, giving him what he wants, and killing him in the process. But that’s not the most shocking moment of season one, even though it shows us the lengths that this story will go to in order to honor the plot and the heart of the narrative. It is nothing compared to how the season ends.

When King Robert dies in a hunting accident, and Joffrey ascends to the throne, we see what a tyrant the man-child is. Even though he is not Robert’s son, but Jaime’s, he becomes king, and Ned is imprisoned for speaking out about the truth of his origin, for spreading “false rumors” and hesitating in his allegiance.

What comes next is one of the most shocking and unexpected moments in the show. King Joffrey still pursues Sansa Stark, and tells her that he will show forgiveness, he will have pity on Ned Stark, if the man will only admit to his betrayal, admit that he has not been a loyal soldier. Brought before a crowd, Ned apologizes, admits that he has committed treason, and asks for mercy. Joffrey, sick with power, a brutal child eager to maim and kill, has him beheaded—in front of Sansa, in front of a roaring crowd, in a shocking and pivotal moment. I kept waiting for something to happen, for them to pull back and reveal a different truth, for this all to be a dream—something else, anything else!

What makes this beheading different than all of the violence that came before it? How does this change the landscape of the story forever? Let me elaborate.

In most epic stories, in most novels and extended narratives—hell, in most short stories, too, we have a central perspective, a hero to root for, an antihero to root for, a villain to curse, a traditional conflict and resolution. What Martin has done here (and brilliantly so, if I may add) is show us that nobody is safe, that he will rape, he will maim, he will kill—any character in this story, regardless of how important they are (or seem), how much they have been the driving force in the story, or how central a figure they may be to the plot (and sub-plots).

I have to admit that I was shocked when they decapitated Ned. He was a voice of reason, he was a good man (for the most part), and he was the head of a family that we, the audience, were rooting for. It was very unexpected. In any horror film, or novel, we see secondary characters get killed off all the time, but to have the head of the Stark family killed, and by a spoiled brat, a power-hungry and dark-hearted bastard like Joffrey—well, it turned my stomach. I actually had a visceral reaction to it, I thought I might throw up—I was on the verge of tears. Now THAT is some brilliant writing. 

From this point on, we know that George R. R. Martin is capable of anything—and that changes the reading experience, the viewing experience, 100%, forever. Anything is possible. So keep that in mind with your stories, your novels—maybe your protagonist is only PART of the story, maybe there are more than two sides to that coin, maybe the voice and perspective and emotion will shift, in minor increments, or in one fell swoop. You never know.

WHITE OR BLACK, GOOD OR BAD

As the story evolves, we see that there are no longer good guys and bad guys—there are no longer white horses and black, but every possible shade of gray, every possible outcome. We see Jaime Lannister do dark deeds, and then we see him get his hand cut off when it’s least expected. We see Tyrion Lannister, the imp, turn into a noble man, saving lives, and even plot to kill his own nephew (or whatever he is), Joffrey. We see Jon Snow kill his mentor, Qhorin Halfhand. We see Theon Greyjoy betray Robb, and take over Winterfell. We see the Night Watch rise up and revolt against their leader, Jeor Mormont. And we watch the mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, exact brutality and then peace—revenge and then a gentle rule. At every turn we are shown that SOME characters are capable of change, of mercy. And then we are also shown that some evil runs so deep that there is little hope of light, grace or kindness—passionately rooting for Joffrey’s head now, eagerly listening to the nightly prayers of Arya Stark, as she lists the names of all of the people she will kill: Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin, the Red Woman—her list will certainly grow. She’s just a child, at this point in the television series, but we have to root for somebody, after the Red Wedding—which is the next shocking moment.

THE RED WEDDING

Up to this point in the story, we have seen a lot of betrayal, a lot of violence. Martin has prepared us, right? He has killed off good people, he has plotted revenge, he has showed us a queen rising from the ashes of a fire with dragons at her breasts, we have seen the undead rise up and revolt, but nothing prepared me for this scene.

When you see main characters betray each other, when you witness dark deeds, but also moments of compassion and kindness, brutal men and women standing up to the cruel and unjust, you open yourself up for heartbreak, again and again. It’s impossible to say who will do what at any time. And that’s the way we want our story, our narrative, our plot—we have to be on the edge of our seat, unable to put the book down, flipping pages, our mouths open, our eyes watering, our hearts pounding. This is what it’s all about, right?

I still wasn’t prepared.

When Robb and his pregnant queen to be, Talisa, go to visit Walder Frey, to finally honor a broken promise, we are lulled into a quiet, peaceful moment—the wedding of Edmure Tully and Walder’s daughter, Roslin Frey. There is a sense of honor and relief, that this has been mended, the Stark’s granted “Guest Rights” (when invoked, neither the guest can harm his host nor the host harm his guest for the length of the guest's stay.) Having secured the backing of Tywin Lannister, Walder proceeds to slaughter the entire guest party.

It starts with Walder offering his apologies for not having given a gift sooner, for not honoring Robb and his wife to be—and the gift is a knife to the belly of Talisa, stabbed over and over again, to our horror. The bloodshed continues, with the stabbing and death of Robb, and the throat slitting of his mother, Catelyn. It is a brutal and deflating scene, even the poor dire wolf shot outside in its stall. The Hound and Arya witness Robb’s men being killed and flee—the girl certainly adding Walder’s name to her list.

Martin has effectively killed off almost ALL of the Starks, the “good family” that we’ve been rooting for all along. What a brave move, totally unexpected. And it’s at this point that you can feel the story shift. Martin does not let the plot get bogged down in expectations, he does not let this become a formulaic exercise in war, dragons, betrayal and revenge—he changes the entire landscape, forcing us, the viewer and the reader, to choose a new loyalty, to continue to root for the few remaining Stark family members, to root for the defense of the Great Wall, to root for the Mother of Dragons, perhaps. But whatever our choice, it is a new choice to be made, for sure.

IN CONCLUSION

There are several techniques that you can apply to your own writing, things you can learn from reading and watching Game of Thrones. First, do not create good guys and bad guys—create flawed people, put them in situations, and see what happens. Second, don’t be afraid to take a route that is less obvious—not the first path, not the second path, shoot, maybe it isn’t a path at all. And third, don't be afraid to kill your darlings—the phrases that you love, the scenes that really shine, even the characters that drive your story. You never know what will happen after that, what will come next, how the story will evolve, and what the final experience will be like.

Image of A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
Author: George R. R. Martin
Price: $9.76
Publisher: Bantam (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 704 pages
Image of Game of Thrones: Season 1
Director: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Lena Heady, Emilia Clarke, Maise Williams, Sophie Turner
Rating: R (Restricted)
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

DaveShepherd's picture
DaveShepherd from Calgary is reading No Country for Old Men March 6, 2014 - 10:25am

Great stuff.

The one thing I found particularly brilliant is the theme behind all of the deaths is similar (at least in the TV series, haven't read the novels). For the "Red Wedding" plotline, essentially: if you break a vow, you die.

Nedd vows to serve the kingdom, then breaks that vow by giving into Jeoffery's demands. Yes, you could argue he was going to die either way.

Robb dies because he breaks his vow to marry Fray's daughter. Incidentally, he also executes someone (I can't remember who) because they murder two of the Lannister's nephews while they're being held as prisoners.

His mother dies because her son's broken vow is also hers.

The only person to keep their vow -- Robb's uncle, the one who gets married to the Fray girl -- survives (he's carried away to the wedding bed before the slaughter). 

I thought it was brilliant -- the Starks have broken so many vows, so of course they die when someone else breaks their own promise (Fray/guest rights). 

To the best of my recollection, Jon Snow, Arya, and Bran are the only Starks that haven't broken vows -- and they're the only ones left alive. (I suppose you could argue Jon breaks his vow by being with a woman, but he was always a Crow).

Good stuff, as usual.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 20, 2014 - 10:17pm

great observation on the vows!

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick March 31, 2014 - 8:59am

I got hold of GoT and read the beginning up until the incest scene, and left it, to watch the TV series. I never got around to actually watching them. 

But recently I stumbled across the Red Wedding scene in Youtube. It was horrible! Then I watched George R.R. Martin's interviews. This guy's a genius! I'm hoping to read GoT and its follow-ups someday, before I watch the series.

I also read somewhere else that unpredictability is something that makes characters feel multi-dimensional, making readers think, "Oh I see why he did that" instead of "I knew he was going to do that."

 

 

Hannes Hummus Holmquist's picture
Hannes Hummus H... from Sweden is reading your stuff July 24, 2015 - 9:10am

Great essay.
Without GoT I dont think I'd had turned back to writing Fantasy

Talissa doesn't actually get stabbed and murdered at the red wedding in the books though, the uncle Tully takes her to their main castle which I can't recall the name of.
Then again we can assume Martin had something to do with that change of plot in the script for the TV-show even if he didn't write that particular episode.

Jairo Arana's picture
Jairo Arana is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mielville and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu April 29, 2016 - 2:36pm

Wow.

Having a few beers on this Friday and wondering how best to react to this article.

Richard, if I ever return to Chicago, I´ll look you up and I´m buying you a beer - and have some of that world famous Chicago deep-dish pizza..

And beer.

My three favortie movie/TV show franchises are Star Wars, The Godfather (not so much the third movie, but... whatever), and now, Game of Thrones. What do these movie/shows have in common? They´re all about family.

True. But they´re also about something else. They´re also about a sense of morals, or a code of conduct - a moral code, or code of ethics

Someone entioned earlier in this thread about how the Starks broke vows and ended up paying dearly for it. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker follows Josehph Campbell´s The Hero´s Journey. Michael Corleone goes against the Hero´s Journey and follow, or rather, trailblazes, what I call the Anti-hero´s Journey.

I think what George R.R. Martin is doing with A Song of Wind andf Firle (Game of Thronesin HBO) is not only telliing a story - on a very epic scale. I think he might also be creating or expressing a new moral code.

Anyone watch Pulp Fiction? Is giving a married woman a foot massage good or bad?

Narrative give a sense of meaning in our lives, I think. Maybe I´m wrong. Maybe telling stories serves no other purpose but to entertain. But, I´ve noticed, in our chaotiic times, we relie on narrative (TV, movies, books, comic books, and yes, even video games - the Grand Theft Auto franchise has something to say about our society).

In Star Wars, you don´t give in to the power-hungry Dark Side.If you do... well, you don´t die. But you do become a ruthless power-hungry villain.

In The Godfather, you don´t want to become a "pezzonovanti" or Senator, Congressman, politician holding the strings. The flaw to this is... what? Better to become a gangster? Michale Corleone chooses wrong. Though his loyalty to his father and his family are admirable... he did not have to become a gangster.

Also, if you remember the first Godfather´s first scene was about a man, named Bonasera, who talks about how his daughter kept her honor and how she got beaten up by two boys who were less than honorable. Vito Corleone has his sense of ethics. Paraphrasing: "What you ask for is not justice, it´s revenge. your daughter lives."

He lives, of course.

Luke loses his hand. But at least he gets to become a Jedi... and learn Leia is his siter before they get all Lannister-like - argh.. yuck.

Back to Game of Thrones: if you break your oath, you die... or suffer some unenviable fate. Arya broke her oath. Now she´s blind.

I feel all great narratives are about the importance of following a moral code. And family.

What are your thoughts?

By the way, I know this article is about "killing your darlings" to make your narrative more unpredictable, which I think is awesome, and setting off a very dynamic narrative - llike Pyscho, for ecxample. No one expeted her to die. Except Hitchcock. But, there: she broke a societal rule. "Thou shall not steal." Are we, as storytellers, killing off characters if they break our ideas of what make better rules for our society? Still, it sent that narrative (Pyschoi) in a new direction.

Killing off your darlings can - and will - send your story off into unforseen territory for your novel - or rather, saga/series.

Sorry for going on and on and on... " but you had me at Game of Thrones.

Cheers! And keep on writing!

Jairo

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies April 30, 2016 - 1:19pm

Great observations here.

Jairo Arana's picture
Jairo Arana is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mielville and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu May 2, 2016 - 12:43pm

Thanks, Richard!

Now, did you watch last night´s episode?

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

 

 

 

 

What do Jesus, Osiris and Jon Snow have in common?

Sorry... you had me at Game of Thrones. I will go on and on on this thread. This is a fantastic show and you made fantaastic observations This is definitley one of my favorite shows, and one of my three favorite American franchises..

My opinion is this, and I may be wrong... "kill your darlings," true. But don´t kill you darlins unless they´ve broken certain unbreakable rules.

I could go on and on.

I do believe Goerge R.R. Martin has created a new mythology.

Damn George R.R. Martin!

He´s taken fiction in a new direction. And we must learn from him. Build from what he´s build.

We´re writers. True.

But we´re also mythologists.

Let´s create our own mythologies!

Cheers! And keep on writing!

Jairo

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies May 8, 2016 - 3:08pm

LOL. Right on!