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.
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.
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.
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.
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