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Game of Thrones Episode 4: Lessons in Revision
As you know, I’ve been doing a series of podcasts on Game of Thrones, Season 8. If you’d like to check out the whole series, including complete transcripts of each episode, you can find them out on my website: www.writeyourscreenplay.com/got. And if you can’t wait for the full podcast, then tune in for some instant analysis on Facebook Live each Monday at 1:00pm Eastern Standard Time by following @thejkstudio.
Season 8, Episode 4 is a challenging episode. We’ve just experienced the battle of Winterfell, the most epic battle sequence in the history of Game of Thrones and the fight between the living and the dead we’ve been anticipating for eight seasons.
Somehow, you’ve got to get that engine started again. You’ve got to create a journey people are going to pay attention to, connect to, and care about again.
It’s hard because we’re all feeling a little bit let down. Where the hell are we going to go from here? How do we get excited again now that the Night King is gone?
To make it even more challenging, the beginning of Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks,” is pretty slow. There is almost five minutes of saying goodbye to the dead and an incredibly boring speech by Jon Snow before we finally get to the image that matters: all those bodies lit on fire, with the final image being Jorah’s body consumed by flames.
This is followed by another 12 minutes of celebrating the victory, with a couple of nice scenes of characters jockeying for power mixed in.
It’s only once we’re one-third of the way through this Game of Thrones episode that anything of real consequence happens.
Don’t get me wrong, most of the writing is good. Most of these moments are good and most of these characters are good. Plus, it’s nice to check in with all of these characters we know and love in the wake of their epic victory.
But, we can also see the length of a Game of Thrones episode is quickly ballooning in this last season. This is a risk you can take on a hit HBO series, but not one you can take as a new writer.
Almost always, new writers come to me deeply concerned about one of two things. One, they’re concerned about not having enough material, that their idea isn’t really a movie or television series.
Or two, they’re afraid they simply can’t fit all their material into a single feature, television, or web series pilot. They wonder, “Maybe it needs to be a two-episode pilot? Or maybe it needs to be a miniseries?”
No, that’s not what needs to happen.
The truth is any idea can become a movie or TV series if you’re willing to push on it hard enough. By the time you get to the end, the concern isn’t going to be running out of material, it will be figuring out how to squeeze in all your great material.
This leads us to an important lesson about revision.
Many people think revision is about changing or cutting the bad stuff in your script. That part is easy.
Great writers know revision is about cutting the good stuff in your script until all that’s left is great.
Revision is asking yourself after you’ve seen, heard, felt and captured on the page every moment in all its specific detail, “What is this scene really about? What is this sequence or this act or this movie really about?”
Then it’s about capturing the heart of your story into the bare minimum number of pages possible, squeezing your scenes down to only the very best of the best moments, until there’s no good writing left. Until everything is great.
What is this episode about? It’s about Daenerys and Jon and the rift that’s growing between them, their people, and around what it means to be a leader and who should sit on the Iron Throne.
What is the first sequence about? It’s about saying goodbye to the dead, particularly to Jorah whose loss in the last episode is the latest knife in the heart of Daenerys Targeryan.
What are the bare minimum and very best images you need to tell this story? The truth is, there are only two of them.
The unforgettable image of all those many, many bodies stacked on the battlefield set afire.
The image of Jorah’s body consumed in flames.
All those other goodbye moments are good, but we already felt the loss of those characters in the last episode. Simply by focusing in on those two images, the part can represent the whole.
Rather than feeling the need to capture every single moment, we can feel the whole thing in a more visceral, dynamic and exciting way, and probably in less than a minute instead of 5 minutes. We can be launched into the action rather than sitting in the aftermath.
If there’s another moment that potentially should be included, it’s Jon’s speech. This isn’t because it’s an especially exciting speech; it’s not. It’s the typical speech we expect a leader to make after the loss of so many lives for such a good cause.
The speech is important because it’s Jon Snow saying it, not Daenerys who is supposed to be in charge here and is a little bit concerned about power lately.
But the value of the speech is completely lost in this sequence, swallowed up by all the other images around it. It’s just a speech. It doesn’t feel yet like an act of betrayal, or a symbol of the loss of her power, or even stepping back from her power in order to let Jon speak to his people, all the things it could become in a revision.
In other words, while we get the plot of the speech in this Game of Thrones scene, we don’t get the structure.
This the next lesson of revision.
Once you cut all the good stuff to focus on the great, once you cut all the non-urgent stuff to focus on the true heart of the scene, you also give your writing room to breathe.
You open up the pages you need to get the most value out of your most important scenes.
You open up the room to meditate deeply on one thing or two things or three things, rather than trying to juggle everything at the same time.
Now, we’re going to push deeper into the concept of revision, tying it into structure and concept and hook and character.
But first, I’ve got to warn you there are going to be a couple of spoilers ahead. So if you haven’t seen the episode yet, you might want to plug your ears.
One of the ways you build all this in a revision is to look at an early draft of your script and find the moments you can’t get out of your head.
Find the moments that shock you, surprise you, terrify you or even scenes that seem a little off or out of character, but you somehow know are true and compelling. There’s one very clear such sequence in Game of Thrones Episode 4, probably the most exciting in the episode.
We’re watching the armies split apart on the way to their final battle. We’re watching Daenerys fly on dragonback as we’ve seen her do in the past with Jon, but which she’s now doing alone with the fleet below her while Jon goes by land.
We’ve split these two apart so we can worry about what’s going to happen to them being separated. We’ve got the lovely, magical dragon score playing in the background, reminding us of their ride together in Episode 1. There’s a feeling of romance, magic, and loss in seeing Daenerys on that dragon without Jon beside her.
Suddenly, a giant spear pierces one of her dragons, and then another and another. Then we watch that dragon crash into the water.
And we’re like, “WHAT?”
Because we thought these dragons were nearly invincible. It took a magic spear from the Night King to kill one, and even that was not the easiest thing to pull off.
This is a terrifying and shocking moment, probably the most powerful moment in this episode from an action point of view.
Now, there are also a million problems with this scene. How did this idiot, Euron Greyjoy, find this fleet at just the right time considering that, for all he knows, Daenerys and her army are still getting slaughtered by the dead?
How did he pull off an ambush at sea with Daenerys up in the sky above everyone, with a limitless view, conceivably looking for trouble on the horizon?
How exactly is time working? Euron seems to have instantly spirited himself and his fleet halfway to Winterfell, then just as quickly back to Cersei’s side.
And are dragons actually that easy to kill? Does it really only take some old-fashioned technology from Season 7?
So, there are some problems. In a rewrite, if this were my script, I’d want to use some of those pages I’d freed up earlier to do a better job of making all of this slightly more believable.
Nevertheless, as bumpy as the execution of the scene might be, structurally it’s vital. It’s another giant spear in the heart of Daenerys, another push on her anger and grief, and another loss that can potentially split her from Jon.
We also have a powerful relationship moment in this episode between Jaime and Brienne.
Something has been brewing between these two for a very long time. We know Jaime is in love with his sister and has been since Season 1, and this is his first chance at a pure love with a good person, to become a different kind of person himself.
So we’ve got these two things happening at the same time.
We’ve got this journey with Daenerys who is flying off with her dragons to take the Iron Throne, only to have one of her dragons slain.
Then we have this emotionally powerful story happening between Jaime and Brienne, which is asking the question, “Can Jaime ever move on from Cersei? Can he become a different person than he’s been before?”
These are two very powerful elements to build an episode around.
At the same time, Game of Thrones has a problem at this point in this season.
If you’ve been watching Daenerys in Season 8, you’ve probably noticed you don’t like her. And not in the good “love to hate her” the way you feel about Cersei.
Instead, you’re probably feeling disconnected from her in general, like a part of you just doesn’t care, even though she’s going through what should be a powerful journey of breaking bad. Her suffering is splitting her away from her true love with Jon Snow in a mirror reflection of what happened in the first season between her and Drogo.
This is interesting because we know a “breaking bad” journey can be incredibly compelling. We watched Walter White break bad for 5 seasons and we loved him, cared about him, and felt connected to him.
Yet here’s Daenerys, whom we’ve felt connected to for eight seasons, and as we watch her break bad we aren’t connected, at least I’m not. We don’t like her. We aren’t rooting for her as she breaks bad.
Why? What causes this problem?
The reason why is actually a spiritual one. In the Buddhist sense, it’s the problem of attachment.
You can choose any journey you want for your characters, and it’s easy to get attached to those plans.
But what you want your characters to do and what they’re actually ready to do aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The writers have figured out they need a cool hook for this season of Game of Thrones. They’ve got to keep things interesting, but with two good guys like Jon and Daenerys fighting on the same team with all this firepower, it isn’t going to be very exciting.
It’s like making an Avengers movie. You’ve got to get the Avengers fighting each other because if the Avengers are fighting somebody else it’s no fun. They’re too damn strong. They’ve got to be fighting themselves in order to have real drama.
So the idea is: What if Daenerys were to break bad? What if she isn’t going be a strong leader in this season? What if Jon is the true heir to the throne?
It’s actually a great idea, but I think we can agree it isn’t totally working. It isn’t working because we aren’t enjoying watching Daenerys break bad, and we aren’t enjoying it because it isn’t growing out of her character.
For eight seasons, we have watched Daenerys hold on to her morality in the face of much stronger ethical questions than this. We have watched her remain the good guy in the face of so many options to hold on to her power. We have seen her go to war for a bunch of slaves to become the breaker of chains. We have seen her hold on to her integrity no matter what.
While the writers may have tried to set this idea up last season, by having her torch Sam’s family and force Jon to bend the knee to her in an effort to solidify her power, we’re not surprised Daenerys can be tough. After all, she used to be married to Drogo, and we all know she’s playing a life and death game.
The first reason we aren’t really connecting to the new “bad Daenerys” is that we don’t really believe it. Daenerys isn’t bad. Daenerys is good and has been good. She may be complicated and she may even be breaking bad, but we’re not feeling her break bad. Rather, we’re feeling her bounce into a completely different personality.
We don’t yet have the structure in place to help us understand how this side of her evolved.
Instead of feeling her character evolve naturally, we’re feeling the hand of the writer push her. That’s why it doesn’t feel true.
Let’s contrast that with Jaime.
In the first season, Jaime is one of the worst people you’ve ever met. He throws a child off a wall, he’s sleeping with his sister, and he’s murdered the king he was supposed to protect. He is the worst guy ever.
Over several seasons we’ve watched him change, even in the face of his undying love for the sister he knows is a monster. We believe his change. We’re rooting for his change. We’re hoping Jaime becomes a better person.
Why does Jaime’s change work while Daenerys’ change doesn’t?
You don’t just get to choose that your character changes; you’ve got to force them to change. And this change can’t happen in the character’s head, the change has to happen on the screen.
This is why writing a screenplay or a TV series is much different than writing a novel.
In a novel, your character can change in their head, just like in life our thoughts often change us.
We’re acting a certain way, and then we think and think about it. We dream on it, meditate on it, journal about it, and we realize, “Oh my God, I’ve got to make a change. I’ve got to do something different.” So, for many of us, our changes happen internally.
But when writing movies or television, our job is to externalize the internal. We need to take the emotional thing happening on the inside and create scenes on the outside, between characters, events, plot, and structure, that push the character and force them to change.
If you think about Jaime’s arc over these eight seasons, you can see the events that have pushed him to leave Cersei and try to become a better man.
We’ve seen how all those events add up to the touching moment a couple of episodes ago when he knights Brienne. We understand how that moment led to this one when he makes love to her, an innocent, virgin love so different than the one he had with his sister.
We also understand why he leaves Brienne, even though we wish he didn’t. We understand what shaped that decision in him.
It’s why that moment he tells Brienne who he really is and what he has done is so powerful.
“You think I’m a good man,” he says. “I pushed a boy out of a tower window, crippled him for life, for Cersei. I strangled my cousin with my own hands, just to get back to Cersei. I would’ve murdered every man, woman, and child in Riverrun, for Cersei. She’s hateful, and so am I.”
We believe in and are moved by these words because we’ve seen Jaime over these last three episodes wrestle with his hateful past, with what he did to Bran, with the question of whether he can ever escape who he is.
I don’t think the moment works perfectly. In a rewrite, I’d punctuate the moment when he realizes he can’t overcome who he used to be. Right now, he has the words to express what he’s feeling and it’s a brilliant monologue.
But it’s still not clear why, after all the horrible things Cersei has done, including most recently, in a scene with its own problems, sending Bronn with a crossbow to slay both Jaime and Tyrion just in case the Night King failed. It’s not clear why Cersei’s slaying of a dragon in the middle of a genuine war for survival is the moment that finally makes Jaime realize change is impossible.
In a rewrite, I’d look at that monologue and I’d keep writing until Jaime told me exactly why the death of the dragon made him lose his faith in himself. Or, I’d look at the moment before it and see if something could happen between Jaime and Brienne, or between Jaime and another character, that could force him back to who he used to be.
I’d use some of those pages I’d opened up so I wouldn’t have to rush that moment. Because that’s the moment that really matters.
But that’s really just a small rewrite, a little polish on a great scene. Because, structurally, the scene already has integrity. It’s already growing from something true in the character.
At the end of the day, it’s true that the writers want Jaime to leave Brienne. It’s true to the character that Jaime’s going to leave her. Making that work perfectly is just a matter of execution.
So, sometimes, the character wants to do exactly what you want them to do.
But sometimes. what you want the character to do and what the character actually wants to do are just not the same thing. They’re not going to do what you want.
When this happens, you’ve got two different choices.
Choice number one, you can just let go and say, ”Okay, who cares what I want. Let me just follow the character.”
Often, if you follow the character, you will find the character is willing to do much more interesting things than what you’re trying to force them to do.
One of our mottos at Jacob Krueger Studio is, “I Write The Truth.” We’ve even got stickers to put on your journal or laptop to remind you.
“I Write The Truth” doesn’t mean the literal truth, but it does mean the emotional truth. It does mean your writing needs to be connected.
So, if you’re feeling like your writing is disconnected, if you feel like a puppeteer, controlling your character through your plot, chances are you aren’t going to write the kinds of compelling scenes or create the kinds of compelling journeys you want and need in your script.
You want to find a way to do this that feels like it has integrity like it is coming naturally from you.
The easiest way to do that, especially if you’re still learning and developing your craft, is to trust your characters, to keep torturing them, to keep making things harder for them.
If they’re flying across the sky, shoot one of their dragons. Let the worst thing happen, all the time, unexpectedly, and your character will naturally change and go on a powerful journey.
That’s the easiest way to do it. If you’re an intuitive writer and still developing your craft, don’t try to push your character where you think they need to go. Let them push you.
Seek out and destroy the moments that feel forced and disconnected and rewrite them from a blank page. Allow your characters to take you and follow where they lead.
Be curious about when their path will meet back up with the one you previously charted, or whether it will lead you somewhere even more interesting.
Keep them making new choices you believe are true, keep putting them in new situations you believe are true, and they’re going to take you somewhere really cool.
Sometimes you don’t have this freedom. Sometimes you’ve got a hard deadline or a producer who wants something a certain way, or you’re working on a series and everybody else’s episode is dependent upon the things that happen in yours, and they’ve got to happen in the way you planned them.
So, the other way to do it is to develop the rewriting skills you need to shift the value of the plot points you’ve already created, until they all line up into a different pattern that feels truthful and connected and, if you’re really good, maybe even inevitable.
Look at the plot events you’ve created and remember that plot isn’t actually that important.
The only purpose of the plot is to push characters towards change.
This is true in your life too. All writers and all people confuse plot and structure, but plot and structure are not the same thing.
Plot is the crap that happens to happen to you in your life, just like the plot is the crap that happens to happen to your character.
The truth of the matter is you have very little control over the plot, and all plot is kind of boring.
The only thing that matters is what choice you make in relation to whatever plot just happened, what choice your character makes in relation to whatever plot just happened.
Sometimes you’re walking down the street and a piano falls out of the sky and it lands on you and, honestly, that plot doesn’t matter. What matters is, what choice do you make?
Sometimes you’re an adventurous little kid climbing a wall and you see something you’re not supposed to see, and some cowardly asshole throws you off the wall and paralyzes you.
It doesn’t matter what happened; it matters what choice you make in relation to what happened. Those choices might propel you into misery or they might transform you into a different kind of being for whom even the power of ruling Winterfell holds no temptation.
Sometimes you go through the saddest, most beautiful, most messed up love story ever. You start off a child and you emerge on the other side as the mother of dragons. Suddenly, power seems the only answer to an unfair world. Then one day you’re flying through the sky and some psychotic asshole shoots your dragon.
It doesn’t really matter what happened; it matters what choice you make in relation to what happened.
Plot’s only purpose is to push the character to change. It’s just the crap that happened.
The structure grows from the different kinds of choices different kinds of characters make in relation to that plot.
Your job in a rewrite is to locate and amplify those choices so we can see how they all add up to make the comedy or the tragedy inevitable.
For your plot and your structure to ring true, they’ve got to work together. Sometimes that’s happening organically because they’re coming from your heart. You feel connected as you write them; you actually believe it’s true yourself.
Other times, plot and structure start from different places with plot coming from an intellectual idea, or from an outline, or a producer, or a star, or a preconception, or a financing opportunity, or setting up something for the future, or the loss of a location, or a million other non-organic places that aren’t in alignment with what’s in the heart of your characters or what’s in your own heart as a writer.
But you’ve still got to find a way to make that plot work together with your structure, to keep pushing on it until you believe it’s true, not just in your head, but also in your heart.
This is another part of the spiritual aspect of screenwriting and rewriting: learning to believe in something you know is not yet true and keep pushing on it until it becomes so.
The problem with Daenerys in Season 8, the reason you’re probably disconnecting from her, or at least the reason I am, is we don’t actually believe her choices. We don’t believe her choices because nothing is forcing her to break bad.
If you look at the structure of Season 8, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment that the breaking bad began. It’s almost like we got to the end of last season and everything seemed fine. She did force Jon to bend the knee, but we understand why she did so. And guess what? It was probably the right decision.
She did torch Sam’s family when they refused to bend the knee, and we might not have liked her decision, but we understand why she did it. No one is pretending it was a good decision and it was probably the wrong one.
But it wasn’t the decision of a bad leader who only cared about power. It was the decision of someone fighting for the future of her world and needing people to rally around her and potentially making a tragic mistake.
Then we get to the beginning of this season and it feels like we’re meeting a different person.
Whatever change occurred in Daenerys that turned her into a person with no ethics, loyalty, or trust in those around her, or desire for anything except power must have happened internally. It didn’t happen on the outside; we didn’t actually get to see it. We see the start of it in Season 7 and we see the effects of it in Season 8, but we can’t pinpoint the moment.
This is what’s cool about the plot. It’s malleable, especially if you get good at rewriting.
I do believe this season of Game of Thrones has a structural problem with Daenerys, and when you have a structural problem in your script and you’re a new writer, your instinct is usually to say, “Oh my God, I’ve got to throw it all out. I’ve got to change everything.” But this is rarely true.
You need to look at your plot and ask, “Okay, out of what I’ve created, what’s good? What’s strong? What felt truthful? What’s interesting?”
Ask yourself, “How could I use this plot to pinpoint those moments of decision in my character’s journey? How can I use this plot to string together the choices that actually change the character?”
If you’ve taken my Level 1 classes, you know this is a much more advanced way of rewriting than we discuss in my beginning classes. Though we will be going more in-depth with this kind of rewriting in my upcoming Level 2 weekend intensive in June.
This is a more advanced approach because it isn’t just following your instincts. This is allowing your heart and your head to work together, fusing art and craft to create a believable journey that takes your character where you want them to go. It’s not easy, but let’s talk about how it works.
It starts with looking at the moments you have and asking yourself if you can track the choices that lead up to those moments if you can find the exact moment where each step of that character’s change took place.
The real problem in Season 8 of Game of Thrones is that they’re missing the moment called the Inciting Incident for Daenerys.
If you’ve studied with me, you know I have some issues with this term, so this will be an oversimplified version of how this works structurally, but using the term commonly used in the industry will help those of you who have not yet taken my classes.
What’s missing this season is the moment that kickstarts Daenerys into breaking bad for real, the moment that opens the door for this change to take place. The reason they’re missing that moment is because they start having her break bad before anything has happened that would make her break bad.
We can contrast this to Walter White in Breaking Bad.
In the first season of Breaking Bad, we know exactly why he is breaking bad. We know he has cancer and that this is changing his life. We know he feels he can’t provide for his family and how he finds out about this new way of doing it.
The truth is Game of Thrones has all the plot necessary to believably move Daenerys to a point where we will believe that she has broken bad. What is missing is the value of that plot, because the change starts way too early.
Imagine instead what would happen if we watched Daenerys at the beginning of this season as the same complicated, but generally good, person that we met at the end of last season.
What if we met a woman who was good? What if she were a woman trying to hold on to her integrity, her goodness, and her power at the same time, but things keep happening to chip away at that integrity?
First, she comes to Winterfell. She is used to being welcomed with open arms and love, right? Everyone who has met Daenerys has either seen her as a dangerous enemy they wanted to kill or as a great liberator they believed in. From Tyrion and Varys to the Unsullied, she’s used to being loved and appreciated, even all the way to Jon Snow who bends the knee to her.
Yet here she comes to Winterfell, and nobody likes her. Everybody hates her.
Now, all that plot already exists. The problem is she’s already changing!
What we really want to watch, what would make us connect to her, is seeing her try to hold on to her integrity in the face of all these people who hate her for no reason, even though she has come to save them, even though she has stepped away from her own war to try to defeat the undead, even though they need her dragons.
We need to feel the ingratitude chipping away at her ethical core, rather than the change in her morality happening in advance and leaving us feeling like, “Yeah, maybe they’re right not to like her.”
Then Daenerys finds out Jon actually has a claim to the throne and she instantly turns into a bad guy.
Her whole journey has been based on the belief that she is meant, through her bloodline, to be the heir to the throne.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting to watch her wrestle with the idea, as a woman whom we’ve met and understood to be a person with integrity, that maybe it’s meant to be Jon?
From there, we could watch her wrestle with her own assumptions, whether a direct line of descent to the throne is the most important quality in a queen or a king. Is that what we actually believe?
Eventually, perhaps, to wrestle with the question of what kind of decisions it takes to rule the 7 Kingdoms, all of whom want what you have. Can you really remain as humble as Jon, or do you have to stake your claim before they revolt against you like they once did to Jon at the wall?
In the previous episode we watched Jorah die, and in this episode Daenerys tells Jon she never loved Jorah like she loves him. But the truth is we’ve actually seen something different; we know how much she loved Jorah.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting and more complicated for her to admit to Jon how much she loved Jorah? How complicated and confused she is?
In this episode we watch Varys, who we know to be manipulative and always thinking long term, never about the short-term human cost of his actions, make the argument that killing a bunch of people to take the Iron Throne is wrong and a terrible mistake.
But the truth is that doesn’t seem like Varys at all. It seems like Varys would say, “What’s the most effective way to do this? Let’s do it.”
It’s more like Daenerys to say, “No, I refuse to torch 10,000 innocent people.”
What’s happening is, to try and create conflict, the writers are actually switching the characters. The characters aren’t playing their own roles or by their own rules.
We aren’t watching the problem grow organically within the characters in Game of Thrones, rather we’re watching it be superimposed upon them for the sake of the plot.
We aren’t watching Daenerys’ ethics get chipped away by the pain and horror of war, which is how a woman like her could actually become a tyrant. Instead, we’re watching the writers manipulate these characters trying to get to that conflict.
In this episode we watch Tyrion, the smartest guy in the room, make the dumbest possible choice. Everybody knows there’s absolutely no way Cersei is going to abdicate the throne, no matter how nicely you ask.
We also know Cersei wants her brother dead more than anything in the world, which is why it isn’t believable when Tyrion walks toward that castle and the archers take their aim. You’re waiting, you know this is the moment Tyrion is going to eat it. You know Cersei is going to kill him; you’re already pitching that idea to yourself.
What happens instead is the writers let their foot off the gas pedal because they don’t want to kill their character. They don’t allow the worst thing to happen. Yes, it is terrible they kill Daenerys’ wonderful, beloved advisor Missandei, but the worst thing hasn’t actually occurred. For some inexplicable reason, Cersei doesn’t take the shot she’s been waiting for, the one she sent Bronn all the way to Winterfell to take for her.
Because the worst thing hasn’t occurred, we aren’t able to see how everyone is changed by it.
Imagine if Cersei had assassinated the brilliant hand behind Daenerys, the one man capable of tempering her anger. Imagine if the worst had really happened. We would start to understand how Daenerys would have to break bad, how Missandei’s final words could take root in her head and make her rethink her ethical decision.
If we understood Daenerys as the person who comes to parlay saying, “I don’t want to torch these people,” it would be so much more interesting to watch her react to the stacking of events: the death of two dragons, the death of Jorah, the hatred of the people of Winterfell, the shocking news maybe she isn’t destined for this, the death of the people that she loves around her, the betrayal of Cersei, the final words of Missandei.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting to watch that structure develop and build up to this one moment where the real break happens?
This is the idea I want to leave you with: structure grows out of plot, but structure is not plot.
Structure grows out of the psychological truth of your character, the way you push them and push them and push them until they change.
For your structure and your episodes to really land, you need to create that in a way that feels connected.
If you’re a very skillful writer, if your craft is strong, it’s okay to say, “I want to move my character to this.” But you have to be honest with yourself. Are they actually ready to move?
And if they aren’t, you don’t get to just move them anyway. You’ve got to actually push them there. You’ve got to keep externalizing the internal, locating those moments of choice, and push them one step at a time until you truly believe it.
Or, you can simply allow the characters to do it themselves. You can simply ask yourself, “How do I keep pushing them until they make an interesting decision, until they do something that surprises me, until they take me to a place that I didn’t expect to go?” You can do this even if you don’t have a plan at all.
These are your two choices. The only choice you don’t have is the choice Game of Thrones is making right now.
You don’t have the choice to puppet and manipulate your characters.
Because even if you have the kind of audience Game of Thrones has, and yes, they’re going to survive the small problem that’s happening in this episode, you want the audience to connect to your character.
You want the audience to shed genuine tears when your character makes a terrible mistake. You want the audience to be wishing that Daenerys could be the person she used to be as opposed to being forced to accept, “Okay, I guess she’s different this season.”
You want your audience to imagine these characters are real, and not remind themselves that the writer is doing something. As a writer, you want to become invisible.
If you’d like to develop your screenwriting skills, come study with me! I’ve got some amazing classes starting up in the coming weeks, including a brand new, Write Your Screenplay Level II Weekend Intensive in June, As with all our classes, you can join us here in New York City or attend online from anywhere in the world. Visit my website for more information and be sure to bookmark the Game of Thrones podcast series page for more in-depth analysis of the show!
We’re also excited to announce our next 4-week, introductory Write Your Screenplay: Level 1 class kicks off on June 6th and will be taught by the wonderfully talented Keatyn Lee! Whether you’re an absolute beginner or an old pro looking to take your writing in new directions, this is the class that will change the way you view screenwriting. In Keatyn, you’ll have an expert guide on your writing journey. Visit our website for details and to sign up!
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*Edited for length and clarity
Love your podcast and thanks so much for sharing your insights and ideas. I have one comment. About the inciting incident for her breaking bad, i believe you may have missed it and i think that’s why they repeated it. The true inciting incident was when js rejected her romantically for the second time. She even has a fateful line of dialogue afterwards (& sadly it was a tad too quiet). But she clearly makes the decision to break bad only at that point, and only bc she has been rejected by the one for whom she has risked everything for (& twice!! Twice makes one certain). I know it’s hard sometimes from a dude’s pov, but imagine she was a king rejected twice and it’d be crystal clear. So it is all right there in my view, delayed for sure but still present in time for the final mayhem. I see all of her previous behavior as forshadowing this change. She doubted but did not actually change until that final insult. She also delayed announcing her change until the last moment, but what character worth her salt wouldn’t?
I agree with you that the romantic rejection by Jon was a big omission in this podcast! Thanks for catching this. I don’t necessarily see it as the inciting incident in the way that term is traditionally used– there’s already been a lot of breaking bad up to that point. But I do agree with you that this moment, if structured differently in relation to the events leading up to it, could have been a powerful inciting incident for the change in Daenerys.