Game of Thrones Episode 3: The Poetry Of Violence
This week we’re discussing Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 3, “The Battle of Winterfell.” I am so excited to talk about this episode. I haven’t had a chance to talk about a battle sequence of this length and consequence and poetry since my podcast on Mad Max, which you should check out if you’re into action writing.
Today we’re going to talk about the poetry of violence, the poetry of writing action into your screenplays. We’re going to talk a little bit about how to build a battle sequence, but also about what makes a battle sequence special.
And just a warning, there are some major spoilers ahead…
Action sequences in TV shows like Game of Thrones are actually built just like drama and comedy sequences. They aren’t actually about the fight; they’re always about the interpersonal dramatic moment happening within a fight.
It doesn’t matter how spectacularly you build the events or the plot of your action sequence. It’s the personal story, the drama underneath it, that’s going to make your action sequence succeed or fail.
In fact, if you’ve done a really good job, you’ll be able to describe your action sequence as if it was a drama without talking about the action at all. You’ll realize the action is actually laid over the top of the drama, that it’s the structure of the character choices and the character changes giving us the drama and carrying us through the action.
In a way, building an action sequence is similar to writing a musical. When you work on a musical, you write a dramatic scene and then your composers steal that scene and turn it into a song.
They change it when they turn it into a song because songs work differently than dramatic scenes, but they are inspired by the dramatic content of what’s happening.
It’s even true when you’re writing a TV comedy. As Jerry Perzigian, the Emmy Award-winning showrunner who teaches our TV writing classes here at the studio, says, “First you write it true, and then you make it funny.”
It’s the same in action writing in TV and screenplays; first you write it true, and then you find the action.
So, let’s start by talking about what’s true and how you find it. What’s true in Game of Thrones is that once upon a time there was a dagger and that dagger was intended for Bran. That dagger, over eight seasons, has passed from character to character to character to character, until it finally landed in the hands of Bran’s sister, Arya Stark.
That dagger will finally drive home the ending of an entire engine of the Game of Thrones story, the epic battle against the dead.
Over the course of Game of Thrones, we’ve watched Bran Stark transform from a child to an otherworldly being who is at peace with his destiny. We’ve watched Arya transform from a child into a trained assassin who has worn many faces and will find her last face here when she kills the Night King.
This is the completion of Arya’s fate, her journey from child to assassin, just as it is the completion of Bran’s journey from child to Three-Eyed Raven, both of which we’ve watched over the course of eight seasons.
It’s the completion of Theon and Bran’s journey when Theon, who has been a coward for eight seasons, finally finds his courage after Bran, the boy he betrayed, tells him that he is a good man.
The truth is that the structure is built out of all these relationships: the relationship between Tyrion and Sansa, between Melisandre and Davos, between Jaime and Brienne, between the Hound and Arya, between Daenerys and Jon, and between Daenerys and Jorah.
You can see all of these Game of Thrones characters are going on a journey, and that throughout the battle, while there are a tremendous number of beautiful sequences, the structure is growing out of the drama.
The structure grows out of the Hound giving up on the fight because of his fear of fire and death, and then choosing once again to save Arya’s life. The drama comes from Arya, who has transformed herself into nothing but bravery, experiencing her own moment of fear where she runs, before being confronted by Melisandre who reminds her of what you say to death, “Not today.”
It’s the story of little Lady Mormont who refuses to go hide in The Crypts and instead gives her life to kill a giant. It’s the story of Daenerys and Jon who have to put aside their differences to fight the Night King on dragonback, only to find out that even dragon fire won’t kill him.
And it’s that final moment of drama when Daenerys has to mourn the loss of the second true love of her life, Jorah, in that beautiful image where the dragon enwraps his weeping mother on the battlefield.
The structure of battle is actually a second layer put on top of these character relationships, character changes, and the journeys these characters are on, just as if we were building a drama. It is simply a layer of spectacle laid on top.
For it to work, the battle has to have its own dramatic arc and this Game of Thrones battle has one.
To understand the dramatic arc of a character you have to understand what that character wants as well as what their obstacle is, what goes wrong for them, and what new choices the character needs to make.
Similarly, to understand the dramatic arc of this Game of Thrones battle you have to understand what the plan is, what goes wrong, and what new choices the characters need to make.
That’s the structure of the battle, but the truth is we’ve seen a lot of battle scenes in our lives. To write a great battle there has to be structure to it, but you also have to have a hook.
It’s like writing a great character, there has to be something different about this character, something that sets them apart from characters we’ve seen before.
We’ve seen assassins before, but we’ve never seen a little girl who has to wear many faces in order to become one. We’ve seen complicated love stories before, but we’ve never seen Tyrion and Sansa reunited in this way where they can actually feel a real connection together.
We’ve seen terrible antagonists before, but we have never seen one this icy, calm, cool, and collected. We have seen dragon fights before, but we have never seen one that happens in a snowstorm.
Each of these elements has a hook, but the battle itself also has a hook. The hook of this battle is that it’s going to take place at night.
If you think back to all the battles in Game of Thrones, you’ll see they all have a hook; they all have something special.
What’s special about this battle is that it takes place at night. Now, a lot of people have complained about how dark the actual filming of this battle is, that you can’t quite see everything.
Whether you like or hate that creative decision, you have to admit it’s a pretty damn bold one. The writers decided to shoot this as if you were seeing it from the character’s eyes, as if you could only get glimpses.
So, the first piece of the hook is that this battle takes place at night. The second piece of the hook is that this army is so tremendously huge. It’s the biggest army you’ve ever seen fighting against a small army.
It’s an army that doesn’t tire, doesn’t fear, doesn’t try to preserve its own life, and it’s an army that even if you kill it can rise again. This is the hook.
In order for the battle sequence to work, it has to give you what the hook promised and more. It has to go through all the fears and complications you imagined when you pitched yourself the hook, and then it’s got to get even worse.
Otherwise, you’ll end up pitching yourself something cooler than what you see on the screen and the battle will end up feeling easy, or safe, or boring because you had such high expectations.
When you’re creating a battle sequence, as in Game of Thrones, you have to deliver more than the audience is already telling themselves could happen.
For example, imagine if, after knocking the Night King off his dragon, Daenerys had doused him in fire and he had simply died. You would have been pissed off.
You would have been pissed off because you imagined it was going to be so much harder than that, and that’s why it’s so gratifying when the flames don’t even touch him.
You’ve got to deliver. You’ve got to make the biggest promise you can, and then you’ve got to deliver even more than that.
Last week we talked about the idea of saving the best for first and this is another example of it. You’ve got to front-load everything we’re expecting so that in the second half of the battle we can go places you don’t expect.
We expect, because we know the plan and it’s very simple, that we’re going to sucker the Night King into coming for Bran and then we’re going to kill him with dragon fire. Not all of this plan makes perfect sense, they do stretch a bit to justify why the Night King, in the middle of this epic battle, is going to come for Bran and put himself at risk.
It’s also not the best plan to send all the Dothraki warriors out onto the battlefield to die when they have a perfectly good castle behind them and could wait for the dead to come to them.
Not all of these plans make sense, but we know what the plan is. We’re going to fight them on the battlefield, we’re going to lure them to Bran, and we’re going to torch them with dragons.
And once you have a plan for the battle sequence in your script, all you have to do is make sure that every element of it goes wrong.
We know there is going to be a blood bath. Everyone has been waiting to find out who is going to die and who is going to live so you’ve got to kill off some characters, but you’ve got to kill off characters that we don’t expect and you’ve got to kill them in a way we don’t necessarily see coming. You’ve got to deliver more than the hook.
Basically, once you know the plan, everything in the plan has got to go wrong. Because if the plan goes right in your action sequence, it’s going to feel too easy. You want to make it worse, and then make it worse, and then make it worse.
How do you make it worse? How do you figure out what actually has to happen? This is where we have to get a little bit spiritual and talk about the poetry of this.
If all you’re doing is thinking with your conscious mind and trying to come up with some good ideas, the chances are your action sequence is going to retread over a lot of ground others have already tread.
To figure out what happens, to uncover the amazing things that can happen, we have to be able to dip into the subconscious part of our mind. We have to get past our conscious mind’s plan and start looking for things that might not make sense. It may be we don’t even know what’s happening or going to happen yet.
Those moments are always going to come from powerful images.
If you think of the battle sequence of The Battle of Winterfell, you realize it can be broken down into a few really powerful images.
There’s the image of the Dothraki army, swords flaming, disappearing into a sea of darkness, and then watching those flames go out.
That may be the most chilling battle sequence I’ve ever seen, and I never saw any of it. All I saw was the image of those flaming swords from high above and what looks like a huge army being swallowed into nothingness.
That’s the kind of image you find by going within, where you wonder, “I don’t even know what that means. I don’t understand why they would even do that. That doesn’t make sense.”
An inexperienced writer’s instincts would likely say, “It doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry, the Dothraki would never fight the dead on their own ground in the middle of a field.”
But an experienced writer would understand that’s the powerful image you’re seeking, that’s the beautiful thing you’re working toward, that’s epic storytelling. It’s also part of the hook; it’s the image that shows you the size of this army.
Did Game of Thrones do a perfect job of justifying why this happened? No, they didn’t. What they did do, in Episodes 1 and 2, is lay down enough information to make it seem like a sensible plan. By making it clear enough what everyone was going to do, you were willing to accept it.
And did you care? No, you didn’t.
You didn’t care about any leaps in battle strategy, because the drama was in watching what we believed to be the fiercest fighting force of all time, the Dothraki, literally swallowed and snuffed out like a match.
It is at that moment we truly understand how large this army of the undead must be.
Another powerful image is of Melisandre setting the trenches on fire with all of the dead standing in front of them and we think, “Yes, it worked!” Then, one by one, the dead start to walk into the flames, snuffing those flames out with their own bodies and pouring on through. Once again, we see the worst has happened.
In an early draft, you might not even know what Melisandre is setting fire to; you might just see an image of her standing with her hands facing an entire army of undead. It’s only later that you work backwards and figure out how that fits in with the plan.
There’s the image of three dragons fighting, obscured by snow, and the image of the blue dragon breathing blue fire into Winterfell, destroying this city we’ve grown to love.
There’s the image of Sansa and Tyrion hidden behind a crypt as the undead pour in behind them, having one moment of connection, and then rushing to what we believe is going to be their death.
There’s the image of Arya in the library, in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the undead.
There’s the image of the Night King doused in fire and simply smiling unscathed.
There’s the image of Bran under this beautiful tree and Theon reaching for his last arrow, finding it gone.
There’s the image of Lady Mormont charging a giant, picked up and crushed in its hand while thrusting her dagger into its eye.
There’s the image of the Night King raising his hands and the dead reanimating, not just outside on the battlefield but inside the castle, and all of these characters we love being reanimating as undead.
There’s the image of Theon, who has only ever run away, running right towards the Night King, this creature so much more powerful than he is.
There’s the image of Arya Stark, throat caught in the hand of the Night King, stabbing him with that dagger, and the image of all these undead creatures shattering into ice crystals.
Finally, there’s the image of Daenerys, huddled on the battlefield holding the dead body of the second man she ever loved, Jorah, weeping and enfolded in the arms of this beautiful dragon.
These are the images out of which this epic battle sequence is built.
When you see those images, the battle starts to come together for you. In the writing of a battle sequence like this, if you try to write it linearly it isn’t going to work. You aren’t consciously smart enough to figure out a battle with this kind of complexity.
What you do instead is find those beautiful images, sometimes not knowing how they connect or relate, sometimes not knowing how you’re going to get from one to another and having to cheat a little bit to make it happen.
Find those beautiful images, then work back to figure out the structure that will hold them together.
This is the poetry of screenwriting, because screenwriting is so much more like a poem than it is a novel.
Like a poem, it is the power of our imagery that’s most important. Watch the first two episodes of Season 8 with the sound off and you’ll find yourself quickly losing interest. But watch Episode 3 with the sound off and…well, you don’t even have to watch it that way!
You may have noticed that a huge portion of Episode 3 is played out in silence. You may have noticed there is hardly any dialogue at all and, just like Mad Max, this frantic battle sequence plays out image by image by image.
It is the poetry of those images, some we can see and some we can’t, that turns this battle sequence into an epic poem, transcending all the typical battle sequences we’re used to and elevating Game of Thrones Episode 3 to art.
If you’re enjoying this Game of Thrones podcast series and it’s helping you with your writing, come study with me! In addition to our regular classes and ProTrack Mentorship Program, I have two terrific weekend intensives coming up this summer for writers of different levels. You can join us in person in New York City or attend online from anywhere in the world.
If you’ve already taken the Write Your Screenplay Level I class or you’re a writer with some experience who listens to the podcast often, I’ll be teaching a Write Your Screenplay Level II Intensive for the first time on Saturday and Sunday, June 22nd and 23rd.
We’ll be breaking down the Seven Act Structure of several films as well as showing you the difference between how that structure works in film and television shows. We’ll also be talking about advanced techniques on writing for the inner eye, hypnotizing your reader with your action, and include some advanced pitching techniques you can use, not only so you can talk about your script to other people but to help you uncover the structure in the script yourself. It’s going to be an amazing workshop, and it includes a 1:1 consultation with a professional writer. Come check it out!
For writers of all levels I’m offering a new weekend intensive version of my Write Your Screenplay Level 1 class on July 27th and 28th. In this special format, we’re going to be looking at how to break through your inner censor to get your best writing on the page, how to overcome writer’s block and resistance, and set up a writing lifestyle for yourself. We’ll also cover how to build your screenplay or television show organically from the blank page to character. scene, and act, all the way to structure. We’re going to introduce the foundations of the Seven Act Structure, break down the structure of several movies and TV shows, and work on some awesome writing exercises to get you connected to your characters and your writing in a more organic way.
*Edited for length and clarity