What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones

by Emily J

A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article listing Game of Thrones as “overrated.” For the most part, this season has been (to me) surprisingly great and some of the technically best writing the series has had since season one. Then came “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”

Episode six of season five is getting a lot of heat for its final scene, but this episode also epitomizes some of the larger issues with the series as a whole in terms of writing.

So let’s break this episode down in its entirety and see what we can learn from Bryan Cogman’s storytelling.

Breaking Down the Structure

First, here is how the script breaks down:

  • The first twenty-five minutes of the episode goes back and forth between Arya in Braavos and Tyrion en route to Mereen with Sir Jorah.
  • Next is one very “talky” scene between Cersei and Littlefinger.
  • An approximately ten minute sequence in Dorne where Jaime and Bronn find Myrcella (who is clearly in love with her betrothed, Trystane), followed by a fight with the Sand Snakes over kidnapping Myrcella, ending with everyone being arrested by the Dorne Royal Guard.
  • Another ten minute sequence, this time in King’s Landing, depicting Lady Olenna returning to see her grandchildren, followed by the hearing where Queen Margaery and her brother Sir Loras are arrested by the Faith.
  • Finally, a fifteen minutes sequence where Sansa prepares for her wedding, marries Ramsey Snow/Bolton, and ending with Ramsey forcefully consummating the marriage while Theon must watch.

arya faces

As broken down above, this episode has five isolated storylines: Arya, Tyrion, Dorne, King’s Landing, and Sansa. Most network, one-hour, serialized shows average three storylines per episode, though this is moving up to four more and more. That is a lot of plot for shows that also have to make room for commercial breaks. Many will argue that the reason Game of Thrones does not follow a standard four, five, or six-act structure is because it has so much story to put into one episode.*

I disagree. If Mad Men, The Good Wife, The 100, and many others can fit four intertwined plot lines into forty-two minutes (eighteen minutes for commercials), that would mean that Game of Thrones has an extra eighteen minutes and could easily add one or two more plotlines.

Plenty of Plot, No Connection

The problem comes in the editing of the scenes. If you isolate sequences as they have done in this episode, then they do not fit together as a whole. Is there a theme tying all of this together? Daenerys would seemingly have the most in common with Sansa’s storyline, but the Khaleesi is absent from the entire hour. Tyrion talks about the politics of the Wall but we do not see Jon Snow at all.

“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” almost feels like a choose-your-own-adventure story. You do not need to follow all of these characters anymore as they affect one another so little. The scene between Littlefinger and Cersei was clearly an attempt to bring the storylines together, but because he ultimately tells Cersei to let the Boltons and Stannis Baratheon kill one another while she stays in King’s Landing, the connection immediately dissolves.

Five One-Act Stories Do Not Make a Five-Act Episode

It is not enough to edit these stories so they take place over the entire hour, you have to also make a complete story, which is often hit-and-miss with this series. We all know three, four, five (etc.) act structure, yet each storyline feels like its own, separate one-act sequence. Sequence Structure: Set-Up, Action, Climax, Resolution

the hearing

This is definitely the structure of the King’s Landing story:

  • Set-Up: Lady Olenna arrives and talks with Margaery about the trouble Sir Loras is in.
  • Action: Olenna meets with Cersei in the hopes that she can change the Queen Mother’s mind, but is unable to do so. The hearing begins against Loras, who claims his innocence. Queen Margaery is questioned and corroborates her brother’s testimony.
  • Climax: Loras’s lover is brought out as a witness of Loras and Margaery’s guilt. The Tyrell siblings are arrested.
  • Resolution: Margaery pleads with her husband, King Tommen, for help but he is too scared and overwhelmed to speak up.

Tyrion and Jorah’s storyline does not fully fit this model, as the pair mostly walk-and-talk or sit-and-talk. They come upon the slavers’ ship and talk their way out of being immediately killed. This is not a full sequence. If a BEAT is an action and a reaction in screenwriting, then that is all that has occurred in this storyline. The same is true for Jaime, Bronn, and the Sandsnakes in Dorne.

Sansa and Arya are both given more comprehensive one-act sequences, complete with inciting incidents and turning points. Here is how the structure breaks down for Sansa:

  • Set-Up: It is Sansa’s wedding day and she is planning to remain strong.
  • Inciting Incident: Sansa prepares with a bath, assisted by one of Ramsey’s girlfriends, and stands her ground when she realizes the helper is attempting to scare her. Something is not right with this Bolton household (this is not new information, but it still hits Sansa’s emotional core and goal).
  • Action: Theon arrives to escort Sansa down the aisle, but she remains strong in her decision to marry Ramsey. Sansa goes through with the wedding, escorted by Theon, with Ramsey’s girlfriends glaring from the sidelines.
  • Turning Point: Sansa and Ramsey are walked to Ramsey’s rooms by Theon, where Sansa realizes she may not be strong enough for this marriage.
  • Climax/Resolution: Sansa and the audience’s fears are confirmed as Sansa and Theon do not fight back.

sansa bath

Hopefully at this point you are seeing the pattern. It is difficult to make a cohesive story when the plots are so disconnected and physically set far apart. The way to bring them together is theme, and since the writers did not have that in this episode, they isolated each point-of-view more than they have in past episodes.

A Note on Sexual Abuse in Game of Thrones

As for the Sansa uproar, I was not remotely surprised it happened, and I was grateful the rape was only audible and not visible as well. The writers definitely have a problem with using rape as a plot point far too often for their female characters.

Equally appalling is the way they use sexual torture as a plot point in general. I almost stopped watching season three when audiences were forced to physically see Theon become Reek. I do not mind departures from the book so long as what ends up on screen is great. For example, the addition of Robb Stark’s love story was boring and wasted time, but the fight between Brienne and the Hound while Arya watches is one of my favorite moments.

In the books, Reek merely arrives in a point-of-view chapter and you slowly realize who he was before. It was incredibly compelling and terrifying. In the series, two naked girls arrive to set Reek free and seduce him, only for it to end with him in a trap where he is “dismembered.” This was absolutely unnecessary to watch. When the package arrived in the Iron Isles, Theon’s family knew what happened, and the audience would have known without watching the previous scene. Besides, have we not learned through decades of horror and psychological thrillers that the scariest things are the unseen?

sansa and ramsey

If they had not changed Daenerys’s wedding night (which is essentially the same scene as Sansa’s minus Theon) and convoluted Jaime’s entire emotional arc, then maybe what happened to Sansa would feel more necessary to see. Unfortunately, it plays as if the writers are going back to the same well again and again.

Even if this show was incredibly well-structured with the the same complex characters, moments like this would unfortunately still happen as the fantasy genre is filled with rape and torture. We expect more from the current golden age of television, and definitely from the channel that helped create this new age.

Thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, we expect high-quality visuals and production design. GOT has managed to hang onto complex characters, but it is not enough to make up for the clear cracks in the structure. You need all three of these elements to work: visuals, character, story. Whether the final scene of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” works will be determined by how they handle Sansa for the rest of the season. This season did start stronger than previous seasons, though, so I believe they can pull it off, so long as they start with a strong foundation of structure.

*Three, Four, Five, Six, Whatever-Act structure are ultimately all the same. I’ve talked about this more thoroughly here.


Emily Jermusyk is a screenwriter and story consultant. She got her start in high school writing over 150 episodes of a soap opera parodying Knots Landing. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed. Follow Emily on Twitter, and check out her website, Ruining Television.

2 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones

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  1. This reviewer seems REALLY uptight about sex. No wonder CW is her favorite channel. Watch something else then. Watching PG stuff seems more your boring style.

    1. Being uptight about sex and having a problem with the systemic rape and objectification of an entire cast of women are two very different things.

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