5 Things I Learned from Game of Thrones (No Spoilers, I Promise!)

So then, the White Walkers said to Jon Snow . . .

Kidding, kidding.  No spoilers, I promised.  Besides, everyone knows White Walkers don’t speak.  Or do they???

Last Sunday was the season finale of Game of Thrones, one of the most watched cable shows in history.  And now, fans will have to wait an entire year to see who will sit on The Iron Throne.

There hasn’t been this much anticipation around the climax of a TV show since, well, The Sopranos comes to mind (which was another HBO Show.  Coincidence? I think not).

So what is it about the world of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms that has so many people obsessed?  And how we can infuse a little of the Lord of Light into what we do?

Here are five things I’ve learned from watching Game of Thrones:

1. People love a period piece.

Game of Thrones takes place in another era.  There is no internet and no cell phone towers.  You want to talk to someone in another town?  A freakin’ bird delivers a scroll. There’s no electricity, no cars, no semblance of modern life.

And people just eat it up.

The theater is similar.  Look at the longest running musicals of all time:  The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Jersey Boys, etc., etc. Giving people a glimpse of the past, helps them forget the present. They love getting lost in another world, especially a world of fantasy.

2.  You can’t get higher stakes than this.

In almost all HBO dramas, there are two things you can count on seeing . . . naked people and lots of blood. Violence and sex are the two primary components of the HBO formula.  Look at The Sopranos, GoT, Boardwalk Empire, Westworld, True Blood, etc.  It’s shockingly simple.

So why does it work?  Yes, sex sells, and so do blood and guts (horror movies, anyone?).  But it’s not because it’s sex and violence . . . it’s because it’s life or death.

For any story to work, the stakes need to be super-sized.  And on GoT, the end of a character’s life may be around any corner.

While you may not be creating a blood soaked, sex-fueled fantasy series, you still need to make sure your characters are going through what is a life or death conflict in their mind.

3.  Give them exactly what they aren’t expecting.

Since episode one, you knew this series was going to be different.  Because the writers did something totally unexpected. They broke the rules. They lead you down a path and then . . . they made the path disappear altogether!

The moment they took a twist I wasn’t expecting, they had me for the entire series. I’m always asking, “What’s gonna come next?” This is also why fan activity online is as energized as it is. The unpredictability of the writing spins fans into a tweetin’, bloggin’ and Facebookin’ frenzy as they come up with their own theory about what might happen.  (And they’re usually wrong!)

There are structural guidelines to great stories that all writers should follow . . .  but within those guidelines, you must deliver twists and turns that no one, not even you, can expect.

4.  Sometimes bigger is better.

So many of my consulting clients come in to talk to me about their show and start off with an apologetic, “I know it’s too big.”

Come again?

Game of Thrones is monstrous.  It’s a budgetary behemoth.  And the special effects, giant battle scenes, dragons, and more are part of what makes people tune in.

If it wasn’t big?  It wouldn’t make sense.  Because the story itself is a giant one.

Our industry is the same.

Wicked, Phantom, Lion King . . . what do these shows have in common besides billions of dollars at the box office?  They are huge!  Spectacle sells . . . when the story demands it.

Where so many shows go wrong is that they build a budget that is bigger than the plot and characters need.

The important thing to remember is that your story must match your “set.”  And if your story is huge, don’t apologize if your show follows suit.

5.  It’s not all about an underdog.  It’s also about the overdog.

Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen . . . even one-handed Jaime Lannister is an underdog.

Successful stories are about finding a hero we can stand up and cheer for as they fight for what they believe in. They represent who and what we, the audiencewant to be.

But you know what makes us root for these heroes even more?  When they have a horribly evil antagonist to fight against. Cersei Lannister, Ramsay Bolton, etc . . . these characters are so awful that upon meeting them, we had more sympathy for their foils, our heroes.

So if you’re having trouble with your underdog, just juice your overdog a big, and we’ll root for your protagonist even more, without you changing their character at all.

One of the most important things Writers and Producers can do when they consume other forms of entertainment they enjoy, is ask themselves, “Why am I enjoying this?”

And then go home and put it into their own work.

What can you learn from Game of Thrones besides the above that can make your show even better?

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.