The following is adapted from a lecture in my July 2017 screenwriting class at the Paris Writing Workshop.
1. All characters must suffer.
No Game of Thrones character avoids misery. How they deal with suffering is how we learn who they are.
2. Obligation must be at odds with desire.
No Game of Thrones character is given easy choices (unless the easy choices result in horror; see #7 below). Storylines play out in the tension between what characters want to do and what they have to do.
3. No exposition without tension.
Characters’ backstories are often embedded in arguments; in the case of Tyrion, his tortured backstory is embedded in the understated tensions of a drinking game with Shae and Bronn.
4. No course of action without argument.
Example: As the men of the Night’s Watch bicker over what to do with the threats beyond the Wall, we don’t just learn about the northern frontier of Westeros — we feel the dilemma and uncertainty that underpins their (lack of) choices.
5. Every move forward must involve conflict, compromise, or sacrifice.
Some characters, like Hodor, exist solely to advance the story through sacrifice.
6. Every relationship must involve conflict, compromise, or sacrifice.
Example: The way the mutual respect between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth plays out over several seasons.
7. Seemingly easy solutions lead to horrifying reversals.
The Red Wedding. Need one say more?
8. Seeming victories yield greater complications.
Example: When Daenerys liberates the city of Meereen and frees the slaves, she solves a problem — and creates several more.
9. Major battles must have multiple reversals.
Watch sequences like the Battle of the Bastards, or the Battle of Blackwater Bay, and count the number of times the tides turn for each of the characters involved.
10. Falling in love invariably puts one’s life in danger.
Samwell and Gilly, or Talisa and Robb Stark, being the obvious examples — though no Game of Thrones character experiences love without compromising his or her own safety in some way.
11. Every character must have a secret.
Example: Jorah Mormont’s seemingly pure loyalty to Daenerys — which plays out again and again in concrete displays of bravery and sacrifice — is called into question when Daenerys (and the audience) learn of his original mission to spy on her for Robert Baratheon.
12. Mysteries must be teased out as slowly as possible.
The existence and nature of White Walkers, for example, is revealed only gradually over the course of the series. An even slower reveal is the identity of John Snow’s real mother, which isn’t explored — and then only briefly — until the closing moments of Season Six.
13. Revenge is always satisfying.
Example: It’s easy to hate Cersei Lannister, but just as easy to enjoy the moment when she exacts revenge on Septa Unella, the Sparrow priestess who had taunted her during the Walk of Atonement.
14. Family is the basic unit of struggle and loyalty.
For all the struggle between families in Game of Thrones, the struggle within those families is even more compelling.
15. Characters leave home, and then struggle to find it again.
Example: Arya’s perilous call to adventure after her father’s death underscores the most primal Game of Thrones storyline — the far-flung fates of the Stark family as they wander Westeros in the grim hope of one day seeing each other again.