Why Game of Thrones Season 8 is So Bad: Goal Based Storytelling

This article has no spoilers for the the 8th season of Game of Thrones.

To say a lot of fans have a problem with the final season of Game of Thrones on HBO would be an understatement. It is the first time during the show’s 10 year history when it feels that people have more negative things to say about the show than positive. Twitter and Facebook are ablaze with snarky (and to be honest quite funny) comments bashing the current season.

The current seasons IMDB scores are at an all time low, and there is even a change.org petition asking for them to refilm season 8 that is nearing a million signatures.

game of thrones writing

I have known for years, with a show like GoT, there was always going to be a negative backslash to how it ends. We’ve seen it with other long running shows like How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, or Lost (whose endings aren’t looking so bad right now).

You can not satisfy 100 million viewers at once. However, the reason the final season is suffering is in part due to not having source material from George RR Martin, and in part, due to a different approach to the writing process between George RR Martin and the GoT show runners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. But how can different approaches to writing affect the story so much?

Two types of writers.

When it comes to writing stories, there are two opposite approaches. Both with their own strengths and weaknesses. In my mind, I call those “George Martin” and “JK Rowling”.

When JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books, she had all of them mapped out in detail even before writing the first one. She always knew, what will happen in the 7th book and that made writing faster if not easier. That allowed her to build a plot and show events in the book that built a logical conclusion and end to the story.

Albus Dumbledore’s crooked nose in the first chapter of the Harry Potter series always makes me smile (if you don’t know why, read the Deathly Hallows”). And we are not even going to talk about JRR Tolkien. An author who uses this approach to writing is called “an architect”.

George RR Martin: the gardener.

And then there is GRRM. He uses the same approach as I do to writing. He describes his approach as a gardener. “The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

And GRRM is a wonderful gardener. This style of writing focuses very heavily on characters and their personalities. The plot develops around their actions and interactions. The first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire are a marvelous thing to read. You can really relate to the characters, understand their motivations and feel like you are growing with them. As a downside, we’ve waited for years for book six and before that we waited years for book five.

How long is this Game of Thrones story anyway?

And here lies the problem. When you follow the gardener’s approach, you’ll never know when you will be done. If the story gets too big, you can write another book. In fact, Game of Thrones was originally planned to be trilogy not a seven book epic.

In a TV show, this is not an option. Producing a show takes years of pre-planning and requires the effort of thousands of people. You can not change the plans without disrupting the gigantic machinery at work. And from the start the showrunners always planned to finish it in 7 or 8 seasons, they also tried to adapt the source material as fully as possible. So, by the time they finished adapting “The Dance with Dragons” they needed to shift gears to get to their planned conclusion by the deadline they had set.

That meant becoming plot driven half way through the show, which was already heavily character driven. And while people enjoy stories by both architects and gardeners, they generally expect to see only one approach in one story because this approach drastically changes the pacing of storytelling.

Viewers know what they want

Daniel Silvermint has written in Wired a piece that closely shares my view on the subject. They say that with final seasons the showrunners “weren’t trying to resolve every character arc or pay off every last bit of world-building. They knew the destination Martin had in mind, they understood the dots they had to connect to get there, and they wanted to maximize fan entertainment along the way. Then, presumably, they asked themselves questions. What big set pieces did they want to deliver? What surprises could rival the greatest twists of the show? Which of the remaining conflicts would yield the best drama, and which onscreen pairings would bring the most emotion? What did they think we, the audience, wanted to finally see before it was all over? It was a Game of Thrones bucket list. And once they had that list, they needed to manoeuvre the characters into place.”

In contrast to the early character driven seasons, a more plot-driven approach was quite jarring for the viewers. Especially, when characters who had taken on a life of their own were now being used to help achieve the plot. This explains why so many fans were wondering if the characters had suddenly taken stupid pills in the last few episodes. While a plot focus is not bad by any means, switching from one style to another is not easy.

Pacing your goals when writing a story.

This then brings us to an important question: what could the shower runners have done differently to avoid this problem? Even with a story like Game of Thrones, they should have been focused on the end from the moment they started writing the pilot. Even if it would have meant going further away from the source material.

Or they could have drawn everything out to 10 seasons. Then they would have had the time to write everything out in the same tempo as Martin and give the characters the autonomy they had so skilfully build up in the earlier seasons. I don’t think HBO would have complained if the gravy train had been allowed to run a few more years.

However, with either of these approaches to have a story run smoothly from start to finish, you need to set realistic goals for each part of the story. That was done very well with the Red Wedding for instance. When it happened, it was a shock. But we also knew how we got there. Also, it makes sense how Ned Stark ended up dead (and being played by Sean Bean was not the only reason).

Goals must move you towards your destination.

These goals need to move you towards your finale, your end-goal. Similar to how setting quarterly goals in business will gradually get you to your annual goals. Not saying, the Game of Thrones show-runners should use Objectives and Key Results for writing each season of Game of Thrones, but honestly, it wouldn’t hurt.

So is it understandable why so many fans are frustrated and disappointed about the current season? Well, yes, but calling for the reshooting of the current season won’t fix the problem that had been there since the beginning. And we can at least sit back and experience the amazing audio, visual, acting, and cinematics that GoT has grown into.

We can only hope that Benioff and Weiss have planned out their goals for the new Star Wars movie they’re working on. For those in desperate need for some more GoT content, well, we are behind Martin on that. But, there are some rumored spin-offs to get excited about. Or you could pick up the Game of Thrones card game.