Is Game of Thrones Following Three-Act Structure?

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Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy: HBO

Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy: HBO

Low Points, Licked Wounds and Doomed Plans Say It Is.

That is to say, is Game of Thrones the TV series — which is now in its sixth season — actually one big giant movie, and the source of its highs and lows based on three-act film structure?

Why did we go there? Because, we, along with everyone else are trying to predict the end of an epic show that only has 12 episodes left. It’s become a bit of a ritual for Game of Thrones fans to bombard social media on Monday morning with guesses about what’s going to happen next week. These along with a bit of anxiety that it’s all coming to an end fuel the endless forecasts of possibilities.

But instead of scouring the internet for clues and over analyzing each gruesome death, you might consider using basic story structure from a three-act perspective to figure out what’s going to happen next.

The first thought that may come to your mind is that three-act screenplay structure applies to plays and feature film scripts, not TV shows. That’s usually true. If you’re a TV series creator and you have no idea if your show is going to last a single season (“We always meant for it to be a limited series!”) or 15 years (“Does anyone know a good realtor for tropical islands?”), you can’t really plot out specific story beats.

At best, you’ll know your beginning, middle and end and those will be highly subject to revision, lead actors quitting to join a band, and soul-crushing studio notes (“Can we add a wisecracking kindergartner to this medical drama set in space?”).

But if you’re Game of Thrones, you knew how the show ended before it ever started because the author of the as-yet-written books the show is based upon told you. This allows a certain structural specificity to be deployed, which makes for some very rich, well thought-out storytelling. And what other structure would a couple of mostly-feature film writers use? Game of Thrones executive producer D.B. Weiss wrote many high-profile scripts as yet unproduced (a prequel to I am Legend and an adaptation of Halo among them), while his school chum and co-exec David Benioff wrote 25th Hour, Troy, Stay, The Kite Runner and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

In the traditional three-act structure of drama that they appear to be following over the course of the six seasons so far, there are certain broad story beats that, while certainly not required of every script, have become standard form. Viewed through that lens, Game of Thrones as a series overall is right around the final sequence of its Act 2 (about three-quarters of the way through its story) and prepping hard for the big climax in Act 3 – presumably, the seven episodes to come next year. Get your wallet out, HBO. Third acts are where we plead with the Iron Bank of Braavos for a loan.

heres-what-the-new-game-of-thrones-shooting-locations-might-tell-us-about-season-six

What typically happens in a feature film around the end of Act 2, you ask? Hey, good question. Here are some of the story beats one can expect to find there:

  • The Low Point. The protagonist suffers a grievous loss, death or reversal. A mentor is beheaded. A treasure is confiscated, often by an actor with a British accent. Dignity becomes a fond memory. Think of Obi-Wan taking a light saber to the thorax in Star Wars.
  • The Self-Pity Party. The same protagonist does some understandable reeling, wound-licking and soul-searching in the wake of this loss. That cat-saving guru, Blake Snyder, would call this section the “dark night of the soul,” which is a nice turn of phrase, though I don’t really get what Batman has to do with it.
  • The Revelation. He or she often learns a startling truth about their world or themselves that inspires/forces them to rally.
  • The Doomed Plan. And finally, our hero comes up with a new plan to get what they want, a plan that is distinguished most often by the quality of its being almost certainly doomed to fail. Which it will.

New-game-of-Thrones-season-6-trailer

Let’s apply these beats to just five of our favorite Game of Thrones characters in their current incarnations and see if this dire wolf hunts: (Spoiler alert: This article assumes you’re current with your Thrones-watching as of Season 6, episode 5, The Door. If not, bookmark this article for later.)

  • Tyrion Lannister. At the end of last season, he was found guilty of murdering his nephew, lost his trial, his champion got his head mushed like a watermelon at a Gallagher show, he caught his one true love shtupping his dad, was not into that, killed them both and fled. Respect: This is an epic low point. The pint-sized piñata of the Thrones world’s revelation consisted of some 411 downloaded from know-it-all Varys. His new plan: find Dany and put his Humpty Dumpty’d life back together again. Unfortunately she flakes, so he ends up district manager of a slaves-versus-masters political quagmire. Someone fetch this guy a flagon of chardonnay.
  • Jon Snow. The Lord Commander took the lesser of two evils option by inviting the wildlings south of the wall and (low point alert) got aired out like a pincushion for his efforts. New plan: Quit day job, assemble rag-tag fugitive fleet…er, army…that is much too small and retake Winterfell, though probably nobody important in the north will approve. Also: Get a Costco-sized tub of antibiotic cream for that torso that now redefines “ripped.”
  • Daeneyrs Targaryen. The Mother of Dragons, etc. etc. faced a civil uprising, flew off on her personal dragon that apparently ditched her for a rave in Ibiza, and was captured by her former people the Dothraki. Judging her current resume unimpressive, they debated whether their plan for her was a life of monastic seclusion or work as a sex doll. So yeah, low point. Her revelation is more of a memory (“Oh right, I am flame retardant”) and Dany’s new plan becomes: Dazzle the proles with a nude fireworks show under the big top, then march them back Slaver’s Bay to get her invasion on, unaware that her support and fleet are gone, her remaining dragons at best non-committal.
  • Cersei Lannister. In what had to be one of the most rewound, paused and screenshotted low points in TV history, she took the stroll of shame, got poo in her hair, and accepted delivery of dead kid number two (out of three and counting). Her revelation is that Maggy the Frog’s prophecy is true, freeing her to make rage-fit plans for the High Sparrow, the Martells and the Tyrells, pretty much in that order. Given the weakness of her position, however, “kill them all” doesn’t seem super viable. It seems … doomed.
  • Theon Greyjoy. Oof. His low point might seem understandably hard to locate, so numerous have been his psyche-shattering humiliations. But I think his low point was being forced to watch Sansa’s wedding-night rape last season. Not only is watching a loved one’s suffering worse than our own, but his revelation is that this is just the latest stop on a road down which he’s partly responsible for dispatching the Starks. His only plan after that has been to make his many wrongs right – free Sansa, support his sister in ruling the Iron Islands. So far, the latter plan is not going swimmingly. (See what I did there? The Drowned God thought it was funny.)

game-of-thrones-season-6-saison-6-episode

The same story beats apply to every major Thrones character: Bran, Sansa, Melisandre, Varys and Jorah fit the paradigm as well. So what does this mean for the show’s next steps? If the show’s writers are indeed following an overall three-act structure, the next and final act can be counted on to possess certain story beats:

  • Nobody’s current plans will succeed. Remember, these are doomed plans anyway. This doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking prediction because in Thrones every plan has always been doomed. But this is more of a “darkest before the dawn” situation.
  • The revelations aren’t over. In mid-Act 3 there is often a huge twist, involving the truth being learned about something, that changes the whole overall scheme, sparks a new and final plan – and that’s the one that finally succeeds. Bran is on the brink of learning some larger truths about the history of his family and Westeros, and those truths are going to force some sweeping changes to everyone’s ultimate destination. Expect revelations about family origins for more than one character, and about the overall nature of magic (read: dragons, red priestesses and white walkers) to this universe.
  • The final, climatic battle we all know is coming will have at least this one, specific result: It will be good for the average little guy, and will be some variation on a society-wide restoration of order. Remember that Thrones takes place at the end of a few decades of upheaval; before Robert’s Rebellion, the 7 Kingdoms were successfully ruled by Targaryens and their dragons for centuries. This bodes well for Dany’s long-term prospects.
  • More people you dig are definitely going to die. That’s not actually a three-act structure prediction, that’s just Game of Thrones.

Of course, I could be wrong about all this.

Weiss and Benioff could be ignoring structure altogether and going with their guts. The Mother of Dragons could trip on a root and fall over a cliff, Littlefinger could become the new occupant of the Iron Throne, and Jon Snow could find out he’s really Jon Snow, distant cousin of Chrissy from Three’s Company.

There are great series that have had worse endings (looking at you, Lost). But I trust structure, and all the evidence so far is that the Game of Thrones writers do, too. Let’s see if I’m right as a three-eyed raven or wrong as the love between increasingly bitter siblings.

For another breakdown of a great series that apparently followed three-act feature structure, see this post about Breaking Bad. 

Let me know what you think, are these predictions in line with what you see happening when it call comes to an end?

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5 Replies to "Is Game of Thrones Following Three-Act Structure?"

  • comment-avatar
    Bruce Myers May 26, 2016 (1:19 am)

    Great read. Although, there should have been a spoiler alert warning, Karl!

    • comment-avatar
      Karl Williams May 26, 2016 (2:11 am)

      Added one Bruce, thanks for catching that!

  • comment-avatar
    Sara Montgomery May 26, 2016 (5:39 am)

    In the context you have outlined, I definitely see the faint light of dawn in act 3 coming. I can see things coming together like this:

    *Tyrion will be cast out. He will encounter the Greyjoys’ fleet. They will ship the Dothraki over to Westeros. Dragons burn up the white walkers and the dragon glass they create will kill the wights… (Dragons defeating the whitewalkers with fire and dragon glass is kind of obvious)

    *Sam will discover something about dragons actually existing in his Meester training which he will take back to Jon Snow and they will seek out Daenerys. The north will align with *Daenerys and they will defeat the whitewalkers. She will have the Dothraki defeat the Lannisters and the people will support her as the rightful heir.

    *Bran wargs in to a dragon at some point although Tyrion’s explanation of Dragon’s intelligence seems to have something to do with this. Not quite sure what yet.

    *Arya will be called upon to kill the High Sparrow by the Lannisters. I think she will renounce her service to the Many Faced God at this point because she learns her family is still alive.

    *Suzanne Somers appears from the future as The Mother of the Mother of Dragons and tells them she traveled from the future to an earlier time. She is Jon Snow’s mother and she is also Daenerys’ mother. Jon Snow is the Uncle of Dragons and their bloodline will end in an apartment in San Diego with John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt. Seriously, it’s in the book..!

  • comment-avatar
    Jamal July 8, 2016 (2:46 pm)

    I agree 100% most of the episodic stories on TV that run more than one season, have what I call a grouping of cyclic beginning, middle and end. Each episode has a beginning and a middle with grouped subplots, the next episode is sub plots with B,M and sometimes E which relate to the overall story and the main plot sticks to the middle part. Building tension into each episode until the end of the season which climaxes or leaving the plot still stuck in the middle of the story with loose ends to tie up in the up coming season.

  • Game Of Thrones Plot Structure | Watch TV Shows Online June 3, 2017 (1:58 am)

    […] Is Game of Thrones Following Three-Act Structure? – That is to say, is Game of Thrones the TV series — which is now in its sixth … you might consider using basic story structure from a three-act perspective to figure out what’s going to happen next. The first thought that may come to … […]

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