When I first watched “The Long Night” (TLN), the third episode of the final season of A Game of Thrones, I was on the edge of my seat. The armies of the living faced the Night King, his White Walkers, and wights in a fight to the death. While some viewers found the episode unsatisfying, I loved it. I couldn’t wait to pull out the Story Grid tools and find out what I could learn from this story.
Full disclosure: I began spending time in Westeros in 2002 when my future husband suggested I read book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire. I was hooked right away. Overall, I think the showrunners have done a fantastic job of adapting the novels to create an entertaining series. I’m a hardcore fan, so I have to check my predisposition to say it was great. This is an important skill for editors to cultivate, and writers, too. We must do everything we can to see the work before us as objectively as we can.
Note: It probably goes without saying that to analyze the episode, I have to include spoilers. If you haven’t watched TLN yet, I urge you to do so before reading on.
The first line of inquiry for Story Grid nerds is the Editor’s Six Core Questions (E6CQ), but does it make sense to use a tool like this, designed to edit novels, to analyze a single episode? I’m not sure it would work for every example, but I think it does here. TLN is just shy of eighty minutes, which is long enough to be a feature film. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end and reveals the events of an epic battle from the first offensive until the last charge. I assumed going in that the E6CQ was still the best place to start.
1. What is the global genre?
I’m calling TLN an Action-Epic Story with a Savior plot. Why did I select this genre?
- Action Stories are about life and death struggles, in which one or more heroes sacrifice to defeat the villain and save one or more victims. The main point of TLN is about how the heroes will outwit or overpower the villain.
- The Epic subgenre includes stories where the survival of large groups or a whole society is at stake.
- A Savior plot pits a Hero (or heroes) against a villain intent on social destruction.
Though the episode includes a face-off between the living and the dead, I don’t think the Night King qualifies as an animal or monster, so I ruled out Action-Adventure, Monster plot (compare with Jaws).
Why not a War Story since we have two armies coming together in battle? Often to distinguish genres, we look at the human need threatened by the force of antagonism and the primary life value at stake. This battle is about survival of the living, not their safety or security. The Night King doesn’t want to conquer the people of Westeros; he wants to wipe them out.
Once I know the global genre, I can look check for the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes that consumers of the genre expect.
2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes?
Conventions are the necessary ingredients that set up reader or viewer expectations for the genre, which are paid off by the Obligatory Scenes. What does that mean exactly?
Conventions are the characters, setting, and other circumstances that set up a specific conflict. That conflict plays out through the Obligatory Scenes, a series of events, decisions, and discoveries that take us from the opening life value when the people of Westeros face imminent death at the hands of the Night King’s army to the resolution when they defeat him. Conventions tell us if it looks like an Action Story, and Obligatory Scenes tell us if it acts like one.
- Hero(es): Different characters play this role in different scenes, including Daenerys, Jon, Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarion, Sandor Clegane, and of course, Arya.
- Victims: The living people of Westeros
- Villain: Night King, white walkers, and wights
- Heroes’ Object of Desire: This is the heroes’ goal: defeat the Night King and his army and save the living of Westeros.
- The power divide between the Hero and Villain is large: The Night King has a great army of wights and can raise the dead of their enemies. As far as we know, the Night King is vulnerable to Valyrian steel only. The wights are vulnerable to dragon glass, Valyrian steel, and fire. Daenerys has two dragons, but the Night King also has one.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain: The Night King never speaks, but his actions in targeting Bran, who holds the entire history of Westeros within him, confirm speculation from an earlier episode: The Night King wants to wipe out the living, including their history. We don’t know exactly why, but we can guess that this former living being holds a grudge against the living while he lives in a fate worse than death.
- Inciting attack by the Villain: Night King’s army approaches Winterfell
- Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action and hero lashes out: In a typical Action Story, these are two separate scenes. In this story, it feels as thought the two scenes operate back to back when Daenerys abandons the macro battle plan after the Dothraki’s flaming swords go out and Jon follows her. Daenerys then directs dragon fire on the army of wights.
- Discovering and understanding the Villain’s MacGuffin: I struggled with this one because what he wants is established in an earlier episode, when the heroes create their macro battle plan. They assume that the Night King wants not only to defeat the humans but also wipe out evidence of their existence. Bran, who is like a human library containing the history of Westeros, is his ultimate target. I think this scene is about realizing the Night King’s strategy is to distract and overwhelm the heroes with the wights and the storm while he kills Bran.
- Hero’s initial strategy fails: When Daenerys gets another shot at the original plan and rains dragon fire down on the Night King, she and Jon learn that the head villain is not vulnerable to dragon fire.
- Realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, Hero reaches all is lost moment: This is not always easy to convey on film, and here we have to infer from the circumstances and what the actors do. One of the heroes has to come up with a new way to kill the Night King or there is no hope they will survive. Jon pursues the Night King, we assume, to stab him with his Valyrian steel sword.
- Hero at the mercy of the villain scene: This is the Core Event of an Action Story, the one we all want to see. I see this as a sequence here. The Night King raises the dead soldiers to fight for him, and they surround Jon and then overwhelm Daenerys’s dragon. But ultimately, as the Night King approaches Bran in the Godswood, after killing Theon, Arya sneaks up on the villain. He quickly turns and grabs her before she can stab him. Lightning-quick, she drops the Valyrian steel dagger from one hand to the other and stabs before the Night King can finish her.
- Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded: Arya, kills the Night King, saving her brother Bran and the living people of Westeros from imminent death. The other heroes saved each other or gave their lives for the cause.
3. What is the Point of View/Narrative Device?
Omniscient, without access to the thoughts and internal experience of the characters. Even more so than with the average film, the filmmakers direct our attention to specific events. We don’t get a clear view of what’s happening in each location. They’ve included no overt narrative device. I found it interesting that the battle within the story lasts several hours, but the much shorter film seems to unfold in real time.
4. What are the objects of Desire?
The heroes’ conscious object of desire is to defeat the Night King and save the people of Westeros. There are several internal genres at play through the characters in the series. In this episode, I would say the unconscious object of desire is to survive. The heroes need to survive their ordeals to express their gifts and support Arya. She must gain vital information for mental fortitude, which wouldn’t happen if Melisandre never arrived. Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane save Arya inside the castle, and Daenerys, Jon, and Theon Greyjoy delay the Night King on his way to kill Bran. In a sense, everyone buys time for Arya to get into position to kill the villain, though they might not be aware of it.
5. What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?
This is the main takeaway or lesson of the story. This is my current take on TLN:
Life prevails when the living set aside their differences and combine their collective gifts to outwit and overpower the villain.
This feels rather simple for such a complex episode, but it seems accurate, especially within the context of the entire season.
6. What is the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff?
This was tricky because Arya after her revelatory Turning Point in the middle build, which sets up her actions in the ending payoff, we don’t see her again until she leaps out of the dark to kill the Night King. The key to unraveling the structure is to remember we analyze the story from the perspective of the creator, not the viewer. More on that below.
Shawn often distills each act into a single sentence that shows us what happens in a nutshell. Together, these three sentences should give us a clear idea of the global story. On the Roundtable Podcast, we expand the sentences into three short paragraphs that identify the Five Commandments of Storytelling for each act. I’ll share both versions here.
The plan to lure the Night King to the Godswood and defeat him with the dragons falls apart when Jon follows Daenerys to assist the Dothraki on the main battlefield.
The Night King and his army approach Winterfell (Causal Inciting Incident) and the Dothraki ride out to meet them, but when their flaming swords go out amid a sea of undead wights and Daenerys breaks with the plan to help them (Active Turning Point Progressive Complication), Jon must decide whether to stick with the original plan to lure the Night King away or follow Daenerys (Crisis: Best Bad Choice). Jon follows her (Climax), as the main force of the human army engages with the wights outside of the walls of Winterfell (Resolution).
The wights infiltrate Winterfell, and Daenerys and Jon learn that the Night King cannot be killed with dragon fire before he raises the dead soldiers and those in the crypt to fight for him.
The wights attack the main force of the army of the living (Causal Inciting Incident) and eventually enter Winterfell, but when Jon realizes that dragon fire is ineffective against the Night King (Revelatory Turning Point Progressive Complication), he must decide to pursue him or not (Crisis: Best Bad Choice). Jon pursues him (Climax), and the Night King raises the dead soldiers and the dead within the crypts of Winterfell where women and children have taken refuge (Resolution).
The dead outnumber the living, and Jon and Daenerys have failed, but Arya uses her assassin skills and a Valyrian steel dagger to kill the Night King, which shatters the bodies of the White Walkers and wights.
The Night King raises the dead (Causal Inciting Inciting Incident) and moves toward the Godswood where Bran is waiting, but after she hears Melisandre’s message and everyone else fails to kill the Night King (Active and Revelatory Turning Point), Arya must decide to risk attacking him herself or not (Crisis: Best Bad Choice). She sneaks up on him and stabs him with a Valyrian steel dagger (Climax), which kills him and causes the White Walkers and wights to shatter (Resolution).
As I mentioned earlier, I struggled with Arya’s part in the story because the Turning Point that puts her in motion, and that we can observe, happens in the middle build. I’ve combined this with an inferred event from the Ending Payoff. The creators wanted to hide who would kill the Night King, so they don’t show Arya making her way to the Godswood. In fact, they direct our attention everywhere else so we forget that Arya is on a mission. We analyze stories from the vantage point of the creator who knows what happens. With that knowledge, we can assume Arya was aware that the Night King still lived, and that she made a Best Bad Choice to attempt to kill him or die trying.
The Final Question
Does this work? I’ve concluded that it does. I watched the episode multiple times to see if the story earns that ending. In particular, I think the scene in the library shows us that Arya is more than capable of everything she accomplishes. She needs to tackle two main obstacles to kill the Night King: fight the wights that stand between her and the Godswood and surprise the Night King. During the fight in the library, before she receives Melisandre’s message, Arya fights several wights by herself, using techniques we’ve seen her develop since her time as a young girl at Winterfell. She moves quickly and silently so the wights can’t detect her until a drop of blood falls from the cut on her forehead. She has the physical skills needed to accomplish her mission. All she needs to regain the mental fortitude required is Melisandre’s message.
Is this a satisfying ending? If not completely surprising, it was certainly refreshing for the vehicle of Westerosi salvation be a young woman supported by the efforts of several other heroes. Jon and the dragons were natural candidates, but both George R.R. Martin and the showrunners were clear about wanting to subvert some of the expectations of fantasy stories.
I set out to investigate whether TLN works according to Story Grid principles to check my overwhelming enthusiasm for the story. (I welcome discussion, but it was not my intent to sway anyone to my point of view.) I also wanted to suss out what I love about this episode. The unconventional ending delighted me, but what really excites me about stories like these is a group of heroes that must work together combining their gifts to defeat the villain. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of reading and watching stories like that. Learning how to work together, rather than against one another, is often the biggest challenge we face (which is demonstrated by what happens in the final three episodes of the show).
Several writers have requested that we analyze A Game of Thrones on the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast, and although we could discuss an episode, this series isn’t ideal for our format.
What I really hope this analysis shows you is that you can take the novels or films or television series you love and apply the Story Grid tools to them.You can better understand why you love them and discover elements and techniques to adapt and innovate your own stories. I enjoy doing the podcast and know we provide valuable information, but I can’t stress enough how important it is not to wait for us to analyze your favorite stories. Take the leap, like Arya did, and I know you’ll be pleased with the way that work supports your craft.