Ten years ago, old grad school mates David Benioff and D.B. Weiss teamed up to bring George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novels to the small screen. At the time, they were known in town as writers themselves, Benioff for the source novel and script of 25th Hour as well as the screenplay for Troy and Weiss for the novel “Lucky Wander Boy” and unproduced screenplays for Ender’s Game and Halo. But they had no experience producing for television, let alone with something as big as Game of Thrones. Initially, it showed in a very bad way.
Half a decade later, though, the series debuted on HBO. And another five years later, it’s gone on to become one of the most acclaimed and popular cable shows of all time. How did they do it? Can you do it, too? They admit that a lot of their success has been luck (Benioff advised to students in 2013:“Don’t quit and be lucky”), but there are some things they’ve done that would be good to learn from and they do have some advice that could also be helpful to other writers and potential showrunners. Here are six tips we’ve gleaned from interviews with the duo over the years:
Don’t Wait For Inspiration
Most of what Benioff and Weiss are known for are adaptations, but nobody just automatically winds up a place where they’re handed intellectual properties in need of translation for the screen. Both of them put in a lot of work before that point and began by writing original works — novels to be precise. Many writers say to just do it, just write, and they would be in that pack. Benioff suggests writing every day, minus weekends, like it’s your job, unless it’s not, in which case it really is not.
Benioff has called out writer’s block and the need for inspiration as excuses for writers who should just keep writing anyway. Here’s what he told the BBC more than 10 years ago (exact date of the reader Q&A is unknown):
Writing is my job. Every day I go to the office, sit in front of the computer, and write. Some days are better than others, but every day I get something done. Writer’s block, I think, is often the result of a frustrated anticipation for inspiration. But if you’re writing for a living, you can’t sit around waiting for the goddamn muses. You get your ass in the chair, you turn on the computer, and you write, and if the writing’s no good you keep doing it anyway, because that’s all you’re good for.
I think Shakespeare said that.
He was asked to follow up on the quote a few years later for the radio show Writers on Writing, to which he answered with an example:
I have this friend who I went to college with. Brilliant writer. I always thought he was the best writer among us. And now he barely has written a word. Every few days he writes me these gorgeous emails. And on the one hand, I’m so happy to receive them. They’re beautiful and poetic, and on the other hand it makes me so angry that his talent is going to waste. He always says he’s waiting for inspiration, or he’s stymied because he can’t write until he feels he really has some insight or some phrase or something important to say. We’ve been having this debate for years and years, and I’m so frustrated with him because it’s just wonderful talent going completely to waste. You can’t wait for inspiration. It’s rare. It happens, but it happens so infrequently that if you rely on it, you’re doomed.
Stay Calm and Carry On
So you’ve written a bunch and made a mark with a novel or original screenplay pitch and are now tapped for an adaptation of a bestselling novel or one of the most popular comic book characters ever created or anything else with a built-in fanbase. Do you worry that you’re going to let everyone down? No, you just “have to write what you think is best,” according to Benioff. Despite him still believing (as he also says in that BBC Q&A) that “fear is a useful motivator,” in the below interview with Bibliostar.TV from 2013, he says it’s not good to write from a fearful place. “You have to be calm,” he says, “when you’re doing the actual storytelling.”
Weiss has had similar experience with writing scripts based on properties with large fanbases, but before Game of Thrones none had actually been made. Still, while writing the Halo movie in 2006 he too admitted to GameSetWatch that he needs to stay calm. Here’s his answer to being asked whether he worries about the obligatory criticism from the fans:
Not really. I do think about it, but it’s inevitable. There will be the 5% on the fringe of any hardcore fanbase that get angry about any change you make to the source material. The truth is that novels, games, comics, and what-have-you are not usually ready to be slapped up on screen as-is. If you did do a 100% faithful version, 999 times out of 1000 it would be a mess, and even the 5%-ers would recognize as much.