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What Might George R.R. Martin’s Original Story Pitch Tell Us About the End of ‘Game of Thrones’?

The HBO epic has veered considerably from the author’s original plan, but the 1993 outline may still hold clues for what awaits in Season 8

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

George R.R. Martin’s original A Song of Ice and Fire pitch is not a perfectly predictive document. His 1993 typewritten outline, unveiled in a since-deleted tweet by a British bookstore in 2015, contains plenty of oddities, at least viewed from an updated understanding of the series: Robb dies in battle, not a wedding reception; Daenerys invades Westeros in a timely fashion instead of dawdling in Essos for books on end; Arya and Jon fall in love.

But besides a few funny beats, the initial proposal Martin sent to his then-agent, Ralph Vicinanza, still carries considerable weight. The general story arc appears, as do almost all the main characters, the lay of the fictional land, and more. And as Game of Thrones fans scour past episodes and existing literature to identify signs in advance of Season 8, this primary evidence contains its own clues about possible permutations for the ending. So let’s break down the outline, chunk by chunk, to glean any hints about the upcoming season and guess how Martin’s original plan might inform the conclusion. Warning: Possible spoilers follow. They might all be wrong! But informed speculation based on Martin’s original vision is on the way.

(Because the letter was revealed via photographs in the tweet, some words and phrases are indiscernible due to lens flare. Those are marked as “[unclear]” in the block-quoted text.)

Dear Ralph,

Here are the first thirteen chapters (170 pages) of the high fantasy novel I promised you, which I’m calling A Game of Thrones. When completed, this will be the first volume in what I see as an epic trilogy with the overall title, A Song of Ice and Fire.

This opening paragraph isn’t important for the last Thrones season, but it’s worth noting the reference to a trilogy. Ah, George. So naive.

As you know, I don’t outline my novels. I find that if I know exactly where a book is going, I lose all interest in writing it. I do, however, have some strong notions as to the overall structure of the story I’m telling, and the eventual fate of many of the principle [sic] characters in the drama.

Roughly speaking, there are three major conflicts set in motion in the chapters enclosed. These will form the major plot threads of the trilogy, intertwining with each other in what should be a complex but exciting (I hope [unclear]) tapestry. Each of the [unclear] presents a major threat [unclear] of my imaginary realm, the Seven Kingdoms, and to the lives [unclear] principal characters.

Here, Martin introduces his world and general idea for the series, and he states plainly that the Seven Kingdoms are the central focus of his story. Given that he doesn’t really begin to explore the vast continent of Essos apart from the Dothraki Sea until the second book, A Clash of Kings, this makes sense. Applied to Season 8, moreover, it could hint that the show finished dispensing with Essosi matters when characters like Daenerys and Arya journeyed west, and that even as fans wonder whether characters like Daario will return or whether the ruins of Valyria might be explored, those loose ends might never receive resolution.

The first threat grows from the emnity between the great houses of Lannister and Stark as it plays out in a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder, and revenge, with the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the ultimate prize. This will form the backbone of the first volume of the trilogy, A Game of Thrones.

While the lion of Lannister and the direwolf of Stark snarl and scrap, however, a second and greater threat takes shape across the narrow sea, where the Dothraki horselords mass their barbarian hordes for a great invasion of the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fierce and beautiful Daenerys Stormborn, the last of the Targaryen dragonlords. The Dothraki invasion will be the central story of my second volume, A Dance with Dragons.

These paragraphs illustrate both that Martin possessed a general framework for the series from the beginning, as the show has indeed progressed from one planned central conflict to the next, and that Martin’s original pitch has evolved and taken on lots more detail in the interim. By the end of the third book, the initial phase of the Stark-Lannister war had only just concluded, via the Red Wedding, and Daenerys was nowhere close to invading. (By the end of Book 5, she’s still nowhere close.)

Martin padded his story with more threads as he built his world, and the show followed suit to some extent; even as HBO cut large swaths of the plotting in Dorne and the Iron Islands, and characters like Young Griff and Quentyn Martell entirely, Dany still spent the first 60 episodes in Essos. If it feels like the show’s pace has accelerated tremendously over the last season or two, that imbalance is a large reason.

The greatest danger of all, however, comes from the north, from the icy wastes beyond the Wall, where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn and prepare to ride down on the winds of winter to extinguish everything that we would call “life.” The only thing that stands between the Seven Kingdoms and an endless night is the Wall, and a handful of men in black called the Night’s Watch. Their story will be [sic] heart of my third volume, The Winds of Winter. The final battle will also draw together characters and plot threads left from the first two books and resolve all in one huge climax.

It’s unclear, first of all, what Martin means by “the neverborn,” because the Army of the Dead as presented thus far has comprised only creatures that were at least at one point living. Might more creature surprises, like giant ice spiders and even more exotic beasts, be in store for Season 8?

Also unclear is whether Martin means that the second conflict—Dany’s invasion—would conclude by the time the third conflict arises. On the one hand, that’s clearly what happened with the Lannister-Stark war, which resolved—for a time, anyway—before Dany sailed to Westeros; on the other, Martin does mention that some plot threads would be “left over” to resolve in the final stretch of story.

If Dany’s invasion were to follow the pattern and resolve before the Others (i.e., White Walkers) invaded, that timeline could provide a clue for how Season 8 will unfold. Both Cersei and the Night King remain potent, plotting villains—so does this original idea mean that the heroes would finish dealing with the former before the latter? That order of events would make some sense from a storytelling perspective—finish off the secondary villain before the overarching final boss—but it runs counter to the ideas expressed in the Season 7 finale, when Dany and Jon agreed to stop battling Cersei until they repelled the Night King’s threat. Now, those heroes are in the North, where the Army of the Dead approaches, far from Cersei’s throne back in King’s Landing. Based on the current distribution of characters, it seems as if these two conflicts will continue to overlap rather than receive resolution in turn.

The thirteen chapters on hand should give you a notion as to my narrative strategy. All three books will feature a complex mosaic of intercutting points-of-view among various of my large and diverse cast of players. The cast will not always remain the same. Old characters will die, and new ones will be introduced. Some of the fatalities will include sympathetic viewpoint characters. I want the reader to feel that no one is ever completely safe, not even the characters who seem to be the heroes. The suspense always ratchets up a notch when you know that any character can die at any time.

Goal achieved, George! From the moment that Ilyn Payne scythed the greatsword Ice through Ned Stark’s neck, nobody who reads or watches Thrones has been able to feel that any character is completely safe.

But especially since the early seasons, deaths in this story haven’t been quite as haphazard and surprising as they might seem from the way this show is discussed. As Martin notes in this paragraph, he writes from a first-person perspective, each of his chapters parachuting into the mind of a single character to relate his or her thoughts and observations. Across all five books written thus far, he’s used 24 point-of-view characters (not counting those who appear for the prologues and epilogues, as they have uniformly died in those chapters).

Of those 24, only a few have died in the books, and even those characters come with some caveats. Jon seems to have died in his final point-of-view chapter in the fifth book, but as the show depicted, he’s a sure bet to be resurrected. Ned and Catelyn died, but they’re the main characters’ parents—basically every Disney movie begins in that fashion; plus, even if the show didn’t return Lady Stoneheart to the cast, Catelyn is resurrected in the books. And finally, both Quentyn Martell and Arys Oakheart died, but they’re not important enough to even merit mention in the show. Robb Stark, notably, was never a point-of-view character, nor were other characters who suffered emotional death scenes like Oberyn and Joffrey.

It’s been a while, frankly, since the show unveiled a shocker; in Season 7, the surprise was that more folks didn’t die, such as on the perilous journey north of the Wall, whose only named human fatality was the relatively minor Thoros of Myr. This analysis means that if Martin truly intends to kill off a number of “sympathetic viewpoint characters” and to make his fictional world unsafe even for heroes, more have to die in Season 8. With the Army of the Dead descending on the collection of heroes now massed at Winterfell, there will be ample opportunity for that scenario to unfurl.

Five central characters will make it through all three volumes, however, growing from children to adults and changing the world and themselves in the process. In a sense, my trilogy is almost a generational saga, telling the life stories of these five characters, three men and two women. The five key players are Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and three of the children of Winterfell, Arya, Bran, and the bastard Jon Snow. All of them are introduced at some length in the chapters you have to hand.

This paragraph is perhaps the most illuminating in the entire letter. Does the specific inclusion of these five characters suggest, first, that all five will live; and second, that any seemingly central character outside the quintet is doomed to die in the final season? It sure seems like it.

Of course, Martin’s plan has evolved in plenty of other ways in the past quarter-century, but this passage is the best evidence so far that some beloved characters will last throughout the final season. And it’s the most damning evidence, at the same time, that characters like Sansa, Jaime, Cersei, and others aren’t as likely to survive the endgame.

This is going to be (I hope) quite an epic. Epic in its scale, epic in its action, and epic in its length. I see all three volumes as big books, running about 700 to 800 manuscript pages, so things are just barely getting underway in the thirteen chapters I’ve sent you.

I have quite a clear notion of how the story is going to unfold in the first volume, A Game of Thrones. Things will get a lot worse for the poor Starks before they get better, I’m afraid. Lord Eddard Stark and his wife Catelyn Tully are both doomed, and will perish at the hands of their enemies. Ned will discover what happened to his friend Jon Arryn, [unclear] can act on his knowledge [unclear] will have an unfortunate accident, and the throne will [unclear] to [unclear] and brutal [unclear] Joffrey [unclear] still a minor. Joffrey will not be sympathetic and Ned will be accused of treason, but before he is taken he will help his wife and his daughter Arya escape back to Winterfell.

Each of the contending families will learn it has a member of dubious loyalty in its midst. Sansa Stark, wed to Joffrey Baratheon, will bear him a son, the heir to the throne, and when the crunch comes she will choose her husband and child over her parents and siblings, a choice she will later bitterly rue. Tyrion Lannister, meanwhile, will befriend both Sansa and her sister Arya, while growing more and more disenchanted with his own family.

Here’s some more bad news for Sansa: She was originally conceived as a traitor to the Stark name and house. This development has obviously found a different path in the fully realized iteration of the story, but it draws yet another line between Sansa and the rest of the Starks. Is this more evidence that she’s doomed? Or does the fact that her character has so clearly changed since 1993 in this regard suggest that other aspects have changed, too, so that now she might be included among the key characters slated to live?

Young Bran will come out of his coma, after a strange prophetic dream, only to discover that he will never walk again. He will turn to magic, at first in the hope of restoring his legs, but later for its own sake. When his father Eddard Stark is executed, Bran will see the shape of doom descending on all of them, but nothing he can say will stop his brother Robb from calling the banners in rebellion. All the north will be inflamed by war. Robb will win several splendid victories, and maim Joffrey Baratheon on the battlefield, but in the end he will not be able to stand against Jaime and Tyrion Lannister and their allies. Robb Stark will die in battle, and Tyrion Lannister will besiege and burn Winterfell.

Jon Snow, the bastard, will remain in the far north. He will mature into a ranger of great daring, and ultimately will succeed his uncle as the commander of the Night’s Watch. When Winterfell burns, Catelyn Stark will be forced to flee north with her son Bran and her daughter Arya. Wounded by Lannister riders, they will seek refuge at the Wall, but the men of the Night’s Watch give up their families when they take the black, and Jon and Benjen will not be able to help, to Jon’s anguish. It will lead to a bitter estrangement between Jon and Bran. Arya will be more forgiving ... until she realizes, with terror, that she has fallen in love with Jon, who is not only her half-brother but a man of the Night’s Watch, sworn to celibacy. Their passion will continue to torment Jon and Arya throughout the trilogy, until the secret of Jon’s true parentage is finally revealed in the last book.

A number of the specific story details conveyed in this section changed before publishing, but the overall skeleton is still similar. Except that last line, because Jon and Arya were apparently supposed to fall in love. Yikes!

Both this line and another to come seem to cast Arya, initially, in the Daenerys role when it comes to her relationship with male protagonists. Substitute “Daenerys” in the line above and it makes a lot more sense from the show’s perspective: Their passion will continue to torment Jon and Daenerys, until the secret of Jon’s true parentage is finally revealed.

What happens after that true parentage is revealed? This outline doesn’t say. But even from the beginning, Martin foresaw that reveal as an inflection point in both Jon’s broader life and his love life. The question of how Dany, Jon, and the wider realm will react to this news remains a central question of Season 8, and it could yield enormous sociopolitical and military consequences for the realm. It also, clearly, could produce some changes in Jon and Dany’s conception of their passionate partnership.

Abandoned by the Night’s Watch, Catelyn and her children will find their only hope of safety lies even further north, beyond the Wall, where they fall into the hands of Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall, and get a dreadful glimpse of the inhuman others as they attack the wilding encampment. Bran’s magic, Arya’s sword Needle, and the savagery of their direwolves will help them survive, but their mother Catelyn will die at the hands of the others.

The last time a direwolf was part of a fight against Walkers in the show, Summer perished in the Three-Eyed Raven’s lair while trying to save Bran. But this outline contains a glimmer of good news for fans worried about Ghost’s safety in Season 8, following his confusing absence last season: The direwolves were designed as effective fighters against the Walkers, so maybe Jon’s faithful companion isn’t doomed, but could in fact add another feat of heroism to his record.

Over across the narrow sea, Daenerys Targaryen will discover that her new husband, the Dothraki Khal Drogo, has little interest in invading the Seven Kingdoms, much to her brother’s frustration. When Viserys presses his claims past the point of tact or wisdom, Khal Drogo will finally grow annoyed and kill him out of hand, eliminating the Targaryen pretender and leaving Daenerys as the last of her line. Danerys [sic] will bide her time, but she will not forget. When the moment is right, she will kill her husband to avenge her brother, and then flee with a trusted friend into the wilderness beyond Vaes Dothrak. There, hunted by Dothraki bloodriders [unclear] of her life, she stumbles on a cache [something about dragon eggs] a young dragon will give Daenerys [unclear] bend [unclear] to her will. Then she begins to plan for her invasion of the Seven Kingdoms.

Tyrion Lannister will continue to travel, to plot, and to play the game of thrones, finally removing his nephew Joffrey in disgust at the boy king’s brutality. Jaime Lannister will follow Joffrey on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, by the simple expedient of killing everyone ahead of him in the line of succession and blaming his brother Tyrion for the murders. Exiled, Tyrion will change sides, making common cause with the surviving Starks to bring his brother down, and falling helplessly in love with Arya Stark while he’s at it. His passion is, alas, unreciprocated, but no less intense for that, and it will lead to a deadly rivalry between Tyrion and Jon Snow.

Again, substitute Dany’s name into that last line and some Season 8 hints emerge: Exiled, Tyrion will change sides, making common cause with the surviving Starks to bring his brother down, and falling helplessly in love with Daenerys while he’s at it. His passion is, alas, unreciprocated, but no less intense for that, and it will lead to a deadly rivalry between Tyrion and Jon Snow.

Tyrion already changed sides. He already made common cause with the surviving Starks to try to bring his sister down. He already, apparently, fell in love with Daenerys, and his passion appears unreciprocated.

Tyrion is a professed admirer of Jon Snow, their bond stretching back all the way to the Thrones pilot, when the Lannister dwarf gives the purported Stark bastard a pep talk outside the feast at Winterfell. In Season 7, when Melisandre tells Dany to summon Jon Snow to Dragonstone, Tyrion notes, “I like Jon Snow and I trusted him, and I am an excellent judge of character.”

But the end of the Season 7 finale, in which Jon slipped into Dany’s chambers while Tyrion looked on with concern and jealousy, could foreshadow a departure from those feelings to, instead, “a deadly rivalry.” In the full-length Season 8 trailer, moreover, Tyrion is notably absent from Winterfell, and it’s unclear where, exactly, he is while the rest of Daenerys’s forces are marshaled in the North. Viewers might want to prepare emotionally for another heel turn from Tyrion in the final stretch.

Elsewhere, it appears that Jaime’s planned arc has instead gone to his sister-lover, Cersei, who reached the Iron Throne by either killing her rivals or indirectly causing their deaths (e.g., with Tommen, who dies by suicide after Cersei explodes the Sept of Baelor). This letter therefore contains no inkling of what Jaime’s Season 8 plot could look like. One wonders when Martin conceived of the valonqar prophecy—sometime later than 1993, it seems.

[The next graph is blocked out.]

But that’s the second book ...

Martin has secrets still to come! No other part of the pitch is blacked out except this paragraph, and while that might be mere coincidence, it sure looks tantalizing.

When David Benioff and D.B. Weiss met with Martin years ago to sketch out a rough end to the story, the author revealed “three holy shit moments,” the showrunners said in 2016. The first was that Stannis would burn his daughter, Shireen. The second was the etymology of Hodor’s name. And the third, Benioff teased, is “from the very end” and still yet to be revealed.

It’s not as if Thrones viewers need more reason to be prepared for twists and surprises. But it’s definitely part of the draw of the last six episodes.

I hope you will find some editors who are as excited about all of this as I am. Feel free to share this letter with anyone who wants to know how the story will go.

All best,

George R.R. Martin

Now the conclusion, however altered, is to be shared at last—at least in TV form, if not book—for more than 30 million people who are just as excited. They all want to know how this story will go. It’s been more than a quarter-century in the making.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.