Ask a GoT Writer: Bryan Cogman on the writing process, Robb and Talisa, and Renly’s peach

Photo: Riley Stearns

As we announced a few weeks back, we have a new feature here at, called Ask a GoT Writer. We asked you, the fans, to send in your questions and you were more than happy to oblige. We received hundreds of questions and narrowed them down to a select few. Those questions were then sent on to Bryan Cogman, writer and co-producer on Thrones, who graciously took time out of his busy schedule to supply some answers.

Read on to find out the answers to some of Thrones fans’ burning questions!

Loren: How much information are you privy to from GRRM? Does he keep tight-lipped on where the story lines are headed, or do you know a little bit more than the average reader when it comes to what’s going to happen in the final two books.

Bryan: I know everything! Will sell secrets to the highest bidder.

Actually, in all seriousness, David, Dan and I recently visited George at his home in Santa Fe for a few days to talk about GoT’s future and pick his brain about where all the storylines and characters are headed. We’re getting to the point now, as we map out future seasons, where that information is necessary. Mind you, George is still writing, so I imagine some of this stuff isn’t etched in stone, but he has a clear vision and he was kind enough to share. Needless to say, it was an amazing few days! I dared not write anything down… took no notes for fear of my computer getting swiped at the airport or something. It was a great trip — George is the consummate host and I managed to snag autographed copies of some of his other (non-ASoIaF) classics.

Jack: Does or will the TV show dip into the numerous prophecies and rumors regarding the various mysteries throughout ASoIaF? Obviously the most well-known being the mother of Jon Snow, but also Azor Ahai, the Prince Who Was Promised, Cersei and her little brother, the dragon has three heads, and so many more.

Bryan: I’m afraid I can’t talk about stuff that may or may not be dramatized in future seasons… I will say that the characters’ relationship to the past is something the show will explore, it’s just a question of what devices we use and when it’s most effective… so there’s a vague answer for you!

Nick: Hi Bryan, great work so far on the series! Keep it up! My question is, how do you go about writing your episodes? What kicks you into creative mode? Do D&D assign you an episode or do you get to choose which you want to write? Do they give you a rough outline of what should happen in the episode? And how do know all scenes will add up to ~60mins?

Bryan: Well, my first season episode was written under unusual circumstances in that I didn’t know I was writing an actual episode. David had framed it as an exercise, something for me (then he and Dan’s assistant) to do in order to develop as a writer who might get to write for the show someday. So I worked off the Season One outline (David, Dan, and I had mapped out Season One in Los Angeles just prior to shooting the original pilot) and it took about a week. After I turned it in, I was informed I had, in fact, written Episode 104. Thank God I had no clue this assignment was a tryout to write the actual episode! I’d have been so nervous I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Anyway, if we take Season Three as an example, this was the process:

  1. I reread A Storm of Swords (and any relevant chapters from other books in the series) and wrote up brief summaries of each chapter, listed the potential new characters, locations, and mapped out the story arcs. (This was during production of Season Two, in Belfast).
  2. The major characters were then divided up between David, Dan, Vanessa, and myself — with each of us doing a first pass at mapping out the Season Three storyline for each. In my case, I was assigned Stannis/Mel/Davos, Arya, and Bran. This work was done as we were finishing up Season 2 production and over the holiday break.
  3. In January, back in Los Angeles, the four of us met, threw all our first drafts up on the board and hashed out the season, combining stuff, throwing stuff out, coming up with new stuff, going back to the books for stuff we might have missed, etc… this took a couple of weeks. By the end, we had a rough season mapped out on the board.
  4. Each of us was then assigned a cluster of episodes to outline… I can’t remember which ones I worked on… Once those were turned in, David & Dan did a final pass on all of it and we had a solid, detailed outline for the season.
  5. I was assigned episode five. I had about a month to write the first draft, as I recall. I worked off the outline, but there was room (within reason) to invent new scenes, change the order, etc… Then I get my notes, do revisions, etc… we tweak the scripts as we go and, in some cases, come up with new scenes during production. Sometimes those later scenes are written by D&D — for example, there’s an encounter with Jon & Orell in 305 that I didn’t write. And sometimes, storylines shift — usually this is with Dany. All the Essos scenes in 305 were originally scripted by D&D for 306 but moved into my script early in pre-production. Happy to have them, there, though!

In terms of my own process in writing the individual episodes, I go back and forth between the outline and the source chapters. I spend a lot of time just reading and rereading them and writing the scenes in my head… it’s usually awhile before I actually start typing. I like to work in public places (coffee shops, etc) alternating between the ambient noise and listening to Ramin’s GoT music on my headphones. I tend to tackle each character one by one — with 305, I wrote all the Arya stuff first… And in every episode there’s a scene or storyline I have a helluva time working out. That stuff is usually written in a mad frenzy, late at night, the night before it’s due. For 305, it was a particular Sansa scene (that was largely rewritten anyway due to a production issue… oh, well.)

Drogonator: Hey Bryan I’m a huge fan and you guys do great work. I don’t want to ask a spoilery question for the sake of those who aren’t caught up or readers.

So I would like to know, does the writing team throw out a bunch of ideas for added scenes that weren’t in the book and choose which works the best or do David and Dan have it all played out already and let you flesh it out on paper? I ask because these are some of my favorite scenes, Ros’ pov in westeros gets a lot of hate on the message boards and I feel it is unwarranted because she is the only perspective we get from someone who isn’t a power player.

Bryan: It varies. Sometimes they’re conceived in the room, often they happen as we’re writing individually, sometimes they’re written as we’re shooting when realize we need to service a character or a subplot… Ros sort of evolved as we went along — from day player to sort of exposition tool (a way of learning about Theon, Littlefinger, and Pycelle in Season 1) to, as you say, a kind of window into the world from the ‘smallfolk’ POV in Season 2… and when certain scenes (the killing of the bastards, Cersei arresting the wrong whore) came up we decided to use Ros, since she was a character the audience was familiar with. It sort of became a “country girl moves to the city with big dreams” story that takes a lot of dark turns. And, as you saw at the end of last season, she plays a part in the Littlefinger vs. Varys subplot which was largely created for the show. And, it must be said, Esme has turned in a very subtle and interesting performance through it all — if you track her from that first scene in 101 to the current season it’s a nice arc. But, yeah, I know some fans aren’t crazy about her. Sorry.

Siobhan: Why, in the show, did Robb and Cat not learn of the “deaths” of Bran and Rickon before making their decisions to, respectively, break a marriage pact and release their most valuable prisoner?

Bryan: I think that decision came about in the writers room as we were shaping the season… I think it was felt the uncertainty would be interesting for Michelle and Rich to play — so it would be a kind of slow burning grief as opposed to the sucker punch of Ned’s death in Season One. So Cat has this feeling of dread that they’re gone but just doesn’t know, which in some ways is even worse. I think it finally comes to a head in the scene with her and the Blackfish in 303 — I think in that moment she believes they’re dead.

But, yes, it altered the circumstances/motivations of Robb and Cat’s actions in Season 2. Dramatically, we wanted Robb and Cat to be solidly together in Season One and ripped apart by the end of Season 2. And, yes, in the show, Robb’s breaking of his marriage vow is motivated partly by the uncertainty of Bran and Rickon’s fate but also by the fact that he can’t shake the fact that he’s fallen in love. Yes, it’s arguably a grayer, more selfish act than in the book, but to err is to be human. It was thought it would be dramatically compelling for the actors and the viewers.

As for Cat and freeing Jaime, there was a ticking clock element added to it. Karstark wants blood, he’s gonna lynch Jaime. Cat can either let that happen and lose any chance of bargaining for Arya & Sansa or she can roll the dice and let him go. The events of that episode were also designed to plant the Karstark vengeance storyline which you’re seeing out this season.

But, yeah, admittedly different from the book. Most of this stuff came out of what we felt would play well dramatically in the episodic TV format. Of course, you could argue that doing it the way the book did it would have played well too, and that may very well be true, but this was the direction we decided to go.

Matt: How many times have you read each book? When you write for the show do you make decisions for the season and worry about the repercussions of the full series later or do you give preference to the series?

Bryan: Let’s see… definitely read A Game of Thrones the most — at least eight times. A Clash of Kings probably five or six… A Storm of Swords five times, I think… Feast for Crows three times. Dance with Dragons twice. But I’m about to do a reread of both of those. And I’m constantly reading bits and pieces of all of them.

Yes, we’re mindful of the future and are in communication with George about all of it, but decisions are made according to what D&D feel is best for the show. There’s show canon and there’s book canon, which George totally gets and supports.

Al: What happened to the peach?

Bryan: Gethin Anthony. Bloody diva. He hates peaches. I mean HATES THEM. I was at lunch with him, early on — this is like, season one when we were all getting to know each other. There was this chocolate cake thing he ordered for desert and there was a kind of fruity sauce on it. He took one bite and said “Are there FUCKING PEACHES in this sauce?” Dude roared, I’ve never seen anything like it. Finn Jones was with us and we had to physically keep Geth from punching the waiter in the teeth. All the while, I’m thinking “Oh no! What are we going to do when we get to the peach in Season 2?”

So season 2 rolls around and we get to the scene and we do these table reads of the first few episodes. And Gethin is there, very nice… but he takes David & Dan aside. And I see him talking to D&D turning BRIGHT RED… like he’s about to have a breakdown or something. Then I remember: the peach! He’s read the draft! The scene with the peach! And David & Dan are trying to explain the symbolic meaning of the peach and how it’s a fan favorite and how many readers can’t separate Renly from the peach… We even had George skype with him about it — Gethin was so angry, foaming at the mouth. I didn’t think anyone could make George R.R. Martin cry but Gethin did. I can’t even repeat the things he said.

I’ve never seen anyone hate a specific fruit so much! And usually Geth’s a really sweet guy… you might even call him a “peach”. But don’t. Cuz if you do, he’ll cut you.

Anyway, no dice. He threatened to walk if we made him eat a peach. We offered to make a fake peach, out of gelatin or something, but that didn’t fly. He wouldn’t even PRETEND to eat a peach onscreen. We tried a few takes with him eating an apple… I think maybe one with a bunch of grapes… but it just didn’t work. So we cut the fruit altogether. But you can blame Gethin fucking Anthony and his weird peach hatred.

I hope by now you know I’m joking. I don’t know what happened to the peach. It was in there at one point, I think. Maybe there weren’t any peaches in season in Belfast that month…

The Dragon Demands: Has King Jaehaerys II officially been removed from the TV-continuity? Maester Aemon in the TV series says that the Mad King was the son of his brother Aegon V, when in the books he was Aegon’s grandson.

Yes, he’s officially out of show canon. In GAME OF THRONES canon, Egg is the Mad King’s father.

Dominique: Book fans have discussed the Jeyne Westerling -> Talisa Maegyr character and storyline change at length, with some being very vocal in their opinions. However, to my knowledge no interview with DB, DW or yourself went in depth on that topic, so we could only guess at the motivations behind the change.

I would like to know what are the main points that really motivated that change.

Was the Westerling family politics deemed too complex to explain? Was Jeyne’s personality and meeting with Robb deemed too bland? Was the introduction of Volantis background an active priority for some reason?

With all due respect to the difficulty and conflicting pressures of adaptation, we would like to know the inside story!

Bryan: Actually, I did talk about this a bit last year in an interview I did with Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress. Can’t really speak to what motivated the change as it happened during production, after the writers’ room was done. We did always plan to keep Robb front and center in Season Two from the get-go and we did plan to have him fall in love onscreen and alter the motivation for his breaking of the marriage pact somewhat (as discussed in the question above). But Jeyne Westerling evolved into Talisa as we were starting production. I’m guessing the idea was introduce a wild card into Robb’s life, something he could never have anticipated… but again, D&D created the character so it’s not really my place to say what motivated the change, as I wasn’t privy to the conversation. All that said, I love Rich and Oona together and really enjoy how the relationship plays out in Season Three.

Crys: I’ve got a question about a detail in episode 13 “What is dead may never die”. I’m wondering if the scene in which Samwell gives Gilly a thimble could be a reference to the kiss in Peter Pan.

Bryan: Hey! Look at that. Never occurred to me. Perhaps it was a subconscious nod. No, I was just trying to find a way to get Sam’s close relationship with his mother into the scene and thought a thimble would be a plausibly tiny thing he could take to the Wall, a remembrance of his mother, that his father wouldn’t have noticed.

Jen: Understandably there have been characters and events that were altered or cut due to constraints of the show. Were there any characters or events in particular that you were upset/disappointed about not making it into the show?

Bryan: Hmmm… well, there is one scene that Dan Weiss wrote for Marillion in Season One that I thought was really funny and probably hewed closer to the Marillion of the books… They’re on the road to the Vale and Marillion is trying to write a song about capturing the Imp but he’s having trouble getting it right. And there were some hilarious lines he wrote for Marillion when he got wounded in the fight with the Mountain clans. But I think there was a concern that we were veering to far into Monty Python territory with that stuff. We probably were, it was probably a good cut… but I thought it was funny.

Jenny: How did the decision come about to cut out most of the Qhorin Halfhand relationship with Jon and instead replace it with more Jon and Ygritte? Was there any concern that this sacrifice would confuse Jon’s motivations for killing the Halfhand?

Bryan: Admittedly, it happens fast, but if you listen closely it’s pretty clear that Qhorin is ordering Jon to infiltrate the wildlings by any means necessary. I think some of the alterations might have had to do with making it plausible onscreen that the wildlings would believe Jon was really betraying the watch and killing Qhorin of his own volition. But, yeah, you’re right there was definitely a conscious decision made for Ygritte to make a bigger impression in Season 2 and for the Jon/Ygritte relationship to be more central.

Robb: I recall from a prior interview of yours that in Season 1, one of the shows was running a little short, so you wrote a new scene (I believe it was the Tyrion/Theon interaction). Can you talk a little bit about the shooting/ editing/reshooting process. Are the video editors in Ireland or LA? Are they cutting scenes simultaneously to shooting? Are you basically seeing rough cuts of these episodes immediately, thus allowing you to know exact running times and writing/shooting more material as needed on the fly.

Bryan: Yeah, we were still figuring out what we were doing in Season One — how much we were able to shoot with Belfast’s unpredictable weather, etc. It’s amazing we have those two brief tourney sequences at all! It rained constantly and we had very little time to get everything we needed. Anyway, we ended up cutting scenes down as we were shooting them, in order to make our days… again to bring up Marillion… his original scripted encounter with Rodrik and Cat in the inn was much longer.

But what ended up happening was that some of the episodes were running short once rough cuts were being assembled. But, more than that, I think D&D realized some characters and/or relationships needed fleshing out. Theon’s one example — we had that Ros scene but we felt we needed something else to get more information about him. So that Tyrion/Theon scene served that purpose and gave us the opportunity to have those characters interact. Other scenes that were scripted and shot during this period were the Robert/Cersei scene in 105 (one of my favorites), the Robert/Barristan/Jaime scene in 103, the Sansa/Septa Mordane scene in 104, the Jorah/Rakharo/Irri scene in 103, the Viserys/Doreah scene in 104, the Tyrion/Benjen/Yoren scene in 103, the Theon/Osha/Luwin scene in 107, the Tywin/Jaime scene in 107, and the Jaime/Jory scene in 104. I can’t imagine the first season without those scenes. So it’s a good thing those eps were running short!

But, to answer your question, post production/editing/etc starts in Northern Ireland while we’re shooting and continues in LA once principal photography has wrapped.

Justin: Why were Robb and Talisa married in the light of the Seven rather than in front of a Heart Tree?

Bryan: Shotgun wedding! Of sorts. They wanted to get married and there was a septon readily available. At any rate, Robb was raised in an interfaith household — he could very well have spent as much time with with Septon Chayle growing up as he did in the godswood. So I don’t see a problem with him having a Seven wedding. But I guess a lot of people do cuz I get asked that question all the time.

Now the line about Karstark praying to the Father in 208… yeah, I should’ve caught that. Karstark would be strictly Old Gods, I think. If it helps, you could read it as “I’d even break my faith and pray to the bloody FATHER if that’s what it took to bring my sons back”… but I’m not sure that was the intent. But maybe it was. I try my best!

Joe: Has there been a transition for you when you’ve said to yourself, “This is just another day at work.”? Maybe there hasn’t been at all and you walk on set and just marvel that you get to be a part of this thing. Put me in your shoes, how does it look through your eyes?

Bryan: The day I ever say “this is just another day at work” or “ugh, I wish I didn’t have to go to work today” someone better find me and slap the shit out of me, because it’s the greatest job in the world and the most creative and fulfilling professional experience I’ve ever had. Couldn’t be prouder of the show and couldn’t be more fond of my GoT family.

Winter Is Coming: Many thanks to Bryan for doing this! As I mentioned in the intro, we plan to make this a semi-regular thing. My hope is that Vanessa Taylor, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss may even answer a few questions at some point. But for now, Bryan has agreed to continue. I’m sure fans will have more than a few questions once Bryan’s episode airs this Sunday. Use this form to submit any questions you may have about “Kissed by Fire” or any other questions pertaining to Game of Thrones!