How to (and not to) write witty dialogue – Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones


It’s not taboo anymore to say that the writing of 8th season of Game of Thrones is not exactly “the best”. The show still manages to be emotional and entertaining for me and many other fans, but it’s undeniable that the cracks are showing (and not just in the forms of Starbucks cups). The biggest problem is probably Tyrion and the loss of his defining characteristic: his witty dialogue.

What is witty dialogue?

First of all, let’s start by trying to understand who Tyrion Lannister is and why a couple of seemingly unimportant jokes became his distinguishing feature.

In his book Dialogue Robert McKee says that good dialogue must have two layers:

  • text
  • subtext

Text is made of the words that come out of the character’s mouth. His choices of words can tell us everything about his personality and his past:

“ Vocal choices express the character’s education or lack of it, wit or lack of it, his outlook on life, the range of his emotional behaviour – all the observable traits that jigsaw into a personality”

Robert Mckee, Dialogue

While Subtext is the meaning behind what they say, the interpretation we give to their words:

“When the character speaks, the audience instinctively looks past the words to intuit the unsaid, to glimpse what the character actually thinks and feels but chooses not to put into words.”

Robert Mckee, Dialogue

Text – How Tyrion makes jokes

Season 4

In this scene from Game of Thrones season 4, we get an example of witty dialogue in the strangest of situations.

Tyrion is waiting for his “trial by combat” in a dark dirty cell, sure that the moment the fight starts he will be killed by the Mountain and declared guilty of a murder he didn’t commit. Fortunately, he finds an unlikely ally in Oberyn Martell, who tells him that he is going to be his champion and fight in his place.

Despite the tense and also a little tragic situation, Tyrion cannot help but joke around.

It might seem strange to the casual viewer to see a man who is at the lowest point in his life cracking jokes as if he didn’t have a care in the world. But fans of the show have come to expect this sort of behavior from Tyrion.

He always makes jokes when he is afraid or nervous to defuse the tension. Take this one in particular:

“Oberyn: All anyone talked about was the monster that had been born to Tywin Lannister, a head twice the size of his body, a talk between his legs, claws, one red eye, the privates of both a girl and a boy.
Tyrion: That would have made things so much easier”

Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 7

During this beat, Oberyn is talking about how, at Tyrion’s birth, everyone was talking about and speculating on his monstrous appearance.

This kind of discrimination and demonization is familiar to Tyrion, he has had to deal with it his whole life, and the only coping mechanism he has is to make jokes to distract himself.

Notice how instead of getting angry, laughing at the absurdity of the rumors or telling him to stop talking. He is calm and controlled, suggesting that this is not the first time he has had to deal with this type of ignorance.

So instead of making a scene, he simply takes the last sentence Oberyn says and cleverly tries to change the subject of the conversation.

This is the reason why Tyrion comes off as a “cool guy”, despite his tragic and desperate situation, he appears to be completely in control.

Season 8

Here, Tyrion and his brother Jaime are talking about women and their new life in the North, when Ser Bronn comes into the room and tries to trade their lives for a place in Westeros’ nobility.

The first thing to notice is that in the previous scene Tyrion had significantly fewer lines, but somehow more jokes; whereas in this scene from season 8, the hand of the Queen misses on a few golden opportunities to make fun of himself or his companions.

This exchange in particular sounds kinda cringy:

“Tyrion: How is she down there?
Jaime: What? That’s not your concern.
Tyrion: I haven’t been with a woman for years…
Jaime: You’re a dog.
Tyrion: I am the imp and I demand to know.”

Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 4

Up to now, Tyrion’s witty dialogue has always had a purpose, he doesn’t simply say funny words or inappropriate things “just cause”. His clever one-liners always had a meaning, either commenting on his own misfortunes or on others’.

This example shows that the writers know that Tyrion is supposed to say clever one-liners, but apparently run out of clever things for him to say.

What is kind of frustrating is that on the flip side Bronn’s lines are actually funny and comments on the hypocrisy of the two men in front of him.

He points out the fact that a “cutthroat” like him is not much different from the “honorable” Lords who founded the most important houses in Westeros, something we would expect the clever Tyrion to say.

Subtext – How Tyrion actually feels

Season 4

“Tyrion: Sooner or later, Cersei always gets what she wants”

Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 7

This is probably the most heartbreaking but also truthful line Tyrion has said. Why?

As we have established, Tyrion is always the “cool guy” of the situation, calm, relaxed and clever. But the great acting of Peter Dinklage makes his emotion betray the cool persona when his voice cracks.

What Cersei wants is to see her brother dead, and she managed to get it by putting him on trial. With this line, Tyrion admits a truth that is too painful for him to say out loud: his sister hates him and she succeeded in “killing him”.

Subtext doesn’t deal with what the character actually says, but the meaning behind his words.

What is Tyrion saying? That he is going to die and that this is what Cersei wants.

Why is he saying it? He wants to admit defeat.

How is he saying it? His emotion shows that he is suffering.

This line works exactly because the audience has pay attention and guess what the character is talking about rather than passively listen.

Season 8

Well, this season hasn’t really provided much to work with in terms of subtext. Tyrion is always spelling out what he thinks and so are most of the other characters.

The only exception to be found was the conversation between Tyrion and Sansa in the crypts during “The long night”.

“Tyrion: Maybe we should have stayed married.
Sansa: You were the best of them.
Tyrion: What a terrifying thought.”

Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 3

With this line, the cynical but truthful sense of humor that has defined Tyrion’s character for the last 6 years seems to come back for a moment.

He’s basically saying that if he (the always drunk womanizer who only stayed married to her for a few days) was the best husband she must have been really unlucky in love (which is both sad and true).

I still think that Game of Thrones is a good tv show, it still manages to deliver emotionally satisfying scenes (I’ve talked about Theon’s death in another post) and build the tension through conflict.

But I have to admit that this change in Tyrion’s character is the proof that the show’s glory days are long gone. The witty dialogue that defined the personality of the youngest Lannister brother has been replaced by random and cringy jokes.