Why ‘Game of Thrones’ may not have ‘spoiled’ the ending of George R.R. Martin’s books as much as you think

Daenerys Targaryen looking at the Iron Throne on

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Daenerys Targaryen looking at the Iron Throne on “Game of Thrones” season eight, episode six.
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Helen Sloan/HBO
  • When “Game of Thrones” first began in 2011, nobody – not the showrunners nor author George R.R. Martin – thought the series would overtake the in-progress book series.
  • But as time went on, it became clear that dreaded prospect would soon be a reality.
  • Since 2014, public statements about the respective planned endings from Martin and the “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have changed.
  • Though it was once assumed the show’s ending would align with Martin’s plan for the books, now it’s clear book-readers will likely be surprised by major differences.
  • “King Bran” is the only plot point from the “Game of Thrones” finale we know Martin had planned back in 2013.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When the credits rolled on the series finale of “Game of Thrones,” Daenerys Targaryen was dead. Bran Stark was crowned King of the Six Kingdoms. Sansa Stark was Queen in the North. Arya Stark set sail to discover what’s west of Westeros. Jon Snow went beyond the Wall, exiled and (most likely) set to live among the Free Folk for the rest of his days.

But none of this has happened yet in author George R.R. Martin’s book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” upon which the show is based. He still has two planned books to finish, and as soon as HBO’s adaptation came to a close, fans began debating how many of this final season’s storylines they can expect to read in Martin’s novels.

To better contextualize just how much of Martin’s story was “spoiled” by the finale of “Game of Thrones,” we’re going to look back at how we got to this point. What exactly have Martin and the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said about how closely the books will match the show? And how have those answers changed over the last six years?

As it turns out, many of the show’s conclusions might not be found in Martin’s intended version of the story.

The Night King isn't even a character in Martin's published books.

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The Night King isn’t even a character in Martin’s published books.
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HBO

The more it became clear that Martin wouldn’t finish his last two books ahead of the show, the more Benioff and Weiss starting speaking more openly about how the show and books might end differently. By the time the series finale was about to air, fans were surprised to learn that neither Martin nor the “Game of Thrones” showrunners knew for sure how the other would wrap up the massive story.

So let’s take a lengthy look at how the show and books evolved over the past decade, and what fans should know about the not-so-matching endings.

‘Game of Thrones’ first began under the assumption that George R.R. Martin had plenty of time to finish the books

Martin calls himself a “gardener” style writer, meaning he doesn’t map out every character arc and plot trajectory ahead of time for his books. In his analogy, the opposite style of writer is an “architect.” (J.K. Rowling is a notable example of an “architect” series writer – she outlined all of the “Harry Potter” books before starting “Sorcerer’s Stone.”)

Martin has also had a historically tough time with deadlines. We’ve outlined the pattern of delays and setbacks in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series here, if you want a more detailed history. But the short of it that you need to know is that Martin was running into roadblocks with the book series right around the same time he was linked up with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Benioff and Weiss first met Martin in 2006, when four of his planned seven books in “A Song of Ice and Fire” were completed. The HBO adaptation was pitched and created by Benioff and Weiss under the assumption that Martin would finish the final three books long before a show could catch up to him.

But Martin’s fifth book, “A Dance with Dragons,” had its own delays. “Game of Thrones” premiered on Sunday, April 17, 2011. “A Dance with Dragons” didn’t arrive on bookshelves on July 12, 2011.

Martin has been working on the sixth book in the series, “The Winds of Winter,” ever since.

‘Game of Thrones’ skyrocketed in popularity as the first 3 seasons aired, and people began getting worried about the book series falling behind

Robb Stark was killed by Roose Bolton in season three, episode nine,

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Robb Stark was killed by Roose Bolton in season three, episode nine, “The Rains of Castamere.”
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HBO

Seasons two and three of “Game of Thrones” aired in 2012 and 2013, bringing millions of more people into the fandom. The famous Red Wedding episode at the end of season three launched the show into new heights when Robb and Catelyn Stark, along with most of the House Stark army, were massacred. A new level of attention was brought to the show as hype built around the devastating twists and turns of those first three seasons.

The day the third season finale aired, Entertainment Weekly published an interview with then-HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. This was the first time the HBO producers and Martin spoke publicly about the pacing of the show and the hint of trouble to come.

“I finally understand fans’ fear – which I didn’t a couple years ago: What if the storytelling catches up to the books?,” Lombardo said. “Let’s all hope and pray that’s not going to be a problem.”

Martin wasn’t worried at the time.

“I still have a lead of several gigantic books,” Martin said. “If they include everything in the books, I don’t think they’re going to catch up with me. If they do, we’ll have some interesting discussions.”

Even while Martin believed he still had plenty of time, Benioff and Weiss realized they were catching up. They all met to discuss Martin’s endgame in 2013.

George R.R. Martin and David Benioff.

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George R.R. Martin and David Benioff.
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Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

EW’s James Hibberd also reported that, by June 2013, Martin had “told the showrunners his top-secret end-game plan” for the book series.

2013 was the year season three aired, and the events of that season three matched up almost everything that happens in the first two-thirds of Martin’s third book, “A Storm of Swords.” Benioff and Weiss saved that book’s final dramatic storylines – like Joffrey’s death, Tyrion’s trial, and the subsequent murder of Tywin and Shae – for season four.

As they were preparing for the fourth season, Benioff and Weiss decided it was time to have a big sit-down meeting with Martin to discuss the plan he had for the ending.

“Last year we went out to Santa Fe for a week to sit down with him and just talk through where things are going,” Benioff told Vanity Fair in a March 2014 interview. “Because we don’t know if we are going to catch up and where exactly that would be. If you know the ending, then you can lay the groundwork for it. And so we want to know how everything ends. We want to be able to set things up. So we just sat down with him and literally went through every character.”

Martin remained hopeful that he could stay ahead of the show. He said he told Benioff and Weiss “certain things,” but that he could only provide “broad strokes.” Going back to the gardening style metaphor, Martin was effectively able to tell them what he thought the finished garden might look like, but he didn’t know which plants would grow where yet.

“I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet,” Martin said. “I’m hopeful that I can not let them catch up with me.”

But by 2014, with season four around the corner, the three men were now more explicitly worried about the show outpacing the books. The interview with Vanity Fair was also the first time Martin indicated that the show’s arc (and therefore ultimately its conclusion) would work out differently from the books.

“Ultimately, it’ll be different,” Martin said. “You have to recognize that there are going to be some differences. I’m very pleased with how faithful the show is to the books, but it’s never gonna be exactly the same. You can’t include all the characters. You’re not going to include their real lines of dialogue or subplot, and hopefully each will stand on its own.”

Benioff and Weiss drastically trimmed the books’ storylines in seasons 4 and 5, and almost fully caught up with the published material

Jon Snow was killed in the final moments of

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Jon Snow was killed in the final moments of “Game of Thrones” season five.
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HBO

The coming season would reveal how Benioff and Weiss were starting to whittle down characters and subplots from Martin’s books (like moving Theon’s transformation into Reek up from book five, or cutting Catelyn Stark’s “Lady Stoneheart” resurrection entirely).

Other characters like Arianne and Quentyn Martell, or the mysterious “Young Griff” (who Varys claims is really Aegon, Rhaegar Targaryen’s son who was believed dead), were never introduced. At the point in Martin’s novels when the story was growing and growing, Benioff and Weiss were making the adaptation choice to keep the cast of characters and storylines more contained.

Season five of “Game of Thrones” ended with the same big cliffhangers left in Martin’s last-published book, “A Dance with Dragons.” Jon Snow was assassinated by a group of mutinous Night’s Watch men, and Dany escaped from the dragon pit in Meereen on Drogon’s back.

But even as Benioff and Weiss were making some drastic cuts, they said they were heading to same endpoint as Martin.

About a month before season five premiered, Benioff and Weiss (along with “Game of Thrones” actors Kit Harington and John Bradley-West) sat down for a Q&A at Oxford Union. An audience member asked how the show creators felt about the fact that they might soon start “spoiling” plot points from Martin’s unpublished books.

Benioff responded by saying the show would “meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going.”

“There might be a few deviations along the route, but we’re heading towards the same destination,” he said.

Benioff went on to say that one thing that’s “kinda fun” for Martin was the “idea that he can still have surprises for people, even once they’ve watched the show through to the conclusion.”

Some of those surprises for book readers will surely include elements like the “Young Griff” character we mentioned above, or more details about the Greyjoys (since there are other major Greyjoy characters, like Victarion, in the books).

Martin came up with a twist for a character, and revealed that it’s not possible for the show to pull off the same twist

Just a few weeks after the Oxford Union Q&A was uploaded to YouTube, Martin dropped a new surprise on fans during an interview with EW: He had just come up with a new twist for a character, one he hadn’t planned earlier on in the series. This was the nature of his “gardening” process of writing.

“It’s easy to do things that are shocking or unexpected, but they have to grow out of characters,” Martin told EW. “They have to grow out of situations. Otherwise, it’s just being shocking for being shocking. But this is something that seems very organic and natural, and I could see how it would happen. And with the various three, four characters involved… it all makes sense. But it’s nothing I’ve ever thought of before.”

Martin said it was specifically a twist that wouldn’t be doable for the show.

Perhaps most importantly, this twist had only occurred to Martin after that fateful 2013 meeting where he gave Benioff and Weiss a breakdown of the character’s planned endpoints. Speaking with IGN’s Terri Schwartz in February 2016, Martin said the twist involved a character who was dead on the show.

“I have decided to do that, yes,” Martin said. “I’ve decided to do it, and will you know it? I don’t know. It’s fairly obvious because it’s something that involves a couple characters, one of whom is dead in the show but not dead in the books. So the show can’t do this, unfortunately, because they’ve killed a character that I have not killed. But that doesn’t narrow it down much because at this point there are like 15 characters who are dead in the show who are still alive in the books.”

Once again, we had a clear indication that at least some major coming plot point in Martin’s books would never shake out in the show.

As more time passed without new books, fans kept the impression the show was heading towards Martin’s outlined ending. But maybe that was a mistake.

Daenerys and Drogon in the sixth season of

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Daenerys and Drogon in the sixth season of “Game of Thrones.”
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HBO

In April 2015, Benioff and Weiss spoke with Variety about how they had the show’s ending in mind. At the time of this interview, Benioff and Weiss were working on the scripts for season six.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations with George, and he makes a lot of stuff up as he’s writing it,” Benioff told Variety. “Even while we talk to him about the ending, it doesn’t mean that that ending that he has currently conceived is going to be the ending when he eventually writes it.”

“It’s like looking at a landscape and saying, ‘OK, there’s a mountain over there, and I know that I’m getting to that mountain,'” Weiss said. “There’s an event that’s going to happen, and I know that I’m moving in the general direction of that event, but what’s between where I’m standing now and that thing off on the horizon, I’m not totally sure. I’ll know when I get there, and then I’ll see what the terrain looks like around me and I’ll choose my path once I get closer to it.”

This 2015 interview was the first time fans were told the Benioff and Weiss had a clear ending in sight. Many people latched onto that mountain analogy, and assumed that both the books and the show were going to go from the same point A to the same point B – it was just how they arrived there that would be different.

After this interview, conventional wisdom among fans was that Martin had told the showrunners his plan for the ending, and Benioff and Weiss were just having to fill in the gaps in order to get there.

But in retrospect, that might have been the wrong takeaway.

With the show’s final seasons around the corner, Benioff and Weiss began speaking more openly about how the endings would be different

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow met for the first time in the seventh season of

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Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow met for the first time in the seventh season of “Game of Thrones.”
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HBO

In an interview with Time magazine in 2017 ahead of the seventh season premiere, Benioff and Weiss were asked if they knew back in season two where the story would end up. Again the showrunners referenced that 2013 meeting with Martin.

“That’s when we started talking to George and he was giving us a sense of things he was working on that were to come,” Benioff said. “That’s when he told us about the Hodor backstory, and endgame stuff. He had some great stuff that he could share with us, like the Hodor thing, but a lot of it, he wasn’t sure yet, because he was writing, and he discovers things by writing.”

(The “Hodor thing” Benioff is referring too was the shocking death of Bran’s companion and the revelation that “Hodor” was a name born from a traumatic greenseeing event that caused young Hodor to repeatedly scream “hold the door!”)

A bit later in the interview, Time asked the two men: “To what degree do you feel it needs to be perfectly congruent with the vision of the endgame of the novels that Martin presented to you?”

“It’s already too late for that,” Benioff said. “We’re already well past the point of it jibing 100 percent. We’ve passed George and that’s something that George always worried about – the show catching up and ultimately passing him – but the good thing about us diverging at this point is that George’s books will still be a surprise for readers who have seen the show.”

This sounded much different from Benioff’s 2015 statement at Oxford Union, when he said the show was going to “meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going.”

Especially when Benioff went on to say that there were things Martin had told them about the ending that weren’t going to wind up in the show at all.

“Certain things that we learned from George way back in that meeting in Santa Fe are going to happen on the show, but certain things won’t,” Benioff continued in the Time interview. “And there’s certain things where George didn’t know what was going to happen, so we’re going to find them out for the first time too, along with millions of readers when we read those books.”

Ahead of the last six episodes, fans were surprised to learn that neither Martin nor the showrunners were sure what each other had planned for their endings

D.B. Weiss and David Benioff at a

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D.B. Weiss and David Benioff at a “Game of Thrones” event.
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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Years passed as the “Game of Thrones” team spent an extended production period ramping up to the eighth and final season, and still “The Winds of Winter” remained unfinished. With the arrival of 2019 came one new revelation: Martin himself didn’t know exactly what Benioff and Weiss had in store for their version of the ending. And they weren’t “entirely sure” of his.

In a March feature for EW, reporter James Hibberd wrote that “the showrunners [Benioff and Weiss] note that they’re not entirely sure of Martin’s future storylines anyway.”

To boot, Martin hadn’t read the any of upcoming scripts. Which meant he didn’t know Benioff and Weiss’ ending.

“I haven’t read the [final-season] scripts and haven’t been able to visit the set because I’ve been working on ‘Winds,'” Martin said. “I know some of the things. But there’s a lot of minor-character [arcs] they’ll be coming up with on their own. And, of course, they passed me several years ago. There may be important discrepancies.”

Given that Martin had stopped writing scripts for the show, it had become clear to fans that he’d stepped away somewhat from being actively engaged with the show’s production. But it came as a surprise to many to learn that he didn’t know Benioff and Weiss’ plans for the last six episodes.

Daenerys Targaryen standing by the Iron Throne on the

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Daenerys Targaryen standing by the Iron Throne on the “Game of Thrones” series finale.
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HBO

By April, EW’s James Hibberd had published a longer interview with Benioff and Weiss in which they revealed for the first time that they would not be confirming or denying any differences between their ending and what Martin told them in 2013.

“One thing we’ve talked to George about is that we’re not going to tell people what the differences are,” Benioff said. “So when those books come out people can experience them fresh.”

It’s kind of nice for him because […] the show has become so different that people will have no way [of] knowing from watching what will or won’t appear in the books,” Weiss said. “And honestly, neither do we.”

“We don’t,” Benioff confirmed. “And George discovers a lot of stuff while he’s writing. I don’t think that final book is written in stone yet – it’s not written on paper yet. As George says, he’s a gardener and he’s waiting to see how those seeds blossom.”

Again, this was a new departure from the earlier public conversations around the ending. Instead of the books and the show looking like two different paths that would wind up at the same location, now neither Martin nor the “Game of Thrones” showrunners knew for certain how aligned their endings would be.

After the series finale aired, Martin only provided vague statements about the show’s conclusion and reiterated that we’ve only seen ‘one ending – not the ending’

Sansa Stark on the

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Sansa Stark on the “Game of Thrones” series finale.
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Helen Sloan/HBO

Cut to May 2019, when the final episode of “Game of Thrones” had aired. Martin wrote a new blog post updating his followers, and addressed the show (though he didn’t explicitly say that he had watched the final season at all).

“‘The Winds of Winter’ is very late, I know, I know, but it will be done,” Martin wrote. “I won’t say when, I’ve tried that before, only to burn you all and jinx myself… but I will finish it, and then will come ‘A Dream of Spring.'”

Then he got to the real meat of it.

“‘How will it all end?’ I hear people asking,” Martin wrote. “The same ending as the show? Different? Well… yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes.”

Martin once again mentioned how “the butterfly effect” will be at work, and listed all the characters who never appeared in the show.

“Book or show, which will be the ‘real’ ending? It’s a silly question,” Martin wrote, before bringing up his favorite rhetorical question. “How many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? How about this? I’ll write it. You read it. Then everyone can make up their own mind, and argue about it on the internet.”

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“Gone With the Wind” is Martin’s favorite analogy for “Game of Thrones” and “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
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Loews, Inc.

With the Scarlett O’Hara question, Martin was falling back to his most beloved analogy: “Gone with the Wind.”In many of his famous NotaBlog LiveJournal blog posts, Martin would point to “Gone with the Wind” as a classic example of a book-to-screen adaptation and how they might differ. “How many children does Scarlett O’Hara have?” is Martin’s favorite question to toss at fans whenever the show’s differences are brought up.

The answer depends on whether you’re referring to the book or the movie (three and one, respectively).

Again, Martin didn’t specify anything within the show’s ending itself when he discussed the series finale. Which means we still don’t know (publicly) if he’s aware of exactly how Benioff and Weiss charted the endgame paths for major characters.

The last time Martin spoke publicly about the end of “Game of Thrones” was in a January 2020 interview with German news site Welt.

“People know one ending – not the ending,” Martin said. “The makers of the TV series overtook me, which I didn’t expect. Nevertheless, I’m still doing what I have been doing for years: I’m still trying to finish the next book ‘Winds Of Winter’ first, and then the follow-up novel ‘A Dream Of Spring.’ That’s what I’m focusing on. After that, we’ll see what happens.”

Alright. So after a long, seven-year saga of public conversations about the show vs. the books and how they might (or might not) align in the end, there’s very little we know for absolute certain.

There’s just one major exception: King Bran.

King Bran is the only piece of the endgame we’ve been told was part of Martin’s plan

Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark in the series finale of

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Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark in the series finale of “Game of Thrones.”
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HBO

In an interview with HBO for the “Making of ‘Game of Thrones'” website, published just after the series finale aired, actor Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran) revealed that his character’s fate was part of Martin’s original plan.

“David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] told me there were two things George R.R. Martin had planned for Bran, and that was the Hodor revelation, and that he would be king,” Hempstead Wright said. “So that’s pretty special to be directly involved in something that is part of George’s vision. It was a really nice way to wrap it up.”

During an interview with Insider on the Emmys red carpet later that year, Hempstead Wright addressed the revelation once more.

“Well, I don’t want to step on George’s toes and say anything about it that I shouldn’t,” the actor said when asked what Benioff and Weiss had told him about their conversation with Martin. “But that was kind of the gist they gave me – that there were a couple of things George has got clearly set out. I’m honored to be a small part of that.”

Given this, it seems all-but-confirmed that Bran Stark will wind up King in Martin’s novels. It makes sense narratively (Bran was the first major point-of-view character introduced in the opening chapter of Martin’s books) and many fans have done great analysis showing Bran could be Martin’s version of the Fisher King Arthurian legend.

How some of the other major character endings may differ from (or align with) from Martin’s eventual version

Daenerys and Jon together, shortly before he stabs her with a dagger and murders her.

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Daenerys and Jon together, shortly before he stabs her with a dagger and murders her.
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HBO

OK, that was a lot of mostly information to parse through. So let’s dive into the fun part now: Educated guesswork.

Knowing now that Martin’s original plan might not have aligned with the show’s ending, and also keeping in mind that Benioff and Weiss were on a loose trajectory of plot points starting way back in season three, let’s try to theorize which aspects of the finale might be part of Martin’s plan.

King Bran is a good starting point. If Bran becomes king of Westeros, that means neither Jon Snow nor Daenerys Targaryen will sit the Iron Throne in Martin’s books.

To follow that thread, it’s very likely Daenerys will be killed in Martin’s books.

Benioff and Weiss once told EW that Martin had revealed three planned moments for the book series which made them think, “Holy s—.”

The first two of these “holy s—” twists was the burning of Shireen Baratheon (which they worked into the fifth season of the show) and the revelation of how Hodor got his name (which happened on the sixth season). The third, Benioff said, was from “the very end” of the story.

It’s possible Jon killing Daenerys might be the third “holy s—” moment Martin told Benioff and Weiss about.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

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Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.
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HBO

The general arc of Daenerys character’s tragic downfall seems very in line with Martin’s story. You can read our deep-dive analysis here on why Daenerys’ turn seems to align with Martin’s beliefs about the morals of war. We’re less confident that the details involved (like Daenerys burning King’s Landing after the city surrenders) are going to play out the same in the books, though.

So what about Jon Snow? His exile beyond the Wall and fated leadership among the Free Folk also seems like a very likely end for Jon’s story in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

The relationship between himself and the wildlings was a key part of his arc in the published books so far, and it would be a fitting way for Martin to continue subverting epic fantasy tropes. Vanity Fair reporter Joanna Robinson wrote a great analysis of how Jon Snow’s fate is akin to both Aragorn and Frodo’s in “The Lord of the Rings,” which you can read here.

Great, so that’s Bran, Jon, and Daenerys accounted for. What about the Lannisters?

Again, it seems inline with Martin’s books that both Jaime and Cersei will die at some point. And again, the manner of their death will likely not involve the specifics the show included (crushed by debris inside the Red Keep and in the midst of a battle).

Tyrion is a much murkier character to try and predict. Will he survive? Maybe. Will he be Hand of the King to Bran? No idea.

Sansa, Arya, and Bran saying goodbye to Jon Snow.

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Sansa, Arya, and Bran saying goodbye to Jon Snow.
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HBO

Similarly, Arya and Sansa Stark’s fates seem both possible for Martin’s planned endgame but also extremely up-in-the-air. At the very least, having Sansa ruling Winterfell in the end of the books would be another fitting arc for her character, and very in line with Martin’s poetic sensibilities (since Sansa begins her journey wanting nothing more than to leave her ancestral Stark home).

But will she actually be Queen in the North? Or just the Warden of the North? It’s hard to definitely argue in either direction.

As for Arya, it’s hard to see a long-term role for her in Westeros at the end of Martin’s books. It feels equally possible that she’ll die in the book version of events, or go off to explore or otherwise leave Westeros by the end.

The White Walkers are still a huge mystery in Martin's novels.

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The White Walkers are still a huge mystery in Martin’s novels.
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HBO

And the biggest endgame plot point of all, the fate of the White Walkers, will likely be drastically different in Martin’s books. Benioff and Weiss introduced the Night King as a leader figure for the inhuman beings – that character doesn’t exist (yet) in the books. In fact, there’s very little about the White Walkers so far in Martin’s text.

So everything surrounding the final battle and the wight-dragon and a Valyrian steel/dragonglass blade being the key to killing the Night King? Probably just Benioff and Weiss’ way of tidying up the White Walker threat in the version of the story they were telling.

As Martin said, there’s no “real” ending. And as Benioff and Weiss said, we’ll have no way of knowing for sure how close “Game of Thrones” came, in the end, to Martin’s version of the story he started all the way back in 1996.

Fans will have to continue waiting for “The Winds of Winter,” and then hope for “A Dream of Spring” soon after that.