The Short-Hop Flashback

I have to mention Reddit user Bookshelfstud on this one. This text file I’m working in is 8 months old, but I just saw this comment on the ASOIAF subreddit and have to mention him, because we hit on the exact same idea. In fact, he explains it nicely, so I’ll just quote him:

He’ll start a chapter with some crisis happening - usually a small crisis, but still an important one. The chapter starts in media res, so we have to sort of pick up on clues as to what’s happening. Then he drops back a little bit and we get some background. Finally, the scene picks up again and resolves, and the story moves forwards again.

Tyrion’s fifth chapter finds the Imp in a bad way: imprisoned in one of the Eyrie’s terrifying sky cells. He has a tiff with his ogreish jailor, Mord, and then reflects on how he got himself there, by threatening Lysa Tully. Martin drifts slowly into the flashback. Notice how the past perfect melds into the simple past tense:

If only he had shut his mouth…

The wretched boy had started it, looking down on him from a throne of carved weirwood beneath the moon-and-falcon banners of House Arryn. Tyrion Lannister had been looked down on all his life, but seldom by rheumy-eyed six-year-olds who needed to stuff fat cushions under their cheeks to lift them to the height of a man. “Is he the bad man?” the boy had asked, clutching his doll.

“He is,” the Lady Lysa had said from the lesser throne beside him. She was all in blue, powdered and perfumed for the suitors who filled her court.

“He’s so small,” the Lord of the Eyrie said, giggling.

Now the important question: what is the advantage of showing Tyrion in the prison cell first? Why not start the chapter with his argument with Lysa Tully?

If you’re thinking of Martin as a page turner, you must suspect this device is being used so that he can gin up some tension, like when you see an exciting scene and then a title card reading “12 hours earlier”. And that’s part of it. In Lee Child’s piece about creating suspense, he writes:

As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.

The question here is “how will Tyrion get out?”, and the flashback puts it on the back burner.

But it’s not only a suspense device. By looping back from the future, Martin can tell you what happened, something he’s not as comfortable doing in the moment. His storytelling moment-to-moment is exactly that. Only with temporal distance will he permit himself some narrative distance. That allows Tyrion to think things like:

That would have been a very good time to have kept his mouth closed and his head bowed. He could see that now; seven hells, he had seen it then.


But Tyrion’s mood had been too foul for sense.

Character monologues give Martin the same freedom to simply tell us a story instead of show it. And thank god he does these flashbacks and monologues, because they are compressing devices, which you can never have enough of in a multi-book series.

By the way, Tyrion’s fifth chapter follows a formula that is vintage ASOIAF:

We open on a predicament. The flashback permits Tyrion to give us a modal cluster, in which he plots his escape. He then executes that plan by requesting another audience with Lysa, and asking for trial by combat, leading us to the cliffhanger in which Bronn says he’ll stand for the dwarf.

Jeopardy, plotting, cliffhanger – a simple and effective cycle.

More Examples

Sansa, pent up in the tower with Jeyne Poole, thinks back on the slaughter of the northmen. The first line of the chapter is “They came for Sansa on the third day.” Which is certainly suspenseful. Martin lets that ominous sentence hang over a 723 word flashback before returning to the present.

Ned, leaving Chataya’s, thinks back on his conversation with Barra’s mom. Less suspense here. I think it’s used as a point of entry into Ned’s memory, so we can talk a little about Lyanna. Though the chapter doesn’t have any jeopardy at the beginning, it does have that classic Martinian shift, when one scene irrupts into another. In this case, the sleuthing becomes a street fight when Jaime Lannister ambushes Ned’s entourage.

Tyrion, now a hostage of Catelyn’s, thinks back on how he was apprehended. The chapter begins with the butchering Tyrion’s horse. They are in the hills, hoping to reach the safety of the Vale. Mention is made of the prowling shadowcats, satisfying the jeopardy quotient. Then 1,393 words flashing back to the standoff at the inn.

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