Now, As We All Know
All fiction makes concessions to the audience’s memory. These are large and small, more or less visible. ASOIAF has lengthy appendices that provide brief descriptions of the characters. Game of Thrones has those “Previously On” segments. These come to mind easily, because they’re paratextual instruments that exist only to remind us of who these characters are and what they’ve done.
There are other reminders, however, that happen within the text. In season five, episode seven of Game of Thrones, Jon’s heading out beyond the Wall. Sam presents him with a satchel.
It looks like Sam is saying all that to Jon, but of course he’s not: he’s talking to us in the audience, who haven’t seen dragonglass in action since season three, episode eight (735 days). Convention alone keeps John Bradley-West from delivering these lines straight into the lens.
All these reminders spoil the illusion to some extent. They address the reader, and a self-conscious reader is like a self-conscious dreamer. That’s a challenge of being a writer – you need to make sure the reader is thinking about what you want them to think about, without being aware of it. “Previously On” segments are a pretty crude solution, because they’re halfway to spoilers. Foreshadowing works when it shows you a shadow, which can be ambiguous. (And thank god for that, shouts the shadow puppeteer.) When half a dozen moments are edited together and run immediately before an episode, that shadow becomes pretty crisp at the edges. Though if you ever run your own TV show, don’t forget this can be turned to your advantage. AGOT’s fifth season had an incredible fakeout; it riled up all the readers by showing a clip of Benjen. Turned out Benjen wasn’t coming back, so we were also suckered when Jon got stabbed.
Back to the topic at hand, the difficulty of jogging the reader’s memory. ASOIAF presents an unusual challenge in this regard. One of the series’ most compelling features is that all the adults already have their motivations.In fact, ASOIAF sometimes feels to me like the world’s most elaborate epilogue to the real story, Robert’s Rebellion. It’s an interesting idea, setting your narrative atop this iceberg of history, using that background to give your text solidity.) Their psyches have been shaped by events we never experience firsthand. Tyrion and Tywin’s relationship has to do with two absent women, Joanna and Tysha; Baelish seems to do all his jockeying because he was spurned by Catelyn; Ned’s long-standing friendship with Robert – and their common love of their guardian Jon Arryn – is what gets him to leave Winterfell in the first place, and sets off this new sequence. It’s a big part of why the world feels so lived-in, this rich and continuous history. Everyone had a life before page one. Since he has allowed himself no flashbacksMartin isn’t averse to flashbacks on philosophical grounds; after all, he’s written the Dunk & Egg stories. He sticks to the present because it lets him maintain mysteries. When we can only hear about the past through monologues, Martin can bring more and more of these icebergs above water, one monologue at a time. Even now that Bran can use weirwoods like CCTVs, we’re going to be drip-fed, because Bran hasn’t been reading fan forums and doesn’t know that he needs to go directly to the Tower of Joy, and then to Summerhall., Martin has to tell us about these lives in other ways. It can get pretty awkward, even verge on the dreaded infodump:
The time had come for Robert to hear the whole truth, he decided then and there. “Do you remember the Trident, Your Grace?”
“I won my crown there. How should I forget it?”
“You took a wound from Rhaegar,” Ned reminded him. “So when the Targaryen host broke and ran, you gave the pursuit into my hands. The remnants of Rhaegar’s army fled back to King’s Landing. We followed. Aerys was in the Red Keep with several thousand loyalists. I expected to find the gates closed to us.”
Robert gave an impatient shake of his head. “Instead you found that our men had already taken the city. What of it?”
The entire remembrance takes about 650 words, and ends like this:
“I cannot answer for the gods, Your Grace… only for what I found when I rode into the throne room that day,” Ned said. “Aerys was dead on the floor, drowned in his own blood. His dragon skulls stared down from the walls. Lannister’s men were everywhere. Jaime wore the white cloak of the Kingsguard over his golden armor. I can see him still. Even his sword was gilded. He was seated on the Iron Throne, high above his knights, wearing a helm fashioned in the shape of a lion’s head. How he glittered!”
“This is well known,” the king complained.
“I was still mounted. I rode the length of the hall in silence, between the long rows of dragon skulls. It felt as though they were watching me, somehow. I stopped in front of the throne, looking up at him. His golden sword was across his legs, its edge red with a king’s blood. My men were filling the room behind me. Lannister’s men drew back. I never said a word. I looked at him seated there on the throne, and I waited. At last Jaime laughed and got up. He took off his helm, and he said to me, ‘Have no fear, Stark. I was only keeping it warm for our friend Robert. It’s not a very comfortable seat, I’m afraid.’”
It is a flashback dressed up as a monologue. Does Ned Stark seem to you like the kind of guy who’s going to include that detail about the dragon skulls staring down, watching him? We’re hearing Martin use Ned like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Of course that’s all any of these characters are, but the game is to keep us from seeing your lips move.
Maybe Ned picked up this habit of long remembrances from his wife:
Ser Rodrik cleared his throat. “Lord Baelish once, ah…” His thought trailed off uncertainly in search of the polite word.
Catelyn was past delicacy. “He was my father’s ward. We grew up together in Riverrun. I thought of him as a brother, but his feelings for me were… more than brotherly. When it was announced that I was to wed Brandon Stark, Petyr challenged for the right to my hand. It was madness. Brandon was twenty, Petyr scarcely fifteen. I had to beg Brandon to spare Petyr’s life. He let him off with a scar. Afterward my father sent him away. I have not seen him since.” She lifted her face to the spray, as if the brisk wind could blow the memories away. “He wrote to me at Riverrun after Brandon was killed, but I burned the letter unread. By then I knew that Ned would marry me in his brother’s place.”
Then again, the Hound has the same habit:
Sansa began to cry. He let go of her then, and snuffed out the torch in the dirt. “No pretty words for that, girl? No little compliment the septa taught you?” When there was no answer, he continued. “Most of them, they think it was some battle. A siege, a burning tower, an enemy with a torch. One fool asked if it was dragonsbreath.” His laugh was softer this time, but just as bitter. “I’ll tell you what it was, girl,” he said, a voice from the night, a shadow leaning so close now that she could smell the sour stench of wine on his breath. “I was younger than you, six, maybe seven. A woodcarver set up shop in the village under my father’s keep, and to buy favor he sent us gifts. The old man made marvelous toys. I don’t remember what I got, but it was Gregor’s gift I wanted. A wooden knight, all painted up, every joint pegged separate and fixed with strings, so you could make him fight. Gregor is five years older than me, the toy was nothing to him, he was already a squire, near six foot tall and muscled like an ox. So I took his knight, but there was no joy to it, I tell you. I was scared all the while, and true enough, he found me. There was a brazier in the room. Gregor never said a word, just picked me up under his arm and shoved the side of my face down in the burning coals and held me there while I screamed and screamed. You saw how strong he is. Even then, it took three grown men to drag him off me. The septons preach about the seven hells. What do they know? Only a man who’s been burned knows what hell is truly like.
“My father told everyone my bedding had caught fire, and our maester gave me ointments. Ointments! Gregor got his ointments too. Four years later, they anointed him with the seven oils and he recited his knightly vows and Rhaegar Targaryen tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Arise, Ser Gregor.’”
These long prepared monologues stand out because Martin’s dialogue is usually naturalistic. The Hound is hammered and he’s coming up with wordplay around the word ointment?
Sam Tarly’s backstory feels better in comparison to the above, because Martin reports it instead of quoting directly.
“No.” Sam’s mouth grew tight and hard. “I hated it there.” He scratched Ghost behind the ear, brooding, and Jon let the silence breathe. After a long while Samwell Tarly began to talk, and Jon Snow listened quietly, and learned how it was that a self-confessed coward found himself on the Wall.
The Tarlys were a family old in honor, bannermen to Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South. The eldest son of Lord Randyll Tarly, Samwell was born heir to rich lands, a strong keep, and a storied two-handed greatsword named Heartsbane, forged of Valyrian steel and passed down from father to son near five hundred years.
Whatever pride his lord father might have felt at Samwell’s birth vanished as the boy grew up plump, soft, and awkward. Sam loved to listen to music and make his own songs, to wear soft velvets, to play in the castle kitchen beside the cooks, drinking in the rich smells as he snitched lemon cakes and blueberry tarts. His passions were books and kittens and dancing, clumsy as he was. But he grew ill at the sight of blood, and wept to see even a chicken slaughtered. A dozen masters-at-arms came and went at Horn Hill, trying to turn Samwell into the knight his father wanted. The boy was cursed and caned, slapped and starved. One man had him sleep in his chainmail to make him more martial. Another dressed him in his mother’s clothing and paraded him through the bailey to shame him into valor. He only grew fatter and more frightened, until Lord Randyll’s disappointment turned to anger and then to loathing. “One time,” Sam confided, his voice dropping from a whisper, “two men came to the castle, warlocks from Qarth with white skin and blue lips. They slaughtered a bull aurochs and made me bathe in the hot blood, but it didn’t make me brave as they’d promised. I got sick and retched. Father had them scourged.”
What’s wrong with that? Maybe it feels a little old-fashioned, but anybody who sticks around for more than a few chapters of ASOIAF must have an appetite for character. Don’t forget that the prologue is not just a fight with the undead: it’s also a character sketch of the lordling Waymar Royce.
Sam’s pretty well set up with just two paragraphs, and if it feels too on the nose, I say fine – these books are enormous already. One should get to the point wherever possible.
That’s all I wanted to say on this, and I’m sensitive to how long this essay is with all the quotations, so stop here if you’ve got the point. But since I did find many more examples of this stuff, I’m including it here for completeness.
Not all the exposition is character backstory. Some is the kind of fact one would look up in the Encyclopedia Westerosica, if it existed. Since it doesn’t, we have to rely on the cast.
Want to learn about regional chivalry? Maester Luwin has you covered:
“How many is it now?” Bran asked Maester Luwin as Lord Karstark and his sons rode through the gates in the outer wall.
“Twelve thousand men, or near enough as makes no matter.”
“How many knights?”
“Few enough,” the maester said with a touch of impatience. “To be a knight, you must stand your vigil in a sept, and be anointed with the seven oils to consecrate your vows. In the north, only a few of the great houses worship the Seven. The rest honor the old gods, and name no knights… but those lords and their sons and sworn swords are no less fierce or loyal or honorable. A man’s worth is not marked by a ser before his name. As I have told you a hundred times before.”
Can’t remember who owns Seagard? Ser Rodrik, if you would:
The banner in the hand of the foremost rider hung sodden and limp, but the guardsmen wore indigo cloaks and on their shoulders flew the silver eagle of Seagard. “Mallisters,” Ser Rodrik whispered to her, as if she had not known.
Telling Catelyn stuff she already knows is Rodrik’s thing, and it becomes charming because Martin is clearly doing it intentionally. Funny how that can affect the reader’s interpretation, but not surprising: we like to feel that our pilot is in complete control of the vehicle. Winking at the audience while doing something gauche (hanging a lampshade, as TvTropes would have it) is one way to reassure your readers, and Ser Rodrik is another. It’s just a character trait! And if it lets him tell us helpful facts, that’s just a bonus.
The other example:
“Ser Vardis is hurt,” Ser Rodrik said, his voice grave.
Catelyn did not need to be told; she had eyes, she could see the bright finger of blood running along the knight’s forearm, the wetness inside the elbow joint.
The king of stating the obvious, however, is Hal Mollen, a Stark guardsman and part of the comic relief.
They are coming, Catelyn thought.
“They’re coming, my lady,” Hal Mollen whispered. He was always a man for stating the obvious.
A mob of men followed him up the slope, dirty and dented and grinning, with Theon and the Greatjon at their head. Between them they dragged Ser Jaime Lannister. They threw him down in front of her horse. “The Kingslayer,” Hal announced, unnecessarily.
Something dark was dangling against the walls of Riverrun, Catelyn saw from a distance. When she rode close, she saw dead men hanging from the battlements, slumped at the ends of long ropes with hempen nooses tight around their necks, their faces swollen and black. The crows had been at them, but their crimson cloaks still showed bright against the sandstone walls.
“They have hanged some Lannisters,” Hal Mollen observed.
Fewer than a score of knights remained ahorse, charging and slashing at each other as watchers and fallen combatants cheered them on. She saw two destriers collide in full armor, going down in a tangle of steel and horseflesh. “A tourney,” Hal Mollen declared. He had a penchant for loudly announcing the obvious.
“My lady,” Hal Mollen called. Two riders had emerged from the tidy little camp beneath the castle, and were coming toward them at a slow walk. “That will be King Stannis.”
“No doubt.” Catelyn watched them come.