Using Amnesia as a Plot Device


Vision # 80


Using Amnesia as a Plot Device

or “I Can’t Remember What I Did Last Saturday”


Cheryl Peugh

Copyright © 2015, Cheryl Peugh, All Rights Reserved


So I’m strolling along by the books for sale in a local grocery store, and I see one with a title and cover art that interests me. I pick it up and read the blurb on the back. What I read is this: Girl wakes up after an accident and can’t remember anything, doesn’t know who to trust, and must figure out who she is before the killer strikes again. (I’ve condensed it so that you don’t gouge out your eyes before you get to the end.)


Do we writers still think this is a viable plot device? Amnesia must be one of the most overdone plots in history. Script writers are still using the plot (Jason Bourne, anyone?). Full disclaimer: I tried to write a story once based on amnesia and even I got bored and wandered off.

I know amnesia exists. It’s a scary event that happens to real people, but readers aren’t looking for reality, they’re asking for believability. The thing writers most need in readers is the willing suspension of disbelief. And this plot has been DONE. And DONE. And DONE AGAIN. And many times not done well. Mention the word “amnesia” and it’s an automatic eye roller. Readers, most of ‘em anyway, are no longer willing to suspend that disbelief when it comes to amnesia. To them, it’s beginning to look like the writer is just too lazy to think up a good storyline and/or thinks the reader is too stupid to figure it out.

Hey, I know why it appeals --- built in conflict and backstory. Instead of having to build conflict by the decisions our characters make and the actions they take, here we have it handy because the main character doesn’t know what’s going on or why. Everything has to be explained, which means the writer doesn’t have to figure out how to work backstory in, and everything can be potential conflict. Since the character can’t trust anything, neither can the reader. In that way, we keep up the suspense and hide what’s really going on until near the end when we pull out the surprise. Or so we think. What happens is that many readers figure out early on in the story what happened and how it’s going to end. They lose interest.

Another reason the plot device appeals is that it’s cool to think about just starting over with a clean slate. Since this is difficult in reality without looking like the biggest jerk alive, we play it out with our characters. If we could just start over, we’d do things right this time, by God! And since we don’t want our characters to seem like jerks, either, we give them amnesia. Presto, change-o!

But Life seldom hands us do-overs. And I think that’s why (along with overuse) we invite impatience from our readers when we us amnesia. Also, events can seem more passive with the story whose character has amnesia. An amnesiac spends a lot of the story’s energy trying to find out what has already happened. That’s the inherent danger of do-overs. A more dynamic story is concentrated on what is happening right now.

So what can we, as writers, do instead? Here are some suggestions:

1. If having amnesia figure into the plot is that important, why not a secondary character? If the amnesia is ancillary to the main character’s story, the reader will be more likely to accept it.

For example: Main character’s life is marked by her best friend’s bitterness over the perceived unfairness of Life because she has to deal with an amnesiac husband she despises. Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery (Courage Books ISBN: 9780553213188)

2. If we want to show the story world through the lens of a character who isn’t familiar with it so we can show off …er, highlight the cool stuff in our story without making the character sound like a total idiot, how about having him or her come in from outside?

For example: New recruit shows up for duty and learns about his new surroundings through older recruits and through new experiences ---just about any scene from the movie Avatar (Director: James Cameron)

3. If we want to hide something about our main character, why not use the unreliable narrator?

For example: The narrator is the detective’s assistant, who is revealed to be the murderer in the end – see The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN: 9780062073563)

Of the three, I favor the second option. I have a theory that some writers who use amnesia as a plot device would rather write the unreliable narrator, but it’s a tricky and sophisticated writing technique, and it usually takes a tricky and sophisticated writer to pull it off. Personally, I don’t like the unreliable narrator, which I’ve always considered deceiving the reader --- and not in a good way. Sometimes, the unreliable narrator feels like a cheat.

Using amnesia as a shorthand for backstory and conflict, and deceiving the reader, isn’t going to encourage the reader to buy our next book (unless you’re Christie and even she got flack for it). To get the reader to buy the next book, and the one after that, we’re going to have to work to build our conflict the old fashioned way – by carefully working in our backstory, and by letting our characters experience the consequences of his or her decisions, and then take subsequent actions as a direct result of those consequences until we reach the climax of the story.

What we won’t do is take the easy way out.