Using amnesia as a plot
Writing Craft

Amnesia as a plot device-authortoolbox

How to use amnesia as a plot device

Recently I was slogging through an ARC (and I do mean slogging) trying to figure out why I can’t get into the story. It’s a great idea. Something I’ve never read before. Time travel kid, alternate timelines, and a unique idea of using time as a web, which allows those with the ‘power’ to pull objects from alternate timelines into the character’s present. It should be awesome, but something was off.

The main character kept “remembering” plot-changing information, and then life went on as if nothing happened. In other words, the reader was never prepared for anything.

Preparation keeps plots from feeling contrived

Lack of preparation in fantasy is a disaster waiting to happen. Particularly one that categorized as magical realism. If you have a scruffy wizard grinding things with his mortar and pestle and something behind him explodes without explanation, the reader will forgive it. At Merlin’s table we expect magical things to happen. If the same thing happens at John Smith’s kitchen table, your reader is going to say, “Wait, what?”

In this particular book, the main character (MC) would inexplicably “remember” things when it was convenient for the plot.

During monster attack
MC: “But I’ve never touched a sword in my life.”
Sidekick: “Here hold mine.”
Never before mentioned memories of being Zorro flood back into the MC.

All enemies are dead.
MC shows no surprise at remembering being Zorro.

While this is a stripped down example, it is an accurate outline of something I had noticed throughout the book.

No, no, no, just no.

What to do instead

Using Amnesia as a plot device-www.themansucriptshredder.comThere are plenty of movies where an MC rediscovers lost memories. The Bourne Identity is a great example. In the movie, Jason Bourne doesn’t suddenly remember all his skills. In first fight scene he initially doesn’t fight back until the policeman touches him. The sensation triggers a sensory memory, which is a separate memory from the repressed cognitive one. Jason realizes the sensation of being attacked is familiar, and he follows the tactile memory. We see Matt Damon portray this internal dialogue through facial expressions, first surprise, hesitation, and then finally curiosity as he explores the memory. The entire sequence feels believable, despite the reality that a smaller Jason Bourne could not really wire-jitsu two much bigger men who were also trained in hand-to-hand fighting.

What to do instead

1. Plant a seed in a previous chapter.

Rather than have the master swordsman memory come out of nowhere, the author should have alluded to the skill earlier. Since the MC is a kid (Never mind that the Zorro memory in question occurred when he was 10 years old.) He could have easily been swinging a stick around in the woods and had a flash of familiarity. Find some realistic way of alluding to a hidden skill. In the Long Kiss Goodnight, ex-assassin Gena Davis is chopping vegetables in the kitchen and rediscovers her forgotten knife skills. She makes the wrong conclusion, (that she used to be a chef) but the hint is there: she’s really good with a knife.

2. The discovery

Take the reader through the process of rediscovering a forgotten or innate skill.

  1. Surprise
    Internal dialogue: “This feels familiar” (recovered memory) or “What just happened?” (innate skill)
  2. Confusion
    Internal dialogue: “Why do I know this?” (memory) or “How did I do that?” (innate skill)
  3. Test the waters
    If your MC suddenly remembers he was Zorro in a past life, he is still going to be tentative the first time he uses his skills. He can gain confidence quickly, but the first few strokes will be restrained. Similarly, if your MC discovers his telekinesis, let him test it by moving a glass on a table, not by stopping a train.
  4. Build the new skill
    Character has a small success (or let her fail a few times, even better.)
  5. Then move on to bigger things

3. Take time to process

Discovering a new incredible gift will affect your main character. I hate it when the MC suddenly has a strange power and is “taking it so well.” Cat Winters does a great job with this in “A Cure for Dreaming. (Affiliate, but I really liked the book.)” Olivia’s sudden magical ability affects her interactions with everyone in the story, and as a result, her relationships with those around her change. Winters also explores the Olivia’s fears that the ability will be permanent and how it will affect the rest of her life. These are thoughts a person would really have. The main character needed time to adjust emotionally to her new abilities. Even a helpful skill would take time to adjust to. If your MC is no different after attaining a skill than she was before, it will not feel authentic.

I’m only a third of the way through this book, and I’m hoping that these issues will work themselves out since I love the concept. But if I were at the bookstore, this one would have gone back on the shelf. As a reader I enjoy being surprised, but I hate being confused. Avoid this pitfall by preparing your readers properly. Then the magic will feel real.

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A few final things

First: Announcing my bookYour Novel, This

Based on my “Beginner’s Guide to NaNoWriMo” blog posts, this book breaks down contemporary plot structure into daily writing goals in order to guide the novice writer through the entire month. I’m currently looking for ARC reviewers, Bloggers, and/or Podcasters for the publicity campaign for the August release. If you’d like to participate send me an email michelekellerauthor(at)gmail Thanks!

Second: #QuerySwap



If you are a querying author, don’t forget about #QuerySwap on June 1. It’s a Twitter party where you pitch your book, find a new critique partner and exchange feedback on query letters. All for free. For more information click here

If you found this article useful, please share it with other writers on social media. Thanks

Mentioned in this article:

M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


  • Adam

    That does sound frustrating.
    It’s essentially the author’s excuse for abruptly changing the narrative landscape without providing a narrative source/reason for that change.
    You have some great solutions.
    I think I would be drawn to either the Bourne option, or a type of “alternate personality” that is almost “waking up”, as if the character were being controlled by something else, while they watched, helpless.
    As it is, this sounds like a poorly defined power, which robs the story of a lot of tension and uncertainty, when it could be a source of new fears, directed not at the enemy, but at the character themselves.
    Just imagine, not knowing if suddenly you’re going to attack a friend because something they did stirred up an old memory that you’ve forgotten, and therefore can’t predict or control.

  • raimeygallant

    Such a great post! I was thinking about my last book, and how my CP pointed out something like this, where the point a memory came to my MC was too convenient. I fixed it! Will be sharing on Facebook at some point soon, and yea for query swap. I retweeted that.

    • M.L. Keller

      Robert Jordan handled this really well in the “Wheel of Time” series with the character Matt. He took plenty of time to establish the link, (of course he took plenty of time to do anything in those books) once the convention had been established, then it was easier for the reader to accept the memory. But Jordan was pretty consistent about what types of memories Matt would remember, and it never felt like plot convenience. good luck with your WIP

  • ChrysFey

    I find when a character keeps remembering things that it’s either the only way the author could explain what they want to happen or it was backstory that wasn’t given properly.

    I can review your ARC if you’d like. 🙂

  • S.E. White

    Such a good point. I did read a book once with this plot device badly used and it left me thinking “yeah, right!” You make some very good points.

  • DRShoultz

    Good post. I agree that flashbacks, new memories, or changing dates/times can be confusing if the reader isn’t prep’ed. Your 3 suggestions are very helpful.

  • Iola

    I enjoy amnesia stories (which is what I initially thought your blog post was going to be about). But stories where the main character remembers convenient things or develops convenient skills? That’s a problem, but you’ve given some great tips for getting around those problems. It’s like the advice not to use miracles in fiction – not because miracles can’t happen, but because authors can’t rely on them to solve plot problems.

    It comes back to plotting, not pantsing. Or pantsers can go back and foreshadow in revision. Either approach works, but it has to be done for the sake of the story.

  • E.M.A. Timar

    Really great analysis of the problem and finding workable solution to it. I agree being surprised is great but confusing your reader is never a goal. I think writers can mix up a confused character with a confusing narrative especially when writing a tight perspective (first or close third) of a character who is confused. It is a difficult thing to explain and is related to what you talk about here- memory loss/gain being a source of the confusion. You provide some great examples on how to give your reader something to follow in the narrative while the character remains baffled. I will definitely send writers this way when I see this problem in their work. Also thanks for mentioning A Cure for Dreaming, it sounds interesting and I will be adding it to my ever-growing TBR list.

    • M.L. Keller

      Thanks for the feedback. I really enjoy Cat Winters. She’s one of the few authors who can give historical characters modern sensibilities without making it feel forced.

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