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
There 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.
Internal dialogue: “This feels familiar” (recovered memory) or “What just happened?” (innate skill)
Internal dialogue: “Why do I know this?” (memory) or “How did I do that?” (innate skill)
- 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.
- Build the new skill
Character has a small success (or let her fail a few times, even better.)
- 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 book
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!
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
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