[Perry] Amnesia

July 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking about the uses of amnesia in a story lately. This is likely triggered with a conversation I had with Tami upon the completion of the Paradox trilogy.

While we both enjoyed the novels to a very large, and sometimes ecstatic, extent, we both agreed that the use of amnesia in the middle of the story left a lot to be desired.

So let’s take a bit of a closer look at this device.

What It’s For

Amnesia can be used for many things. But generally speaking? It’ll boil down to two uses. It can be used as a way to info-dump mid-story, or it’s used as a plot device.

When it comes to that first usage, it’s the same as using the fish-out-of-water character to follow the other characters around so that they can ‘explain’ to him what’s going on and how the world works.

It tends to be a bit of a ‘cheat-y’ way of getting information across but in all honesty, that’s not always a bad thing.

If you can disguise the usage of that as such under clever veneer, it can actually turn into something marvelous fun.

Take The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, for example.

It’s a story with its fair share of flaws, to be sure, but O’Malley’s chosen method of sharing the details of his world with the reader through the use of amnesia was, I thought, inspired.

This was a way of using that tried and true tactic and adding just enough of a twist to it that it became something else entirely.

In fact, O’Malley manages to turn Myfanwy Thomas into two distinct characters through the clever use of amnesia and some pre-written letters.

True, it didn’t always make logical sense WHEN the letters were read in terms of story timeline…but still, the idea was excellent enough that I just glossed over it blissfully until Tami pointed it out to me (angry shaking fist).

Another Thing It’s For

Amnesia can also be used as a very effective plot device. And with the right events or character interactions to highlight it, it can have quite the emotional punch to it.

Take a look at Small Favor by Jim Butcher.

I don’t want to include any spoilers as I know some folks are still slowly making their way through it coughcough, but in general terms? Harry is made aware of the fact that he’s been inflicted with a slight, selective amnesia about something later in the book.

That’s not the good bit.

The good bit? Is where he’s completely oblivious to this fact and only figures it out when he confronts an ally about why they don’t seem to trust him fully.

It’s in that confrontation, with the emotional weight of all that hurt and feeling of betrayal piled up that we get the reveal and it’s one hell of a sucker punch.

That’s a good plot device. It’s a way to use the amnesia in a way that the main character is completely unaware of it to introduce a plot twist.

By necessity? This tends to work better in stories where the reader is tied a little more tightly to the main character’s perspective. That way, it shocks the reader just as much as the character when it’s revealed.

A Usage I Didn’t Agree With

In the Paradox trilogy, I felt there was a bit of a sagging middle section to the story and it focused almost entirely around the main character’s enforced amnesia.

And there’s a strong chance that I wouldn’t even have thought anything of it except for the fact that the plot to the trilogy moved along at a wondrously frenetic clip. On the bounce, from one plot point to another, gleefully entangling the characters in one crisis after another…

…And then? Plot device. “For her own good”, Devi is afflicted with selective amnesia. And the plot comes to a grinding halt, stalling out from its breakneck pace to trundle along for a bit.

I think my less than favorable impression of the use of amnesia in the story stems from the fact that it didn’t seem to have any overall impact on the plot.

I mean, yes, Devi goes along for a little while a little bit confused as to certain things that had happened?

But NOTHING seems to come of the little episode of amnesia.

A little while later, she gets her memories restored and then things continue on from there, building back up to a breakneck speed and blasting toward the finish line.

If you sliced out that entire amnesia segment? I don’t think the story would change in any significant way. The exact same things would have happened, just…it would have happened a little sooner.

The other issue with this use of amnesia comes from the way the other characters treat her. Devi doesn’t realize anything’s wrong, but everyone around suddenly seems to have a bit of a “poor thing, tsk tsk tsk” attitude for a while until she regains her memories.

And that?

That was a bit frustrating to read through. Frustrating because Devi is ANYTHING but an object of sympathy. She’s a hard-nosed, tough-as-nails, ass-kicking, defiant force of nature crammed into the shape of a tiny, well-muscled woman. And to have her going around, oblivious that anything’s wrong while a former love interest makes mopey eyes at her, and other members of the crew seem to exude “poor thing” vibes at her was just…just frustrating.

Parting Thoughts

Be careful with the use of amnesia in your stories.

I’m not saying not to use it, not by any means. Amnesia can be a wonderful way to introduce certain plot elements, or to lend a scene that emotional impact that it was missing.

But the potential for misuse is high, and the last thing you want to do is give your story a saggy tummy that’ll take an endless amount of torturous exercise and dieting in the editing process to get rid of.



  • Brad-o July 23, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Only place I’ve seen it used effectively is in a few movies and, in those cases, it usually tied into the central theme. I tended to think of it less as a plot device (even though it clearly was in some cases) than an integral part of what the story was about. Memento is a pretty solid example and then I’ve seen others with spoiler type reveals that tie back into the overall themes (The Notebook, Fight Club, etc) so it doesn’t seem completely out of place even if it’s surprising.

    • Perry July 23, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Ye gods…Memento was one HELL of an example to bring up haha. I’m completely enamored of how that movie was made…the thought behind the process, you know?

  • Faith July 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

    some folks are still slowly making their way through it coughcough

    I’m trying! I am! Just…these early ones are sooooo hard to get through. But then you go and write something like this and I think “I want to read that“, not this nonsense I’m wading through now.

    But neither do I want to just skip ahead. I’m a completionist.


    • Perry July 23, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      …..ARCH-enemies, Faith.

      *raises eyebrows at you threateningly*