Amnesia as a Plot Device: Why It's Not Great

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Amnesia as a plot device. We’ve all seen it. From Soap Operas to novels, this trope pops up time and time again. Some would argue that this isn’t the worst thing in the world, but me? I would argue that this resurfacing trope is like a bad penny. Here are three reasons why amnesia as a plot device just isn’t that great.

It’s Cliché

Even Ra is tired of this worn-out trope.

Even Ra is tired of this worn-out trope.

Seriously, how many more times are we going to have to see this? I can’t begin to count the number of submissions we’ve had that used amnesia as the primary vehicle for the plot. The sky-captain falls from his ship and forgets his dearest love; the teenage love interest bangs her head, losing all knowledge of her dearest boyfriend just before prom (I wish I were kidding); the evil lord erases the memory of the hero, turning him into his twisted pawn (this list could go on forever).

There is no shortage of reasons why this trope is so popular to the point of becoming cliché. We see it at work in movies, literature, video games, TV shows—it’s everywhere. And like most popular tropes, it finds its way into our subconscious, burrowing deep into our creative places and nefariously popping up whenever it can be the most annoying.

It’s Cheap

We tend to see amnesia pop up when writers need to take an easy way out. Say you have this character, and this character needs to have a dramatic shift in personality for some reason. Rather than showing the reader how this transformation takes place, some writers will simply give their characters amnesia and PRESTO CHANGE-O! the once noble hero is suddenly twisted and depraved—because losing one’s memory obviously changes everything about one’s personality (please note the sarcasm). It would be far more compelling in this case to show the transformation in the character. In fact, it’s the question of what causes a person’s personality to change that gives a story it’s momentum.

Take Star Wars as an example. What if instead of descending into the Dark Side due to his desire to save Padme (and for more power), Anakin simply bumped his head and forgot who he was, thus allowing Palpatine to swoop in and turn him into Darth Vader. Sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because it is. It’s the struggle between the light and the dark, the Jedi code and Anakin’s love for his wife that makes the story worthwhile (no matter how you feel about the prequels themselves—that’s a discussion for another time).

It’s Lazy

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Sometimes when we write, we need to give our readers information. Problems arise when it is information that our main characters would most certainly already know. How do you explain something that is commonplace to your characters to readers who aren’t familiar with the world you’ve created? Some writers will choose to take the “As you know,” route. This is the dialogue we’ve all heard or seen in our favorite TV shows and books: “As you know, our society doesn’t allow women to vote.” For characters discussing the matter of womens' right to vote in their society, this statement is a bit on the “Well, duh” side.

So how do writers avoid falling into the “As you know” trap? Some opt to use amnesia as their plot device of choice. What better way for the reader to experience the world than through the eyes of a character who similarly knows nothing? For a character with amnesia, everything is unknown and everything must therefore must be explained.

It’s easy to see why this is appealing as a narrative device. It makes it easy to give exposition to the reader to help him/her make sense of this created world. Here is the problem with this strategy: It lessens the character’s strength and diminishes their role in the story. Rather than having depth as a character, they simply become an exposition device, a vehicle of telling rather than showing. It’s the same problem as writing a character who is constantly asking questions that would likely be perceived as dumb questions by the other characters for the sake of providing information. Readers want strong characters; forcing your protagonist to become an empty vehicle for exposition doesn’t lend itself well to creating vibrant and interesting characters that readers can’t get enough of. It’s probably better to just bite the bullet as a writer and weave a few lines of exposition here and there throughout the narrative; that way it’s over quickly, the readers get caught up on your world’s happenings, and it frees you to create strong, interesting character arcs.

All That Being Said...

Now, all of these points we’ve looked at aren’t the last word on amnesia as a plot device. After all, it’s the job of good writers to take things that are cliché or common place and use them in a new and interesting way. Think of stories where amnesia works—the two that spring to my mind are “The Bourne” movies and “Memento.” I would also argue that “50 First Dates” pulls it off. It’s like any other “rule” of writing; you have to know the rule so you can break the rule. If you feel like you can use amnesia in an original way, you go right ahead and do it! We who are about to read, salute you!

That’s all for this week! Be sure to check back soon for more writing tips and literary insights from Chantwood Magazine.