Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memories and Their Triggers

What triggers your memories?  Not just the "now why did I walk into the kitchen?" kind of memories, but the other kind, the "star-shaped shortbread cookies Mom made at Christmas with the thimbleful of jam in the center and the silver ball sparkles that were so hard you thought your teeth would break" kind of memories.

In order to trigger memories, we have to have both triggers and... memories!  Our characters have to have both too, and it's just as unacceptable for us to make up memories for our characters as for ourselves.  Memories aren't always convenient.  They aren't always correct either.  Sometimes they intrude when something else with a much higher priority deserves our attention, like you're about to press lips with someone, and a scent takes you away to humid summer evenings playing freeze-tag in the neighbors yard by the lilac trees.  Not good for the lips.

Sometimes characters in books seem to have memories conveniently manufactured for them.  They come across as part of a package of canned responses, and make for flat, lifeless, and fake characters.  The triggers can seem pretty bad too, sometimes, but I have a harder time finding fault with the triggers.  I know that anything can trigger any memory at any time, and yet, some things consistently trigger the same memory every time.

Some writers make character dossiers (I haven't felt the need, yet), but I've never heard of people putting memories into them.  Sure, they'll put key and/or traumatic events from a characters past in their dossier, but I don't think that's enough.  Memories are not events, they're not history, they're not objective truth.  But memories are keys to who we are, and therefore keys to our characters.

Knowing a character's memories doesn't tell you who they are -- if I told you a bunch of my memories, you wouldn't "know who I am."  But it would give at least the illusion of a better understanding.  Knowing a character's memories makes those characters more real.  It proves they have a past.  At the deepest level.  What memory pops to the surface in a given context can reassure a reader, astound them, make them suspect the characters true motivations....

Maybe those memories should be figured out in advance, so they're meaningful and not too "convenient" (and therefore false-appearing).  I'm treading a fine line here.  Figuring out a character's memories ahead of time sounds way too "plotty" to me.  If your characters come alive to you, then they have their own memories already.  Ask them what memories they have that you can use to tell their story. Then you need to watch for (and have the scene / setting / other characters, provide) triggers, so their memories bubble up in a normal organic way, just the way your characters do everything else naturally.


  1. I actually wrote a long memory scene today. I don't usually but needed to introduce certain backstory. Question: If you write a long memory scene, say a page or more, do you put it in italics?

  2. Some do, some don't. You definitely need some way for the reader to know that they're stepping into a memory. Otherwise they might get confused.

    I have to point out that memories are different from flashbacks. A flashback puts the reader there in the past -- the novel slips temporarily (and suddenly) back in time. The narration doesn't change -- it doesn't go from third person to first, or anything like that -- only the time changes. A memory is recalling something from the past, so it's related to the flashback in that you're learning something by seeing history, but it's different in that it's being recalled (perhaps verbally, perhaps mentally) by a character. Flashbacks have a bad reputation, but I've never heard anything good or bad about memories in literature.

    [Flashbacks earned their bad reputation by being overused as a cheap and easy way to dump backstory on the reader. When used sparingly and properly, with good transitions in and out, they're a respected tool.]

    If what you've got is a memory and not a flashback, then I'd use italics if is a mental recall AND you use italics everywhere else for thoughts. I don't use italics that way -- I (and others) find blocks of italics hard to read. Some people (not me) even skip italicized paragraphs automatically! Those are probably the same people who skip prologues. I can't think of a flashback I've seen that used italics, but I'd stay away from them in a flashback for the same reasons as in memories.

    So, about the italics -- you should probably check with your agent or editor, right? I don't think there's a right or wrong, but I bet they have a preference.