5 tips for handling amnesia and back story

amnesiaI haven’t forgotten I’m half-way through the self-editing masterclass snapshots, but I got this fantastic question from a writer who’d read a post of mine about back story.

I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on back story that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just write it as a separate novel.

But I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – and in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. I want to avoid the ‘zero to hero’ shtick that is so overdone – and I want the reveals to be important with emotional impact. I’m not sure it will work. Thoughts?

(Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.)

I like this concept of exploring the save-the-world scenario from an unusual angle. And I don’t see why you can’t make it work – with a few considerations.

First, do you have a convincing reason for the amnesia?

Second, you have a convincing mechanism for paying out the story surprises? Why doesn’t he remember all at once? (I tackled both these problems in Lifeform Three, although it wasn’t a save-the-world.)

As for the emotional impact, focus on how the revelations affect what your hero is doing now, what he wants, and the people who matter to him. Set those up so that the reader cares about them, then deliver your blows from the past. Did he betray someone or renege on a promise? Has ne now got a family who will be threatened by what happened? Make sure we’re involved with characters who will be hurt.

Also, have you got enough story in the ‘aftermath’ chunk? Otherwise the reader’s attention will wander and they’ll just skip to the flashbacks. Make sure the resolution in the ‘present’ is more interesting to you than the resolution of the big hero story. Make sure you have enough in your aftermath story to keep the reader’s attention firmly on that, rather than the questions of how he saved the world. (This is on my mind at the moment too; Ever Rest has a lot of major events in the past, but my biggest interest is the mess in the present.)

Will you tell the back story in chronological order? If so, you’ll need a convincing reason for the discoveries to happen in such a convenient way. If you tell it out of order, that might be more realistic, but it might also be confusing. Non-chronological order isn’t always muddled, but remember that readers are much more adrift in your book than you are. Chronological order is the easiest for them to understand. You, as the writer, can hop around the timeline easily because you know it so well. You might write a romantic scene and then flash back to the hero’s love life before the big heroic act, because they seem thematically linked. But your reader might think ‘did this happen before that?’

On the other hand, you might want this fragmented approach because it’s how memory works. Send the reader on unraveling trails if that will enhance the emotional effect you’re looking for.

So in summary, you need:
A convincing mechanism for the amnesia and revelations
A current scenario that will be threatened by the past revelations
A disciplined approach to the revelations so that the reader doesn’t get confused.

And psst…. the Bourne Trilogy is great study material.

ebookcovernyn3There’s loads more about handling back story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Have you had to tackle a story where the hero is rediscovering a hidden past? What problems did you encounter? What smart solutions did you come up with? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by mrdisvan on August 2, 2015 - 7:13 pm

    For the best handling of fractured remembering, I recommend the first chapter of Shute’s novel Lonely Road. Also worth a look: Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist and Alan Moore’s Miracleman (aka Marvelman).

  2. #3 by phantomwriter143 on August 2, 2015 - 7:24 pm

    Some great advice! My MG book’s MC has retrograde amnesia from a brain injury, but I rarely use flashbacks when she does regain portions of her memory because that is a bit confusing for kids. I’ve found amnesia to be both a handy storytelling device, but also a very tricky one to manage. Now I have another reference for it. Thanks!

  3. #5 by Steve Mathisen on August 3, 2015 - 7:09 pm

    Reblogged this on Odd Sock Proofreading & Copyediting and commented:
    Backstory is one thing that all writers struggle with. Here is some excellent advice on how to handle it.

  4. #7 by dogleadermysteries on August 3, 2015 - 10:52 pm

    Oh, terrific topic! Backstory, like an awkward meeting forgettable or a nagging childhood ghost supressed and beaten into a messy trash worthy pulp, hits me where I live. I happen to love writers who can turn backstory into artful supense like Gregory MacGuire in “Egg and Spoon” or Margaret Atwood in “Alias Grace.”

    I’ve been avoiding putting much of it in any of my short fiction or novels, but as a reader I love knowing why a character is stuck in his or her life and resists change or healing. Reblogging this now on my new Moaning (bout writing) Monday.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 5, 2015 - 7:44 am

      ‘Artful suspense’ – that’s a lovely way of describing it. Back story doesn’t have to stay in the background. Thanks for the reblog, Deborah!

      • #9 by dogleadermysteries on August 5, 2015 - 3:13 pm

        Hi Roz thanks for the brilliant insights into what makes fine fiction work and the discussion on your site. I’ll keep pointing my fiction writing friends your way.

  5. #10 by dogleadermysteries on August 3, 2015 - 10:56 pm

    Reblogged this on Dog Leader Mysteries and commented:
    New blog topic on Mondays: Moaning (bout writing) Monday.

    For my readers who are also writers of fiction. Roz Morris, author and editor, best selling author of “Nail Your Novel” has a treat for writers today.

    5 Tips for…amnesia and back story.

    Oh, terrific topic! Backstory, like an awkward meeting forgettable or a nagging childhood ghost supressed and beaten into a messy trash worthy pulp, hits me where I live. I happen to love writers who can turn backstory into artful supense like Gregory MacGuire in “Egg and Spoon” or Margaret Atwood in “Alias Grace.”

    I’ve been avoiding putting much of it in any of my short fiction or novels, but as a reader I love knowing why a character is stuck in his or her life and resists change or healing. Reblogging this now on my new Moaning (bout writing) Monday.

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