Failures of Memory

[— Karen Myers —]

Let’s talk about memory. The reader’s memory, you know, the one you need to rely on to make your story comprehensible.

Now, I’m not getting any younger, and I’m acquiring a front row seat on just how fragile a thing memory can be, especially the short-term kind, and that’s for real life, much less a book. So, what exactly do I mean when I talk about a reader’s memory?

To start with, just because you told the reader something doesn’t mean he’ll remember it, 100 or even 10 pages later (much less in the next series book). Worse yet, maybe he skimmed through an important bit and missed something. You need to keep reminding him, without calling attention to what you’re doing.

Here’s the mantra I use:

Tell ’em once,
tell ’em twice.
Tell ’em sneaky,
tell ’em nice.

  1. Use character names frequently as reminders, as needed – not just he said/she said (and you’ll do your reader a favor if you give your main characters names that aren’t really easy to confuse, with different initials if possible, to support fast readers who skim.)

    If you use character nicknames a lot, throw in a full or formal version every now and then, and do the same for titles of nobility or anything similar by referring to them to in passing or in direct address.
  2. Refer to character relationships or status occasionally to reinforce what the reader needs to remember. This can include family references (“My brother said…” or opinion references (“That wretched thief…”) or story-history references (“You know, that fellow who winked at us.”) or power relationships (“Must be easy for someone like her to dress well.”)
  3. Unless it’s a big fat mystery, refer to past events (lightly) to reinforce the reader’s recollection. “Well, that’s another letter she hasn’t answered, isn’t it. What is it, four now?”

There’s no prize to be won by taxing the memory of your suffering readers — they won’t thank you for it. Make it easy on ’em, and you’ll have them in your hand for all the emotional and other effects you want to have, based on what you’ve told them.

Now, this takes some subtlety. The setting of the reminders has to feel natural rather than repetitive, worked casually into the general flow.

One thing to consider is using tools other than word associations to help with the task. The image above comes from a MidJourney prompt for a “Memory Palace“, used to associate a particular bit of information with a physical object or location. It takes advantage of your brain’s ability to attach some form of somatic memory to a concept. When you can’t recall a word, sometimes there’s a gesture you can make that helps (pointing at the part of a browser screen where you usually have a link, or letting your body move in a particular way to recall what it associates with that movement.)

It’s a real effect, linking the physical location so “embodied” in yourself to trigger an association in the brain. The memory palace concept lets you add a layer of illustration such that your body remembers that, for example, you start looking for astronomy information in the direction of the chart on the desk of the image above (to a link behind it). Mundanely, it helps you remember that the folder whose name you’ve forgotten is somewhere on the left of your desk in that pile, and that’s where you can look to remind yourself of the missing name. It’s clear that your brain remembers both locations (when that can be made to apply) as well as discrete encoded data.

Use a similar linkage effect for putting important information in the brain of the reader, by linking reminders with specific conceptual spaces. The most obvious domain for this is in story-world location. For that, you need to seed your descriptions with the necessary information. For example, no matter how many carefully drawn maps you have in the Appendix, for the love of god, give people some free clues. “Let’s head south to the Wild Wood, and follow the Flowing River east.” Give those readers who think that way something to hook onto so that they are less likely to confuse the country in the southeast named “ForgotTheName” with “IDon’tRecall” in the northwest.

This can be extended to objects and local spaces. If a character typically enters a room through the same door, then his notice of objects helps the reader if you supply phrases like “the missing portrait from the wall on his left” or “the light switch convenient to his right hand”. Locating the reader inside the character’s perception of space and presence helps orient the reader there, too.

What tricks do you use to help your readers keep up without frustration?

31 thoughts on “Failures of Memory

  1. I once had someone look over something I once wrote, a story about three female characters. The person who helped me pointed out that it is too difficult to tell who is doing what if every time I refer to a character I only refer to her as “she,” so I’ve gotten used to using different identifiers. There are also interesting places to use a character’s full name in the middle of a story. My parents have used my full name (including my middle) to start admonishing me for some wrong I committed, something I’m sure many people can relate to.

    I like referring back to past events in a long story as a way to maintain continuity as well. Of course there are big happenings that affect everything that comes after, but little things, too, just to give the story some more flavor. Real life is like that, too, My wife and I often reminisce about silly nonconsequential things we did or had happen to us in years past. If your stories are happening in places as real to you as the real world this is a good way to reflect that.

        1. I expect it happens anywhere where there are a bunch of common names.

          We ended up with my grandfather, one of my cousins and me all sharing the same first and last name. So any time we were all together, the full names came out, because otherwise all three of us looked up.

          Yes, all three of us were trouble makers, of very very differing types of trouble.

    1. The full-name-when-in-trouble is pretty common, I think.
      It made it into the first Mr. Incredible Movie (“Dashiell Robert Parr!”)
      My parents did it, and we where in the North West.
      Heck, even my wife almost does it (Full First and Last names, skips the middle) and she’s not even American.

    2. It can be interesting to notice the difference between having a man and a woman vs. two people of the same sex.

  2. It only works if the character is trying to learn something, but have them repeat the lesson to themselves. For example, in the WIP, the character recites medical formulations and things to himself so that he locks them into memory – including where to find things. He or another character also comment about [plants] only being available or at their peak at a certain season. So if that plant suddenly becomes necessary, the reader should go, “Ut oh, this could be a Problem, because it means [SPOILER SNIP].” It’s been foreshadowed by the character’s habit.

  3. Thank you! I need all these things because I’m a slow reader, can’t remember, and often get interrupted.

    One thing I do for me (and any potential readers I get) is to include a cast list at the front of my book with full name and a one or two sentence description of what they want or fear. I learned this concept from Agatha Christie paperbacks. Not all of her editions include the cast list but I’m always grateful when they do. I wish more books with casts of 100’s (or 1,000’s) would do this.

    I also name my chapters, usually with an interesting snippet of dialog from within that chapter from a defining scene.

      1. I have actually had a reader tell me at a book event that they appreciated my cast list at the beginning. So, yes, some people do like it.

        1. A lot of the Perry Mason mysteries have a cast list in the front, with the page of first appearance and a mysterious sentence about each one. That might vary with the edition, however. Anyway, I always like having that.

          Also, my edition of the The Jungle Book has a pronunciation guide (by Kipling) in the middle.

    1. Your cast lists are particularly amusing, just to make it double plus extra good to read them. Also, I followed someone’s advice and now read them after I’ve read the whole book. Very fun.

      1. Cast lists can be a problem, take here where 10% through 30% of the Amazon pop up sample is the cast list.

        Unfriendly Relations (Bob and Nikki Book 31)
        by Jerry Boyd

        1. Which is why how you arrange an eBook is different from arranging a print book! I’ll have to see what Bill did with mine. I know the cast list goes up front in the trades. I also try very hard to keep them short to avoid exactly that issue.

          1. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I’ve been out of area with my mother.
            I’ve become increasingly wary of timelines because every time I do, something happens like my mother breaking her wrist!

            Anyway. As soon as we’ve pressed [PUBLISH] on Agatha Christie, She Watched (which has a rigid deadline in order to be ready for Malice Domestic) I’ll be back at Escape to HighTower. Bill will work his magic and it won’t be long after that, that we can press [PUBLISH].

            I’m assuming June but you know how that goes.
            I will — at last — have a map!
            We’ll announce it on our website, Facebook page, Instagram, and newsletter, all the usual places.

            Thanks so much for being patient. The last two years have been a challenge.

  4. The funny thing is, you have to do this even if you don’t necessarily want to reader to figure it out before the end too.

    The reader needs to remember that there was something weird going on for the twist at the end to come off as “Oh that is what they were up to!” as opposed to “Wait, why is the poacher a killer space flea from outer space? When did aliens get involved?”

    1. I remember reading about a British actor who claimed that Psycho was kind of wasted on him, because he as a viewer went “Oh, there’s Tony Perkins in a dress” at a particular split-second image in the film, and waited around through the second half for the Big Plot Twist, only to discover that the Big Plot Twist was in fact “Tony Perkins in a dress.”

  5. Similar looking names really frustrate me, I rarely actually read the names I see and never try pronouncing them, even in my head so I’m easily confused.

    I wish there was a rule that characters couldn’t have the same first letter in their first or last names until the author had used all 26.

    1. You mean it’s not Argon son of Acorn? I’m very much the same way. I don’t read out loud, so why would I “pronounce” names?

      1. I can’t edit, so replying to myself: This drives me slightly crazy with Pam’s _Empire of the One_. Absa, Akda, Arfa, ARGA! They all seem the same. Thankfully, the characters have the same problem and nicknames help, a lot.

  6. I think character tags are useful and so mention hair color or eye color with some regularity. Tics and habits–clutching a purse, wiping hands on hips, etc., can also serve as reminders. One character has seriously rounded and knobby joints, so I think that helps place him.

    Family relationships, nationality, and occupation also multi-task well. You might not want to use a character’s name over and over again, but you can say “the governor turned red.”

  7. Sideways comment: The Memory Palace never worked for me but I have/had a pretty good memory. But I once had a student who, in the sixth grade, knew *nothing*. Anything that involved memory she was blank on. I didn’t know why she was like that, but since it was my job to help her memorize a prayer, I finally tried the memory palace, making her walk through her house for each phrase of the prayer. Time moved on and so did she, before I saw any results.

    But I had her again, briefly, two years later while her class was studying for a difficult confirmation test, involving twenty-five definitions and six prayers (and more). She sat in the classroom with no notes, and knew the answers to everything.

    … In case you wonder whether memory can be trained, or whether the Memory Palace can work, or, … well, I wonder a lot about her.

  8. One of the reasons the student in my previous comment intrigues me is because, if you want to enjoy reading, you have to *have* a memory. All the discussion of how to trigger the memory, or fool it, for mysteries or any other kind of story, is irrelevant for someone like that child in sixth grade. And ultimately, I think she was an extreme example of how lots of children are growing up nowadays. No memory, because they don’t believe in it. They believe they can always look things up so why try to remember anything. …

    … Well, because analysis is impossible without having something in your own head. And you are ripe for exploitation if you never learn from the past, or from books that people wrote showing how things might turn out. And you won’t be grateful for what you have if you don’t understand what it is or that you might lose it. I could go on and on…

  9. The one about not being able to analyze something if you don’t know it is certainly an important one. But it sounds like your girl figured out the importance of memory.

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