I recently finished a book that I mostly enjoyed and would like to recommend, except that the end left me snarly, and I want to talk about why.
There are many, many things in books that make me angry. But of all things, this is my biggest personal pet peeve, the one that drives me absolutely crazy with the senselessness of it.
I hate memory loss as a plot device. But I especially hate it when it’s used as part of a plot resolution.
As my “biggest” story pet peeve, that probably seems like an odd choice. What it boils down to is that I’ve yet to read a usage of this plot device that doesn’t completely break the story. Let me explain.
I remember reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence as a child and absolutely loving it. I was exactly the target audience. And even now I remember reading the end and feeling absolutely betrayed. As I recall — and I admit some details may be fuzzy here, because I refused to reread them afterwards — there were a lot of different reasons those characters went on their journeys. At the end, all those memories are wiped, yet they go back to the world of everyday still retaining their character grown. They got the return-home-from-quest-changed part of the hero’s journey, but without the “burden” of memory.
It doesn’t work like that.
You want to give me a story where characters have to deal with the effects of memory loss, that’s one thing. But you don’t get to reap the effects of character development without dealing with the messiness. Human beings are not all “nurture,” but it’s ludicrous to suggest our memories and experiences don’t shape us in profound ways. If we don’t have those experiences, we would not be the same people. Memory and reflection are integral to growth.
This is why I can’t write scenes out-of-sequence in books. I’ll jot down notes of future happenings, but I won’t draft anything because until I’ve written a scene, I don’t know how the character changes, which means I can’t know for sure how the plot is going to change. By the time the character reaches that future scene, they have changed.
Stories matter, and an enormous part of what makes them matter is that they matter to the characters in them. But if the characters don’t remember, then they don’t care, they have no investment, and nothing that happened matters to them anymore, so how can it matter to me?
In fairness, I read that series many years ago and never picked it up again, and it’s entirely possible there are nuances there that I missed, or that I was too upset with that aspect to appreciate them fully. But fast-forward a few years, and I’m reading the final book of the Eddings’ Dreamers quartet.
The Belgariad was really my gateway fantasy series, and every time I reread it I appreciate more of the layers — and I recognize more of the faults, but this is a case, for me, when those don’t outweigh the rest. I am an enormous fan of their work, but I already had enormous problems with the Dreamers series before I reached the ending, and then I almost threw the book across the room.
So, my visceral recoil from this is not an isolated incident in my reading experience.
I’ve said before that the only writing rule that matters is that you can do whatever you want, as long as it works. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one book* where ending involving memory loss works, but that’s because it isn’t a device there; it’s the only way the story can work. And it doesn’t depend on negating everything the character has gone through before, and the memory loss doesn’t allow the protagonist to return to a happy home — it’s a loss. It’s a change, and that means something.
I hate using memory wipes as a solution because it goes against what we understand of human nature. That we can’t just hit a reset button and expect there not to be consequences. That memory matters, that it shapes and defines. You tell me a story of dragons and gods and spaceships and I will stay with you, but when you slip on the details of human nature, I can’t suspend my disbelief. It shatters the spell by undermining the truth of the story.
So, this book I just finished reading. I’m not going to name it, but there is a sequel coming up and I will give it a shot because I was interested in the protagonist from the beginning and I’m not giving up on her yet. It’s completely possible that the author has a master plan and is doing something really interesting.
But I’m a suspicious sort, and that memory loss resolution knocked me so hard out of the story that I’m now going in expecting to be put off. Like, if the plot now has to focus on the character recovering her memories, or this is a way for the plot to handicap her knowledge when the readers all know perfectly well what happened, I’m going to be annoyed. And if the character behaves like she already has all the growth she acquired before the memory loss, I’m going to be annoyed. And if she reverts back to how she was at the beginning, then she’d better get that memory back quickly, or WHY DID I JUST READ THIS BOOK.
I really did like the story, too. =(
*Aforementioned book where ending memory loss actually works and does not break the story is Sea Change, by SM Wheeler.