A few years ago, I became obsessed with the way storytellers play with memory. I started noticing it with The Affair, which is only very good the first season or two, and then more urgently with This is Us, the story of a family in Pennsylvania, from the meeting of the parents through the current day (and sometimes jutting forward into the future).
Both shows explore memory and how we see things differently according to who we are and what kind of emotional impact the moment has on us. You’ve had this experience—arguing with a sibling or a long-time friend about the details of an event ages ago. What actually happened?
The truth is: whatever happened in each person’s mind is what really happened.
As a novelist, this single thing fascinates me. How do our memories shape us? What part do they play in what happens to us and how our lives play out? I’ve always played with memories and family legends and narratives a lot, but I worked with memories heavily in When We Believed in Mermaids, two sisters telling the story of their childhood and how it influenced each of them to become who they are, twenty years later.
Why do our characters do what they do? What brings them to the moment in time where we are beginning to write about them? How are they formed, what do they know and how did they get to know it?
It isn’t the objective facts of what happened, but the experience of those moments and their interpretation that bring out the power. How we use memory to slant and explore each character is a very powerful tool.
This both is and is not the same thing as backstory. Chunks of backstory in the authorial voice can be distracting and even boring as the reader wants to rush forward to what’s happening in the current moment. But memories, layered in throughout in the character’s viewpoint, in relation to whatever is happening in the story, can add depth and breadth and, most importantly, a sense of verisimilitude to the tale. Not factual truth, but emotional truth.
How does this work? Let’s try some examples. You might want to go ahead and do some writing, but at least give the memory exercises a try.