This blog post originally ran on the Tahoma Literary Review web site.
It’s a common technique among short story writers: develop background and depth by triggering a character’s memories. We’ve all seen it—an unusual or profound sensory moment brings on a flood of recollection, often from childhood; scenes from events, vivid colors and emotions that help the reader understand the forces that shaped the character.
Here’s an example: The room smelled of perfumed soap, the kind her grandmother used to place in dresser drawers to keep them from becoming musty. Grandmother had always told her… You get the idea.
Lately, though, I’ve noticed in the submission queue some stories in which the character’s memory is triggered during an incident of higher tension.
Those go something like this: John was losing the fight. When the bell sounded he stalked into the center of the ring, gloves raised. Seeing his opponent across from him, with that look of rage in his eyes, John recalled his father’s words about what to do when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds…
I feel the next sentence should begin with, “When he awoke in the hospital…” Any fighter who stops in the middle of a round to recall his father’s advice isn’t fighting, and is asking to be KO’ed. To fall into memory at such a time just doesn’t seem natural.
Memory is a powerful tool in creative writing, but the idea of triggered memories as a literary device got me thinking. Is that how memory really works? Since one of the goals of fiction is to create a sense of verisimilitude, writers ought to employ memory correctly or risk having their characters present as not quite real.
So I did a little research online. As I’d intuited, memory is rarely triggered during times of stress. Interestingly, stressful moments help us remember what is happening, but they make remembering the past much more unlikely. To get scientific for a minute, here’s the reason, as explained by The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience: “Part of the explanation for this contradiction is the stress hormone cortisol. While increased levels of cortisol boost the formation of memories, they can hinder their recall.” The National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, backs this up: “Experiencing an acute highly stressful situation can interfere with subsequent information processing. This holds true particularly for those circumstances in which a stressed individual is required to retrieve previously stored information, while the acquisition of new information is shown to be particularly resistant to disruption in experimental animals.”
This actually makes sense, if you think of it in terms of our survival instinct. It’s in our interest to create memories during stressful or dangerous moments, as they may teach us how to avoid those times in the future. But it doesn’t work as well to try to remember something during stress, when the situation often demands we stay in the present.
It follows, then, that we tend to recall things more easily, whether pleasant memories or harsh ones, when we’re in a state of relative calm. That’s a lesson I’ll certainly keep in mind when I’m editing or writing—unless, of course, I’m editing or writing under stress.
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