Tuesday, November 9, 2010

5 Properties of Memory Writers Need to Know

It’s all memory. Memories are the raw materials that a reader uses to instantiate a novel in their mind. Here I give 5 examples of how understanding memory, its capacity, form and function is key to writing effective fiction.
1) The way we organize our writing should take advantage of the ways memories are organized in the reader’s brain; whatever comes last is remembered best (What have you done for me lately?), followed by whatever came first (First impressions), and finally everything in between (It better be interesting). This applies to sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters and the novel as a whole. There are exceptions of course (e.g., Shower scene in ‘Psycho’), but remember the order last, first, middle and you will be doing okay.
2) The brain has evolved to organize information based on similarity. Avoid straining your reader needlessly, so do not give two characters names that start with the same letter, sound or even rhyme (E.g., Tom and Tim or Tim and Jim).
3) Reader’s memory is far from perfect, but at the same time writers loathe to repeat information. A balance must be struck; if a character returns after a long absence a small reminder of their role in the story is probably in order and appreciated. Similarly, for the reader to build a strong visual image of the main characters it is necessary to describe them more than once. On the other side we can give our characters faulty memory systems and have them omit vital information or confabulate non-existent events (Fill in details that did not occur, but are usually the way the character would like them to be. Call it subconscious lying).
4) Information in the working memory of the brain has strong competition for limiting space. For example, a human mind can only keep about 7 different things ‘on line’ in working memory at a time. I am not talking about prepositions, but stuff like a baseball, banyan trees, pomegranates, Hawaii, Chardonnay, a Schnauzer, and Stacy. Who is Stacy? I do not know, and that mystery adds to my memory load. Anyway, seven things per conceptual unit is probably enough before moving on to the next.
5) Memories are linked. This is the idea behind free association; how are our memories organized? A writer can go on for paragraphs to describe a setting, but this ultimately just removes the reader’s ability to fill in (imagine). If we think of words or phrases as fishing lines then such a description might only bring back one fish per line, but a poet must bring back a whole school at a time. How? Imagery links multiple memories and emotional images bring up memories with great salience and valence. Thus, to return to a main point from my last post, ‘show’ do not ‘tell,’ especially with emotionally charged images, and the reader will bring your words alive in full.


  1. What a great post! I love the association with memory and how to tell a story! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for an intersting post!

  3. Highly insightful!

  4. I find the links between psychology and writing/storytelling very interesting. Glad I found your blog!