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Writing an Emotional Scene? You Could Have an Unreliable Narrator

Is your memory perfect? I’m willing to bet the answer is no. So what about your characters’? If your cast recalls their memories with perfect clarity, it’s time to introduce a touch of unreliability.

Here’s a secret: your characters may be lying to you. But don’t feel too bad. They’re probably lying to themselves too.

Have you ever reminisced about an event with your friend, only to find that they remember it differently? Even if you both saw exactly the same thing, your memories of it may be subtly or markedly different. Why? Because memories are flawed.

Humans aren’t recorders. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you don’t remember everything perfectly, even when you’re trying to. Memories fade, details get distorted, some features you never remember in the first place. The scene in your mind and the scene that actually happened can be very different things.

Yet, when characters remember scenes or events in their lives, they’re usually portrayed as fact. If the character describes it, that’s what happened, often for the sake of plot. But how much more interesting (and realistic) could you make the plot if your characters didn’t recall everything perfectly? What if their memories were tinged by later conversations? What if details shifted or changed or just disappeared? That could have some very exciting implications for your story. Your character could be an unreliable narrator.

In a previous post, How Accurate Is Your Character’s Memory—And How Can It Be Distorted?, we looked at how a single word—‘the’ rather than ‘a’—can distort a person’s recollections, covered how age can erode recall, and touched on the effect of emotion on memory. Today, let’s take a closer look at the last one. How can the emotion you’re feeling alter your memories?


Positive Emotions On Memory

When You Achieve Your Goal

Imagine you enter a room and see your adorable pet axolotl. (Google it and tell me that smile isn’t adorable.) Positive emotions swirl through you, maybe even the urge to proclaim its cuteness to the world. (Come on. I know I’m not the only one.) When this happens (the rush of positive emotion, not necessarily the proclamation of cuteness), your attention and memory of a scene’s details broaden, and so you take in more.

Research suggests that this broadening of attention and memory for details following goal accomplishment, such as a successful declaration of axolotl adorability, makes you more likely to take in central details (i.e., the important features of the scene, the ones that draw your attention or are the focus of your goals) and peripheral details (i.e., the less important details, which are more neutral in tone).

Therefore, if you accomplish a goal, feel positive emotions, and see the scene or object that caused these good feelings, you’re more likely to take in the scene as a whole, rather than focusing in on the emotion-inducing object and ignoring the things around it. As a result, you’re also more likely to remember those surrounding features along with the positive object or entity.

However, just because you remember those details doesn’t mean you remember them correctly. Broadening of attention and memory after goal achievement (e.g., when you’re feeling contented and happy after winning a game) often leads to false memories for the event.

For example, researchers Kensinger and Schacter asked Red Sox and Yankees fans to recall a game from two years previously. Those who were happy with the outcome (Red Sox fans) had more memory distortions than those who were unhappy with the outcome (Yankees fans), indicating that though positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and memory, they don’t necessarily improve its accuracy.

When You’re Seeking a Goal

If you’re feeling positive emotions and seeking a goal rather than having already achieved it, things are a little different. This time, you’re more likely to narrow your attentional and memory focus to the central features of the scene and ignore peripheral features. If you had spotted that axolotl in a shop, for example, you may have zoomed in on it, blocking out the background details of the setting as you tried to get closer.


Negative Emotions On Memory

Similar to goal-seeking positive emotions, if a scene causes you negative emotions, like seeing a snake in the axolotl tank, then research suggests that your attention and thus your memory is narrowed down to the emotion-inducing stimulus.

What does that mean? You focus in on the central details—those attention-grabbing, important features, like the head of the snake as it opens its mouth—to the exclusion of peripheral details. So, while you’re watching the fangs drawing closer to your beloved axolotl, you’re probably not going to notice the plant life the snake is swimming past, nor really remember it afterwards.

Another example is the weapons focus effect. If someone pulls out a gun, you’re more likely to pay attention to that than the colour of the gunman’s eyes. This narrowed focus on the weapon can lead to the neglect of surrounding details. If you try to remember them afterwards, you probably won’t be able to recall them very well, if at all, or you may remember false or distorted details, a major problem for eyewitness testimony.


Ever noticed how books portray characters’ memories as perfect? @Writerology shares why yours shouldn’t.

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