Triggered: the Power of Memory in Stories

Do you ever think about how much of our lives we spend reflecting?

I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.

Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.

A smell that takes you back to childhood.

A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.

Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.

Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.

I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.

They depict a character experiencing the power of recollection, either in a nostalgic or traumatic way.

We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.

This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.

In the first way, we witness a character recalling an event or person whom we never witnessed or met in the story.

In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.

In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.

But in the second type, we witness the events and meet the characters that are later alluded to in the character’s moment of reflection.

Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.

There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.

Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?

Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?

In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.

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