One of the key elements when writing either suspense or comedy is the use of the reversal twist. It needs to be foreshadowed, so the reader will believe it when it happens, but it must also come as a surprise. Depending on the genre, this surprise will either cause laughter or fear/tension. This twist often comes when the main character discovers information he/she did not know before.
Naturally, this makes amnesia or some form memory loss ideal if you want to raise the level of suspense. Here are a few examples of why amnesia is a great plot device.
* Please note that since reversal twists often take place near the end of a story, some of these examples will include spoilers.
- Surprise Endings:
One of my favorite examples of memory loss is seen in Grace in The Others (movie, 2001). She believes that the house she lives in is haunted, but she can’t convince anyone else. Creepy events ensue until you’re absolutely sure that Grace is right. There are ghosts in the house. In fact, you’re so convinced this is true that it’s hard to see the surprise twist coming—Grace and her children are actually the ghosts. They have merely forgotten about their deaths.
- Who Is The Villain?
In THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (book, 2015), the main character, Rachel Watson struggles with alcoholism. This, in turn, causes blackouts—large, gaping holes in her memory. Unfortunately, the more she tries to remember those missing hours, the more she begins to wonder if she’s done something wrong, especially when she wakes up one day to discover herself bloody. On top of that, she learns that a girl she has become obsessed with, Megan, is now missing. The plot continues to thicken, all because Rachel can’t remember what happened during those missing hours.
- Danger Everywhere:
In Shutter Island (movie, 2010), Leonardo DiCaprio plays a U.S. marshal investigating the disappearance of a psychiatric patient at Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital. In this closed island environment and with a hurricane bearing down on them, everyone soon becomes a suspect. The many dark twists and dangerous turns in this movie are partially because of an unreliable narrator and partially because the main character is mentally ill—a fact that is not revealed until late in the film.
- Who Can He Trust?
After Jason Bourne survives a near drowning and two gunshot wounds in The Bourne Identity (movie, 2002), he wakes up with dissociative amnesia. He doesn’t remember who he is, but he soon discovers that a group of assassins want to kill him. Despite his new set of enemies, Bourne also has a shiny new set of skills he wasn’t aware of. His ability to fight back, evade capture, and proceed toward his goal of learning who he really is will surprise the viewer at every step of the way.
- Secrets Are Deadly:
In my 2017 YA psychological thriller, LOST GIRLS, the main character, Rachel, goes missing for two weeks and wakes up in a ditch, suffering from a type of amnesia caused by PTSD. As a result, she can’t remember anything that happened during the last year. Unfortunately for her, a lot happened during that missing year. She now only wears black, has a whole new set of friends, and—similar to Jason Bourne—she has a surprising new skill set. She can fight. From time to time, glimpses of her new, dark personality rise to the surface, astonishing both Rachel and the reader alike. Unfortunately, every step she takes toward trying to find out how she went missing leads her closer to danger. Her quest to conquer her demons of the past could kill her, and she learns that this is exactly what happened to one of her closest friends. Each new thing that Rachel discovers about her past make her want to know more, and each secret that she uncovers becomes more deadly than the last.
In conclusion, amnesia or any form of memory loss can add more suspense to a story, especially if this story is told from the point of view of the person with amnesia. The reader/viewer is right there with the main character, wanting to learn how this happened, who are the real villains, who can be trusted, and whether this character will find resolution or whether this character will discover that they have been the villain all along.
BLACK SWAN meets FIGHT CLUB
Yesterday, Rachel went to sleep listening to Taylor Swift, curled up in her grammy’s quilt, worrying about geometry. Today, she woke up in a ditch, bloodied, bruised, and missing a year of her life.
She doesn’t recognize the person she’s become: She’s popular. She wears nothing but black.
Black to cover the blood.
And she can fight.
Tell no one.
She’s not the only girl to go missing within the last year…but she’s the only girl to come back. She desperately wants to unravel what happened to her, to try and recover the rest of the Lost Girls.
But the more she discovers, the more her memories return. And as much as her new life scares her, it calls to her. Seductively. The good girl gone bad: sex, drugs, and raves, and something darker…something she still craves. The rush of the fight, the thrill of the win—something she can’t resist, that might still get her killed…
About Merrie Destefano
Born in the Midwest, magazine editor Merrie Destefano currently lives in Southern California with her husband, two German shepherds, a Siamese cat, and the occasional wandering possum. Her favorite hobbies are reading speculative fiction and watching old Star Trek episodes, and her incurable addiction is writing. She loves to camp in the mountains, walk on the beach, watch old movies, and listen to alternative music—although rarely all at the same time.