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Tricks of the mind: Using memory to create tension

An unreliable narrator can have a powerful effect on suspense. Crucial to this are the handling of memories. They are not always what they seem and can play tricks on the mind. Stuart Prebble, author of The Bridge, which has just been published by Studio 28, share how he uses unreliable memories to create tense narratives.

What’s the earliest thing you can remember from your childhood? Your very first memory?

It’s a question we’ve all been asked at one time or another. The answers are frequently surprising, often because they involve something that happened at an age which seems implausibly young.

A friend of mine, for example, claims to remember sitting in her pram and the faces of people cooing at her. In particular she believes she can recall the smell of her blanket, and the exact characteristics of the cuddly toy which she kept throwing aside. So maybe she was a year old at the time.  Even more surprising, I know another person who believes he can remember being born. He describes a feeling of trauma followed by a sudden white light, and of being held upside down by his ankles. It sounds unlikely, doesn’t it?  (And even more so because the same fellow claims to remember being a teenager in the sixties!)

These two examples may be credible or not, but if true, they are rare.  Anecdotal research among a wider group indicates that it’s much more common for first memories to feature events which took place when we were aged between three and four, and sometimes even later.

My own first memory was of being ferried in the sidecar attached to a motorcycle being ridden by my father, on our way to see a new building where we were shortly going to rent an apartment. I must have been aged about three at the time, and it remains vivid in my mind.  I have a clear sense of the excitement in our family that we were moving our home, and still have a mental picture of the smile on my mother’s face as we turned the corner into the street where the builders were hard at work. My father was wearing a leather flying helmet and a pair of thick aviator goggles, presumably rescued from his rather incidental role in World War Two (but that’s another story). Collectively we must have looked like a scene from Wallace and Gromit.

I’ve related that incident every time the subject has come up in after-dinner conversations over many years. However when I played this ‘first memory’ game recently in the presence of my older brother, he informed me that my recollection couldn’t be accurate. By the time we moved into the new apartment, he assured me, our dad had long since sold the motorcycle and sidecar.  If I could remember visiting the new-build at all, it must have been from the back seat of an Austin A30 motorcar.

I was nonplussed.  I’ve told my ‘first memory’ story many times, and when I do so I have what I believe is the clearest recall of the exact circumstances and the exact vehicle.  I certainly remember sitting in the back seat of the Austin on other occasions; my brother and I were always being reprimanded by our parents for constant squabbling about which of us was taking up too much room.  But it seems that I’ve either conflated different incidents together, or perhaps have made my own anecdote more interesting by adjusting the mode of transport, or maybe I’ve just imagined the whole thing.  How would I know?  It was all a very long time ago.

The conversation with my brother led us into a further discussion of other incidents from our childhood, and one by one, I realised that his memory of shared experience was completely different from my own. He recalls the base-board of our beloved train-set as largely grey with roads painted in yellow, while I’m pretty sure the fields were green and the roads were brown. He remembers us being required to walk the three miles between West Norwood and Crystal Palace to visit our grandparents on a Sunday morning, while I remain traumatised by what felt like an endless wait in the cold for a bus which never seemed to arrive.  Sometimes my brother and I remembered what may have been the same events, but in a different time or place or order. Only rarely did we have the same recall of the same episode at the same time.

It was all a bit unsettling. All a bit shocking.

The theme of unreliable memory underpinned the narrative of my last novel, The Insect Farm, and these unwelcome revelations from my brother were still buzzing around my head when I began to think about the plot for my new one, The Bridge.  I found myself wondering what might be the factors that determine the first thing we will remember in later life, and how reliable such a memory is likely to be.  And then I began to think about what happens to events which have occurred before the moment of first memory – especially if they involve something tragic or traumatic. Could it be that relevant images are stored away somewhere in the brain, like an old-fashioned slide-show, but are waiting to reveal themselves if circumstances conspire?

By now my plotting was in overdrive.  What would happen if a small child was accidentally involved in something so terrible that everyone around them decided to erase it from their minds? Would such a thing be possible? And if you tried, wouldn’t you spend your whole life in fear of something coming along to jog those ghastly memories out of wherever they were buried? What a living nightmare that would be.So once again, as in The Insect Farm, my characters in The Bridge are prisoners of what they think they remember, which might or might not be what really happened. The strange meanderings of the memory and the sub-conscious mind continue to fascinate. Meanwhile I’ve been searching through old photos for one showing my dad’s motorcycle and the new apartment in the same shot, which would prove that my memory is more reliable than my brother’s.  No luck so far but I’m still hoping.

About Loretta Milan

Founder and Commissioning Editor of Lightbox Originals. On a mission to get the world writing and finding wellbeing through words. Loves books, tea, travel and art.


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