"There’s nothing in this world more trapping than one’s own mind."
This rumination belongs to Alice Grey, protagonist of my psychological thriller Mister Tender's Girl. Alice is haunted by many things—including very clear and present threats—but nothing haunts Alice more than her own memories. Memories of what happened to her when she was just a girl. Memories that manifest into debilitating panic attacks.
Of all the things that seek to harm us, the monsters within our own minds are the things we can never escape. I think memory—or complete lack thereof—is the scariest thing of all, which is why I come back to the subject over and over in my books.
This is not to say I've always felt this way, but after watching my father's brain succumb to the ravages of early-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 69, I realized how trapped he was inside his own brain. What is he thinking about? How many of his memories still exist? Is he in a place of constant horror or is he at peace? It was easy to assume the worst—that he was lost in a sea of confusion with no way to call for help.
There's a thread of memory woven through most of my books and it’s something to consider as you work on your own. You don't need to have a murderer knocking at the front door to create tension and drive the plot—the inner workings of the mind can often be sufficient. Here are a few ways I've used memory as a central thematic element in my works:
This could be a repressed memory suddenly surfacing after decades of dormancy, or the constant scar of a memory that exists as a daily reminder of a past trauma. Either way, a dark, haunting memory can be a powerful driving force behind a protagonist's actions. In my latest thriller, The Dead Husband, protagonist Rose Yates returns to her hometown of Bury, N.H. after the sudden death of her husband. She and her son move back into Rose's childhood home, and soon the reader discovers the reason Rose initially left. She begins to relive a horrible memory from her past, a memory of an event that took place in that very home, and the longer she remains the more she realizes she will never be able to run away from her past without confronting it. You can't run from your thoughts makes for a chilling theme in any thriller.
Ah, the unreliable narrator. This can be an effective or frustrating device, depending how it's pulled off. It's asking a lot of readers to lead them on a journey through the protagonist's eyes only to reveal that character is purposely concealing or altering their thoughts for the sake of an easy plot twist. But what if the protagonist doesn't know the memories are false, and that they're just as jarred as the reader when the truth is ultimately revealed? Done well, false memories can offer the writer fertile ground to plant believable twists throughout the story.
This was the central theme of my last novel, The Dead Girl in 2A. What if you couldn't remember anything that happened to you before the age of nine? And what if you sat next to a stranger on an airplane, struck up a conversation, and discovered they suffered from the same thing? The idea of a character not knowing what may have happened to them in their past offers myriad possibilities for unsettling things to begin surfacing in adulthood, creating a wealth of creepy plot possibilities for the writer.
Memory gaps provide the same ability to create an unreliable narrator as false memories, but the writer needs to be careful to make it as medically believable as possible. It's too convenient for a character to simply not remember, say, killing someone. Readers will quickly lose interest. But what if that character suffered from dissociative identity disorder? That could work, but the author needs to firmly establish the roots of the disorder in order to ground the story in plausibility. If achieved, however, the author has a powerful mechanism to pull the reader inside the mind of a very mentally fragile soul, which can make for some explosive and unpredictable storytelling.
Though it doesn't fall under the realm of memory, per se, paranoia is my favorite way to create tension and underscore the truism that you can't run from your own mind. In Mister Tender's Girl, Alice—who's suffered such a traumatic past that she's actually moved to a new country and changed her name—suddenly discovers there's an entire online community dedicated to tracking her every movement. With that as a backdrop, it's understandable when she loses the trust of nearly everyone, even those closest to her. Paranoia is a fantastic and creepy way to make everyone in a story a suspect, forcing readers to keep guessing who the actual villain is. A good writer will make sure the answer is believable, but not obvious.
These are just a few ways I use the theme of memory to establish tension, fear, and unpredictability in my psychological thrillers. But I don't write about memory just because it's an effective device; I write about it because I truly believe memory can be scarier than the serial killer on the other side of the door. A serial killer, after all, is still just a person who themselves can be vanquished. But memory is a ghost capable of haunting you for the rest of your days, no matter how far or fast you run. Like all of us, my protagonists are forever trapped inside their minds, and if those worlds happen to be perpetually dark, unreliable, or fractured, then I know I have a good backbone for a chilling psychological thriller. As you explore the possibilities for your novel, I suggest taking a deep dive into the memory banks of your protagonist, see what you find (or don't find), and experiment with how you can use their memories to create tension, sow the seeds of doubt, and establish opportunities for gasp-inducing twists. You might be surprised at just how transformative living someone else's past can be.