How would you write a good amnesia opening?

I’m in the process of writing a book now and I’m thinking about the beginning, where there are two possible options:

  1. A character who has amnesia (well, maybe not the specific illness, but you know what I mean :mrgreen: ) gets thrown into the world where things start happening
  2. A character who is already a part of the world start experiencing the things happening

I want to go the amnesia way. And it might be a weird question, but how would you write the amnesia route so that it doesn’t turn into endless exposition? like:

“What is that?” he asked.
“That is bla-bla-bla (3 paragraphs)”, she replied. “Let’s go there”.
They headed that way.
“What is that place where we are going?” he asked again.
“That is bla bla bla (3 more paragraphs)”

and so on

I’m finding it a bit hard to write because the main character would naturally have a ton of questions to ask, but answering them all the time with other characters feels a bit boring.

I know it’s a movie, but check out the opening 10-15 minutes of “The Bourne identity”

Or, for a really good example of the second, read Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse.



Decadey, I would think about other techniques at your disposal for representing the character’s lapses. Having the character ask (and have answered) questions is only one way. For example, in reality, when people are disoriented or lose track of what is going on, they often precisely DON’T ask questions – because they recognize that they should know the thing they have lost track of (like where they are or where they are going). Often this is a source of embarassment to them, or depending on the kind of circumstance your character is in, might make them fearful or suspiciously cautious. Hanging back with the idea that they will be able to figure it out is then a typical behavior. So, this gives you a less verbal thing to represent in your scene: letting the reader “see” that the character is confused again, wants to ask the question perhaps, but is hiding their mental failing, hoping to pick up what they need from the goings-on around them.

Another variation you can play with is varying reactions of others. Are they just going to answer the same question over and over and in the same way? No. The other(s) already know(s) or would quickly surmise that answering the question is unhelpful – the character can’t hold onto it. So, the response from an other might often be to redirect rather than give a straight answer. Suppose that the character’s question about where they are going naturally occasions some hesitancy – they slacken their pace. Then it would be natural for the character’s interlocutor often to be focussed more on moving them along, not answering the question, and so what they would say to the one would reflect this instead.

In fact, once the reader is keyed into the character’s problem, just having the character stop short and be moved along by the other(s) would register (completely non-verbally) as another forgetting moment. Or again maybe the others just keep moving and ignore the one, since it has all happened before and they know the character will fall in line again, because there is nothing else for the amnesiac to do in that circumstance.

So, to me the key is thinking of all the different ways you can represent this fact of the situation and choosing a mix of these. It will also help if during this scene you have something else that the reader will be making progress on – getting their own bearings, gaining some info about the situation or the characters they are dealing with. That way the progress of the scene is actual progress and not just reiteration (albeit varietal) of a single idea.


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Then remove the other characters. Lots of questions, no (easy) answers.

It’s like waking up from a coma in an abandoned hospital, everyone’s gone, chaos, dead people walking around… oh, wait.

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From my own experience with temporary amnesia.

I was napping in the back seat of a car (along with my wife) going from Delhi to Vrndavana (India). We got into a horrendous car accident hitting a wall at 75mph.

I regained consciousness on the side of the road, I had 12 fractures, I was laying in a pool of blood, I could not move (broken back, wrist, and shoulder), I was in more pain than you can even imagine, and after a few minutes I became blind because of the blood in my eyes pouring from the many cuts to my head. Even though it was 42° C outside I was freezing (shock). I could barely breath because of the broken rib and other ribs attached to my fractured vertebrae. Every breath felt like a sledge hammer hitting my back. I was on the verge insanity from the pain. The pain in my spine (where the largest nerve - the spinal cord resides) was so intense that I was unaware that I had a broken foot and shoulder. (Your body can generate more pain than you can imagine.)

This was all bad enough. But to make it worse I had no idea of where I was or who I was. I had no recollection of going to sleep on the side of the road, nor did I know what had happened to me or how I got into this situation. (Blow to my head exposing my skull added to my disorientation.) All I knew is that I had woken up in Hell, I was in a world of indescribable unrelenting pain and dearly wanted to get out of there and for the pain to stop. I was not afraid to die. Death is your friend – he will take away the pain.

It was only some time later after my wife regained consciousness and started to call my name that I remembered who I was and that something very bad must have happened on our journey.

So that is my experience with temporary amnesia. It felt like aeons had gone by but in reality it was only 10-15 minutes.

I came a close to dying as is possible without actually dying. If I had not been brought by the police for medical attention they say I would have died within an hour from shock or blood loss.

This might give you some clues.

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Coffin Road by Peter May has a character who has amnesia through most of the novel, and the thriller aspect is him discovering who he is and why he’s living in a lonely spot on an island in Scotland. I found the amnesia a bit tiresome after a while, but it’s a good thriller all the same.