Writing Craft, Vol. 3: The Power of Location

(This time we’ll talk about using location to sustain memory and how structure affects memory.)

One of the strangest, but still logical, elements of memory is how we process location.

The part of our brain that processes location is so strong that you can use it to “chunk” incredible amounts of information.

Here’s how to remember pretty much anything:

  • Think of a place you know very well, in great detail.
  • Come up with a mnemonic system for pieces of information that involves visual details (such as associating numerals with different types of fruit, like oranges for 0 and bananas for 1).
  • Imagine the information you need to remember, in specific locations in that place.

This is called the method of loci or a memory palace, and it’s used by most memory champions in competition.

Our brains remember where things are in relation to each other pretty well!

The reason that we can’t remember where we put our keys is that we aren’t paying attention when we put things down, and then we step into another location. Moving from place to place tends to blank out our memories, also known as the “doorway effect.”

Location builds memories—but it also wipes them out!

If you want readers to remember a scene, make sure to define where the important elements of the scene are in place (and time) in relation to each other and to the location as a whole.

From the lighthouse I could see the entire town: churches to the west, the ocean to the east; to the south, the rail yards and the “other side of the tracks,” and to the north, the houses of the wealthy and the comfortably well off, arranged in order of income, with the highest far above the tower itself.

And if you want to remember where your keys are, put them in the same place!

Structural Memory

We will be talking more about structure later, in Volume 5. But a few items are particularly relevant here, so we’ll touch on them briefly.

Here are the structural tricks for remembering things:

  • We tend to remember only the first thing and the last thing in any given unit of a story, unless the tricks of memorability have been applied. This applies to paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and even entire stories.
  • In order to ensure the reader “places” everything in any given unit of story and makes what follows memorable, define the location at the beginning of the unit.
  • In order to make a reader remember what is in any given unit of a story, “chunk” that unit by using the end of the unit (which readers will remember) to sum up that unit.

The first thing in an unit of a story tends to be setting and the ending tends to be a summary. There may or may not be other memorable elements in the middle, but they will use other tricks to make them memorable.

Beginnings within stories tend to start with setting for two reasons: it gives the relative location of all the things you want the reader to remember, and it establishes verisimilitude so the reader’s mind is creating the illusion of reality for them.

You will sometimes see a line or two of dialogue or action at the beginning of a chapter when the writer feels that it helps set the stage, but, in general, to “set the stage” of any given unit of story, the writer tends to use setting (and backstory, but we’ll talk about that in Volume 4).

You will see a lot of stories end with a summary or repetition of what went before, accompanied by a vivid image (a mnemonic!) and a strong emotion.

For example, the cowboy doesn’t just ride off into the sunset—right before that, the grateful townfolk thank him for what he has done, which just so happens to sum up the rest of the story. The hero doesn’t just sacrifice himself, but he has a funeral in which the grateful townfolk memorialize what he has just done, which also just so happens to sum up the rest of the story.

Structurally, in every element before the end of the story, you will also usually see some sort of question right after the summary of that chapter or scene that raises a question about what happens next—that’s to keep the reader turning the pages. We will talk more about that in Volume 5. Just know that sometimes you will see the summary right before the last line or image in a chapter, when the author wants to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, and has to juggle “being memorable” with “making the reader turn the page.”

In writing, there are a lot of tradeoffs like this, where you need to do two tasks at the same time—but one of them is a priority. The trick is to combine both tasks when you can, or if you can’t, ensure that the less-important trick is still covered earlier in the story, as when a point of view character has a tender moment with another character to wrap up their story, just before the other character is killed off!

*I highly recommend Barbara Oakley’s short, free online course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, which is the basis for a lot of this section.

(Next time: Summary Details!)

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