A is for amnesia and other overused plot devices

Author: Anne

Date Published: Apr 5th 2017, 5:29pm

I would add to this blog which I have reposted from two years' ago a missing relative, usually a sister, which device has appeared a lot lately in crime novels. I also never want to read another book about how a dog changed a life or a relationship !

Feel free to add your own irritations !


Amnesia is one of the great, and frequently used, plot devices. Whether it is acquired in a car crash or as a result of hidden childhood memories you can be sure that just when the plot requires it the sufferer will remember something important that had previously been forgotten. Honestly, I am growing so tired of this because it seems to pop up in so many books I am reading at the moment and I have no idea how realistic the portrayal is, although I have my suspicions that all is not quite as simple in real life as authors would like it to be.

Of course, there are some excellent books that use amnesia as a plot device where it works very well. The first book I ever read where it was a major part of the plot was “The Bourne Identity” by Robert Ludlum (films have been made of his books but I haven’t seen them so I am commenting on the novels). I really enjoyed this thriller and its sequels – they are full of action and the plot holds together well. Other successes include “Before I go to Sleep” by SJ Watson which actually manages to create a suspense filled novel about a woman who has the type of amnesia that means that she wakes up every morning with her memories gone – this is a brilliant and clever story. “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty uses amnesia in a more playful way to explore a woman who remembers only up to ten years ago and is now struggling to work out how she could have ended up where she appears to be in the present day – lots to think about there. Lisa Gardner’s latest thriller “Crash & Burn” explores amnesia where the victim’s memories are not reliable and when she acts on misremembered facts – like all her books it is intelligent and gripping.

Other novels I have read which use amnesia as a plot device have been less successful and I really want authors to stop using it for a while and to come up with something more original.

Amnesia is only one frequently used plot device that I would ask authors to think twice about using – here are some others of which I am becoming heartily sick …

• A missing child – too many books about missing children at the moment of varying success although the reason why the child is missing does at least vary from one book to another. I would also ask that the secondary theme where the police officer investigating the missing child also has a missing child/sibling/other relative in their past is just dropped altogether as it is overdone and unrealistic in the extreme.

• Lost letters. This one is becoming less prevalent because we use so much electronic and other modern technology but for a while almost every second chance romance used the lost letter (or, its derivation, intercepted letters which never reach the intended) theme in order to explain why someone had not contacted someone else. It always seems very thin to me.

• An unexpected child. Quite a few books I have read recently involve someone arriving at our hero’s door with a child that he didn’t know that he had and dumping it on him. Hero then flounders with child upbringing and connects with a local woman who helps him out and love grows – the child adjusts quite quickly to being abandoned and doesn’t return to its first parent (or as an alternative the first parent dies). This one is much overused in the light romance field and I could do with a break.

• Crime novels where one character is psychic. This is a particular bugbear of mine as it so often denotes lazy plotting. Just when needed the character can find out what the murderer is thinking or who their next victim will be or where they are – in a way it is similar to the amnesia plot device in that it provides information for the characters without them having to find it out. I actively avoid this type of book now when I see it in a blurb.

The problem with overused plot devices is that, on occasion, it can be used brilliantly and the book is enhanced because of it. My issue is that all of these plot devices have been so overused that they often result in books that are predictable and very similar to so many others – and they do seem to come in batches.

I read a lot of books and so am probably going to find plot devices repeated more than a less active reader. I do delight, however, when an author does something I haven’t seen before and then despair because I am convinced that in the next year I am going to see this plot device used over and over again …..