Novel as Memory
What do you think of as you lay in bed at night? What scenes for the day to you replay in your head, wishing you could erase or relive? Do you dwell on certain conversations, reworking the things you’ve said, wishing you were more clever, more compassionate, said less, said more?
Memory is inextricably tied to emotion. Most of us cannot recall what we had for breakfast three weeks ago, but we do remember an incident of playground bullying from thirty years ago. According to Psychology Today, “Emotion acts like a highlighter pen that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable.” That is why we dwell on those situations that make us feel. Neutral interactions fade.
Novels, I believe, function as memory for the characters within the story. A novel is built on compressed lives. The scenes a novelist includes in his or her work should carry the emotional residue of memories. If characters do not have a deeper connection with the action or dialogue written, it probably should not be included in the book.
I see this often with beginning writers. The story begins with the character waking up, getting dressed, making coffee, reading the newspaper. The question is, why are these tasks included? Is it simply a way to begin Chapter One? If the character, when reliving her day, does not connect with coffee, or putting on her pants, or jumping out of bed, they probably should not be included in the novel.
There are exceptions, of course. Does the morning ritual invite us into the character’s emotional state; can he not go out the door until his bed is made? Is there an attachment to the coffee cup; she remembers the deceased student who gave the mug to her years ago. Is the character physically or emotionally unwell, and when he goes to bed at night, he will hail getting up that morning a crucial victory?
Look critically at each scene, each interaction, each line of dialogue. What will your characters remember about them that night in bed, or at the end of their lives? If the answer is nothing much, I would guess your novel will be stronger without those pieces.