A very Itchy birthday
As it falls

Is it the same hammer?

Over on this thread on WriteWords, children's author Leila Rasheed asked us all

do people go back to their draft and change the plot of specific scenes while keeping the function of the scene. I think the difference between the function and the plot of a scene is an important one.... it reminds me of the story about the hammer: a man has a hammer; it's the same hammer that belonged to his great-great-great grandfather. In those years, the head of the hammer has been changed many times, and so has the handle, as they wear out. Is it still the same hammer? Is my story still the same story, even though scenes have been replaced?

I know what she means: for a complex set of practical, storytelling reasons, I'm about to pick up three scenes in the WIP, which take place in the same private house on two different days, jam them all together in a single morning with a chorus of different minor characters, and set them in a building site. And it is about the function of the scene in the story, so it shouldn't matter where it's set or what happens in superficial terms of action, as long as both make this turn of the plot-engine believable (which was Leila's original problem). And yet because setting and action, in the broad sense of "computer-hacking-in-Afghanistan" or "women-winning-in-Silicon-Valley", are two of the primary ways in which we experience a novel, to change the setting or action of a scene can mean that it feels as if the novel has changed.

I wonder if it's rooted in the fact that as readers we tend to think, "Oh, they're having a row about how strong the coffee should be, and by the end the word 'divorce' has been said for the first time," and only after a moment (or at a second read if it's very elliptically done), "Oh, they're really having a row because the marriage is falling apart under the strain of fertility treatment." Equally, as writers our imaginations often work in the concrete terms of a specific settings and immediate actions. Another WriteWorder, womag writer Geraldine Ryan has a beautiful example of that: for ages she had a story working out in her head, and all she knew was that it was about french onion soup. It was weeks before she could say, "I know what it's about: Alzheimer's."  So it's only after a while, and perhaps only because for some other reason that setting/action isn't feasible, that we must start to think, "Okay, what's this scene really doing, and how else could I do it?" So you change the handle: the coffee row between husband and wife becomes a row between wife and father about the cost of her fertility treatment, but the head can still hammer the divorce-beginning-to-loom plot-nail in just as well.

And then perhaps the other-way-round thing happens: you can't get the row-with-the-father scene right. You just can't find one line of dialogue after another which will lead where you're trying to go. And you realise that this scene is flat because father and daughter wouldn't have a row and so your creative unconscious won't serve up the words for it. Then you think "Why wouldn't they have a row?", and realise that it's because he's insecure about how much she loves him, so wouldn't let her pick a fight. So it becomes a father-consoling-daughter scene, and it's the word "marriage-guidance" which comes up now for the first time. The hammer-head has changed in its turn. Is it still the same story?

I don't know, though I do know that it's almost certainly a better story. There's value in forgetting, but perhaps books-as-babies is the clue. My son is on his gap year, and about to go to university. Much of what he is now I couldn't possibly have predicted when he was three, from his face to his hoped-for career, and biologically speaking there's scarcely a cell of him which existed then. And yet there's a core of form and colouring, and of thought and feeling, which hasn't changed. He is still him, and so is your story.

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