It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s time for another chapter commentary on THE MEMORY THIEF. This week, I’m doing two chapters at once, mainly because in the original draft, chapters three and four were just one long chapter. They featured the introduction of Chris, Benji’s best friend (who ultimately became his twin sister. Talk about a convoluted past.)
In the original, there’s no talk of divorce. No scene with the parents shouting at home that night. Instead, we have Benji telling Chris about Louis, and then the two of them walking home after school, followed by walking over to the fair to see Louis, and running into Genevieve for the first time. That part plays out as you see it in the present book, for the most part. The biggest difference is that detour to Chris’s house for a pitstop on the way to the fair. It did feature a description of that house that I was particularly proud of, so I’ll give it here, just so you can see it:
We reached Chris’s place, an old Victorian with a turret and everything. Green, and built back in 18whatever. A long time ago. When we were younger, we used to go through the house, knocking on walls and checking for loose floorboards. A house that old had to have some secrets: hidden gold, secret passageways. Those were standard issue things two hundred years ago, weren’t they?
We never found any. But we still thought that was more due to the secrets being that well hidden, rather than them not existing at all. There was this spot under the staircase where I was sure the floor was six inches higher than it needed to be. Chris’s Dad wouldn’t let us saw into it, though. One day.
Nothing elaborate, but I liked it.
Anyway. As the book evolved, family took on a larger and larger part in the plot. Some of that came from making Chis into Kelly, but I decided I really needed the parents’ divorce to be a real, tangible thing. We didn’t see too many actual examples of his parents fighting in the first draft, so I added the scene at night which turned into chapter three.
My editor and some readers questioned why the potential for divorce would be so upsetting to Benji and Kelly. It’s a common enough thing these days, they reasoned. Why would it be so terrifying? I didn’t budge on it, though. I think that for some kids (especially kids who know full well that their parents fight a ton), the unknown is one of the scariest things they can come up with. Nothing’s more unknown than having your family broken apart. It’s easy to come up with worst case scenarios. Even in bad situations, it can be comforting to already be familiar with the pain than to try and figure out how you’ll respond to the pain that’s coming. It must be worse, or at least that’s what you assume.
Having lived through a divorce as a child, I could personally relate to what it could be like, and I’d had experience with friends’ families going through divorce later on. It’s very traumatic, no matter how common it might be. So I stood my ground. But I had to have more scenes (at least one or two) where the parents were actively fighting. It’s one thing for Benji to tell the reader he’s afraid of divorce, but that lacks a real punch. Show the parents fighting, and show the subject coming up, and then show his reaction to that, and it makes more sense that he’d be worried and upset. We see it firsthand, and so we believe it.
Sometimes it feels like the job of a writer is to do mean things to good characters, all in the name of good tension. What can I say?
Writers can be real jerks.