Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Ship of Theseus

Posted by: CobraMisfit
“The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.”

-Plutarch’s Lives, Vol 1, Theseus, Chapter 23, Section 1

Recently I brushed the dust off an old manuscript, deciding it was high time to polish it for submission. This story was written after Undead Chaos, but before the contract to publish it. As such, the point of view (POV), not to mention the voice, was nearly identical to that of Marcus Shifter. And considering he was already in print, a shift in POV and voice was needed. Maybe even a few upgrades to the plot.

I’m now 5 chapters in and it’s basically a complete rewrite.

And for good reason. The plot is stale, the dialogue awful, and the pacing atrocious. The main character has been renamed, the “motivations” updated, and the overall How-Do-I-Get-From-Point-A-To-Point-Z completely revamped.

Yet at its core, the story is fundamentally the same.


That depends on your answer to Plutarch's thought experiment: The Ship of Theseus.

Through the example above, Plutarch was asking philosophers a similar question. The Athenians wanted to preserve the hero's ship for posterity, yet they wound up replacing every single piece of it. Even though it happened over many years, it begged the question: Was it still the same object or merely a copy? 

When you gut a story, stripping it of its original plot elements or characters and replacing them with newer ones, is it still the same? If the voice or POV is altered, have you really edited the exiting document or have you created a new one from the bones of the old one?

Honestly, I don’t know. What I can tell you is that it’s both easier and harder than starting from scratch. Easier because the keel of the vessel (in this case the outline) is there and you can build around existing elements. Harder because it often requires significant work to fit the new “plank” exactly into place. Fail to do so and readers will be able to tell where you joined the two together.

For philosophers, The Ship of Theseus continues to be a thought experiment. For writers, it can serve as proof that while we might think that rewriting a story is easy, it can often be just as demanding as starting from scratch. But no matter whether it’s the same or new, the energy expended in “preserving” a story is often well worth the effort.

So what do you think? When you rewrite, is your story the same or is it merely the foundation for something new?


Joshua Roots is a car enthusiast, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.

His Urban Fantasy series, The Shifter Chronicles, is available wherever digital books are sold.

He's also hard at work replacing "rotten planks".


  1. Yes, I've had this experience, when there was such a huge jump in craft level from draft one to the next draft that it was easier to start afresh entirely than revise. However, I do still consider it the same story. Same basic idea, same main character (even if more developed) and a handful of plot points survived.

    1. Great point. What I love is that the concept really could go either way. Sometimes when a story is re-written, it's nothing like the original. But it could also be argued it's still the same story, just "upgraded".


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