Readers should never stop in a work of fiction, scratch their heads and wonder: Didn’t we learn in Chapter One that Great-Aunt Hortense was dead? Even more persistent and hard-to-stamp-out irritants are the small switches an author will make in the course of writing. The red dress turns into a red shirt, or into a pink dress. The living room is the kitchen several pages later even though the character hasn’t been described as moving to another place
Some novelists carefully plan and outline the details of their novels before starting on the writing. They might even go further and note on a calendar when events in their plot will occur, or map out a fictional town. They pen detailed profiles of their characters: what they look like, where they go to church, their cologne, what car they drive.
In contrast to such meticulous plotters are the pantsers. These intrepid souls become acquainted with their characters as they write their novel. Sometimes these folks also keep notes along the way, though predictably messier than the plotters’ notes.
While writers may have dissimilar methods, the goal is the same.
For a narrative to be cogent and absorbing as it progresses, it must maintain continuity.
Anything that is repeatedly referred to throughout the book must stay consistent, whether that means character motivations, hair color, setting details, et cetera.
In this regard, writers of book series must be especially vigilant. Their goal is for readers to read all the books in their series, so authors should not be surprised if an eagle-eye reader takes note—possibly in a public forum—when a fictional reality seems to shift between novels.
The term continuity is also used in the tv and film world. It’s a person’s job on movie sets to make sure the sets and everything else stay consistent. An actor should be wearing the same red socks in a single scene, even if it’s shot over two days—and the desk lamp should be in the same place. Film fans enjoy spotting gaffes. Obviously creative artists (like you) would prefer to avoid having their mistakes pointed out.
But don’t beat yourself up. It’s not unusual for unfinished manuscript drafts to have chronological errors. The arrangement of the story’s days or events may be faulty. Because of this, many experienced fiction writers will avoid naming specific days of the week in their novel any time it isn’t urgently called for. They’ve already had painful experiences with clever copyeditors realizing they’ve tangled their book’s events onto wrong and even impossible days of the week, and have had to work very hard to untangle things so that characters’ actions can fall correctly. Continuity errors of past histories or physical characteristics are also fairly common.
Order out of chaos
It’s often the tiniest errors that throw off the reader. Suspension of disbelief is sometimes fragile, and if clothing colors or rooms change accidentally, your careful fictional world building can fall apart. Achieving continuity could be harder for the pantser than the plotter, but neither writer should be overly confident that they have prevented errors in their early drafts.
Remember: A first draft is just that.
The greater task of smoothing out the narrative lies ahead. More often than not, it’s during revisions that the magic happens.
How to avoid gaffes
Of course continuity is a major concern of copyeditors, but don’t count on anyone else to catch your mistakes down the road. Instead, present agents, editors and readers with your best efforts. Here are a few strategies to help:
- Run searches for key words. Make a list of subjects that might be inconsistent in your story, then run related manuscript searches (redhead, car, kitchen…) to check for consistency.
- Keep notes. Plotter or pantser, character and plot trajectories will evolve along the way. Include character profiles and relevant details. Methods vary from a notebook to sticky notes to the use of different colored pens.
- A calendar. Map out your plot on a calendar and avoid timeline problems. Some authors also cover corkboards with notes on index cards.
- Beta readers. The benefits of beta readers are sometimes debated but having them scour your book for errors of continuity and logic is ideal.
- Revise. And revise and revise.
The perils of glitches
I may be blissfully content while making my way down a novelist’s prose path, but when I trip on a glitch, it takes me out of the story. Remember, a lack of continuity is not only jarring, it also reduces an author’s credibility. Wary readers may then keep an eye peeled for more mistakes. Writers never want their readers to be distracted from the plot.
Be consistent. Details matter. A convincing story emerges when its readers are undistracted by its moving parts.
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