Writing Tip of the Week: Story Continuity

Writing a novel can be an intense creative process. There are dozens of technical elements an author has to focus on at one time. At the same time, they have to make sure they’re crafting an engaging and entertaining story.  Continuity is a major aspect that all writers should be aware of and consider as they work toward a final draft.

Making sure your novel’s story retains continuity throughout is a crucial component to focus on when working toward your final draft.

Keep The Story Flowing And Reader Engaged

Once the reader starts the story, there should be no point where they stop and question if repeated information is consistent. Suppose the main character drives a black Dodge Challenger. Fifty pages later, they drive a blue Dodge Charger. This would make the reader pause, go back, and see if there’s an error. If there is, they have now been taken out of the story. Oh, they may keep reading, but now they’re on the lookout for more continuity issues, and that is work they shouldn’t be doing.

A reader’s job is to read the book. It’s the author’s job to ensure that is all they have to do.  

Wait, how did the detective get from Sacramento to Vegas in ten minutes?

You Are The First Line Of Continuity Defense

I’m the first to admit that I am notorious for writing out of sequence, writing multiple versions of chapters, and experimenting with different ways to tell the story. These are all fine, but it’s important to have the story’s facts correct throughout when it comes to putting the story together.  

Obviously, your story will change, as will your characters as the story moves forward. However, aspects of the characters, the locations, and the items used by the characters have consistency. It’s important for you as an author to keep track of these things and make the needed revisions during a Continuity Pass during your final drafting phase.

I would also ask your Beta Reader to check for continuity issues. A fresh set of eyes can definitely help spot these errors so they can be fixed.

Keep A Cheat Sheet

To keep things easy, create a cheat sheet that lists your main characters and key aspects about them (age, style of dress, personality, eye color, hair color, etc.). Have it handy when you’re writing. If they drive, have the make, model, and color of their cars available. Any basic factual information about the setting, locations, and basic geography of the area can also help. This will help you keep these things consistent and avoid the lengthy process of changing them later once they are in the novel.

Change Is Fine, But Make The Changes Consistent 

As you draft your story, nothing is really set in stone. This also means the info on your cheat sheet. If you decide to make changes to a character, a location, or some other story aspect, make sure those changes are reflected in your cheat sheet for future reference. You should also make the changes throughout the manuscript right away for assurance purposes.  

You can do a word search in your writing program to find the item you want to change, or you can do a find and replace to do it automatically. Even if you use this method, still read through the manuscript to ensure the changes exist and make sense.

Wait, she just left the house and drove away, so why is she inside petting the dog?

Where Are Your Characters?

It’s important to keep tabs on where characters are, where they aren’t, and how long it would take them to get from point A to point B. If you have a character leave the room in one draft of a chapter, then merge it with another draft, make sure that character is still absent all the way through. I’ve done this where I merge drafts, and characters who are absent at the beginning are mysteriously present later on.  

It’s also important to keep track of who knows what and when they know it. If a character is talking about an event they weren’t around for, how do they know about it? Who told them? This can also happen when multiple versions of the same chapter exist. Just make sure to create a continuity that won’t confuse the reader.

Big Picture To Small Picture

While it’s good to go into the story with an outline and cheat sheet, getting the story out and on the page is a priority. You can’t revise and edit what doesn’t exist, which is why you want to start with the big, broad strokes and get into the smaller stuff as you fine-tune future drafts.  

As you write, you may change a character, a location, or story element. All fine. But make sure you notate the change, so you know to check for continuity issues later on.  

This is important since once the book is in the reader’s hands…

Details Count 

While a reader probably won’t fact-check the hourly wage of a baker during the Renaissance, they will notice if a character’s eye color changes or if they suddenly have an umbrella with them for no reason during a freak storm. If a character’s clothing is referenced during a chapter, make sure that any mentions of their clothing are consistent (if she walks in wearing heels, make sure she’s not wearing flats a few pages later).  

I believe a continuity pass should come toward the end of the drafting phase because it can become a distraction from what you really need to do: write the story. If you want to get into the detailed minutiae, save it for once the story is solid, and you’ve reached the end. Then you can dig in and make sure everything else has the continuity to keep the reader reading.

What glaring errors have taken you out of a novel, a movie, or a TV show? Leave a comment and let me know!

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

You Finished Your Manuscript! Now What? – Part Two: Continuity

6a. Checking for Continuity

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and noticed the drinks levels on the table change between shots? Or maybe in one shot, a character is wearing a jacket, but in the next – in the same scene – the jacket vanishes? Or even a cup magically changes colors in a scene?  Or a character’s name changes between seasons?

All of these are issues with CONTINUITY, “the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a movie or broadcast.” The Script Supervisor’s role in film and TV is to catch these issues before filming is complete and editing begins. But, as I’m sure you’ve seen on your own, this doesn’t always happen.

Of course, in Hollywood, finger-pointing can take place to explain away these issues.  But when you’re the lone author of a novel, a short story, or other work, the responsibility for continuity within your story lies on you. And even though the above definition cites “movie or broadcast,” continuity is equally essential when editing your novel.

6b. Why Continuity Matters 

As a writer, your job is to keep the reader focused on the story and keep them turning the page. This means the story needs to flow, allowing the reader to effortlessly move through the story and not get pulled out because of something that should have been fixed during the editing process.  

As I mentioned in Part One, read and reread your manuscript, strengthening the story, characters, and dialogue and checking for spelling and grammar errors.  On top of that, it’s important to make sure that character names, descriptions, settings, and other permanent aspects within the story are consistent from start to finish.

I like to write varying drafts of different chapters, and sometimes I combine different versions to create a more exciting version of the sequence I’m writing. In doing so, this can cause continuity issues to crop up that need to be addressed to avoid confusion for the reader.

For example, if I write a version where the detectives show up in a black sedan but leave – thanks to a later version of the same chapter – in a green Prius, the change is jarring and pull the reader out of the story.  

The same is true with clothing. If you write a version where a character enters the room and takes off their coat, and then later in the chapter they take a pack of gum from their coat pocket in another part of the house, they either can transport locations, or there’s an issue that needs to be resolved.

Once you make a choice, stick with it.

6c. Tips to Monitor Continuity

One of the easiest ways to keep basic continuity within the story is to have a basic spreadsheet or written list of all the named characters (first, middle, and last), their ages, and a basic description. If the characters drive, add the make, model, and color of their vehicles. If there are homes, workplaces, or major locations in the story, give brief details on the sheet to ensure paint colors and basics are consistent.

Also, be conscious of all characters’ actions during a chapter. What did they do? Did you have them put something down or pick something up? Did someone exit the room? Did they suddenly reappear, or just vanish from the chapter altogether?

If you’re like me and love to do multiple drafts of chapters and sequences, be aware of these changes, and make sure that what has already been established earlier is crafted into the newer version of the chapter or sequence.

So, now you’ve edited, you’ve polished, and you’ve checked your manuscript for continuity. You’re confident in your story, the characters, and the manuscript as a whole. It’s time to release your child to someone else to read and get feedback from.  But who?  Who is this person, and why should you entrust them with your creative work?

We’ll explore these topics and more next week!