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 Three – Feedback & The Final Edit

Welcome back. Now your manuscript is looking good. You’re happy with what you have; you’ve worked out all the problems, did an exhaustive grammar and spelling check, and made sure that continuity is solid throughout the story.  

Now, it’s time to let someone else read your work. I know, I know. This can cause a lot of anxiety for many writers. How will my work be perceived by outside eyes? Can I trust their opinions? Can I trust their judgment? Who do I ask?  

Let’s talk about it.

7a. Finding the Right Feedback Partner

I believe a feedback partner is an essential part of the writing process. If you’re in a writing class, it can be easier to find someone willing to read your work in exchange for reading theirs. But if you’re flying solo, it’s time to look at your circle of friends and see if any of them might be willing to read your work.

I highly recommend not using family members for this process. With family, it can go one of two ways: heaps of praise that don’t help you strengthen the work; or criticism that leads to a rift in the relationship. Best to avoid both scenarios and let them read the work once it’s 100% complete.

Do you have a friend who has taken an interest in your writing? Is there someone you know who has asked about what you’re working on? Maybe you know someone who has read something you’ve written in the past, and their feedback helped improve the work? This is definitely a person to ask.

If they say yes, pay them for their time. Trust me, it’s worth it. Now, they have a reason to sit down and read the manuscript: money is coming! How much? It depends on your budget, but start low and then if you like their feedback, pay them more the next time they read it.  

7b. Tell Them Exactly What You’re Looking For

Once you find your feedback partner and offer them payment, tell them what you want them to do. Be specific. “Here, read this” won’t be helpful to you, and it won’t help them focus on what you are looking for.

You can be general – “Does the story work from start to finish?” or “Did the story hook you and keep you reading?” – or, you can be specific – “When you’re reading, can you see if my main character’s arc is strong enough?” or “Can you tell me if there are any moments that don’t work, and explain why you think they don’t?” By giving your feedback partner goals, they now have things to look for and can provide direct answers to items you may have questions about.

Once you’ve set the parameters, give them a reasonable deadline (2 to 4 weeks), then leave them alone. This can be tough. You want to know where they are, what they’re thinking, and what they think, but butting in can ruin their reading flow and also break their concentration if they are reading when you contact them. If they contact you and give you a general comment (I really like the opening chapters), don’t interrogate them. A brief response is fine, but that’s it.

Your goal once they have the manuscript is to keep them reading.

7c. They’re Done and Ready to Give Feedback. Now What?

I FaceTime with my feedback partner, but you can do a Zoom call, Skype, or a regular phone call. I prefer this to receiving pages of notes from them (unless you specifically ask for that). Schedule 30 minutes for a meeting, and then let them talk first. They will likely give their overall impressions of the work and deliver positive feedback at the outset.  

All good things.

Now, you can dig deeper. Have the initial questions you wanted them to answer ready, and have them delve into those. I like the phone/video chat discussions because you can discuss any issues or problems they had with the story. Staring it pages of notes is impersonal and one-sided. Take the time to have the dialogue.

This is also the time to take off your creative hat and put on your editor hat. You need to listen to what they have to say, answer their questions, and not get upset or offended if they didn’t like some aspect of the story or didn’t understand something. This is your opportunity to ask them for specifics about why they didn’t like something, why they feel they didn’t understand something, or why it didn’t work for them.

Listen. Clarify. Move on.

If you agree with their view on the specific item, change it. If you don’t, keep it the way it is. But I’ve learned that if you allow your feedback partner to be honest, so they don’t just tell you what you want to hear, they are pretty spot-on with finding issues that need fixing, clarity, or plot holes.

And that only helps strengthen your story even more.

Answer all their questions. If they wonder about something, or a character, or a moment that isn’t clear, write it down to look at later.

Once the session is over, pay them immediately if you are using PayPal, Venmo, or another payment app, process what you’ve heard, then get back to your manuscript the next day.

7d. Putting the Feedback to Good Use

If you liked their feedback, ask them if they want to be your feedback partner. If they yes, that’s great. If not, you have their feedback and can use that to make the next draft stronger. Take the time to go through their comments and see where they can be applied to make the story, characters, other aspects better.

I suggest giving all their feedback strong consideration. Sometimes there’s something in the story we’re holding onto that we really think works, but it falls flat to a reader or takes them out of the story. Be mindful of these comments. If your feedback partner makes it a point to say that something in the story took them out of the story, definitely consider cutting it. It could save your story in the long run.

7e. Back for Round Two, Three, Four…

Once you have made the changes – and probably made more on your own as you went through – send it back to your feedback partner with new questions for them to answer. Repeat the process as many times as you, your feedback partner, and your budget allows.  

BLOGGER’S NOTE: There are editing/feedback services available online that you are free to use if you don’t want to ask a friend. As a self-publishing author with a tight budget, these services can often get a bit pricey, so doing a little DIY for your first few books can be a less expensive way to get the job done. But, if you want to use these services, I encourage you to do so, just do some research to find one that fits your budget and will do a professional job.

8. The Final Edit/Polish

At some point, your manuscript will be done…or done enough. It’s tempting to always want to tinker with a line of dialogue, a description, or other minutiae, but you have to tell yourself that it’s ready to publish at some point.

The way I know is when I stop thinking/obsessing over the story. My mind moves on to other projects, and this manuscript is no longer at the forefront. That’s when I’m pretty sure I’ve done all I can to make this story the best it can be at this time.

It’s time to let go and let others enjoy what you’ve created.

I hope you found these posts helpful. If you are a writer who has any advice to add, please leave a comment.

You can read about my self-publishing experience with The Field by clicking here.

See you next week!