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!

The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part Three

Last week, I talked about my seemingly haphazard writing process.  While I admit that this is how I generally operate, that is only in the beginning.  When it comes to the actual task of writing, I take the job very seriously.  It may take some time for me to sit down in front of the computer and begin the process, but I know – especially when it comes to my novels – that I am writing as professional as possible.  

During the initial phases, it’s okay to be a little loose with your grammar, spelling, syntax, etc.  But once you get past the rough/first draft phase, it’s time to hunker down and do the needed work to produce a professional product.

Let’s talk about the drafting process.

Don’t Try and Dodge the (First) Draft!

Rough drafts and first drafts are always pretty rough reads.  But that’s a good thing.  Why?  Because you are now able to visually read your story on the page and see exactly what works, what doesn’t, where to add, where to cut, and where things actually work the first time.  

You can’t edit what hasn’t been written, and this is now your chance to read through the draft and notate where things need to be changed, added, etc.  

With Midnight House, this was my tactic.  And the first draft was short, character arcs didn’t finish, the current opening didn’t exist, and there were missing elements that I knew had to be added ASAP.

And all of this takes time.  And it should take time. It’s all part of the process.

I also tend to write multiple drafts of chapters/scenes then merge the strongest parts of these versions together.  This, of course, can cause continuity issues if things aren’t fixed during the revision process. If Character A drives a Ford Mustang at the beginning of the story, you want to make sure they don’t suddenly drive a Dodge Charger later on because you wrote them driving a different car in a previous draft.

The urge will be strong to stop reading and start rewriting as you go, but be strong and keep reading and making notes about what you want to fix.  That way, you have a clear picture of the entire story as it’s currently assembled.

Once you’ve done this, you can now take that trusty editing sledgehammer and demolish the pieces of your draft don’t work and rebuild them with stronger, more effective structures.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Writing a novel, a play, a screenplay, or a poem takes time.  It takes patience.  You won’t nail it 100% after your first rewrite, second, or even your sixth.  With your story now fleshed out and in a tangible, malleable space, your creative brain is now firing on all cylinders 24/7, fixing plot holes, revising dialogue, enhancing description, and making you a better writer.

Once I’m into a story, I keep it top of mind.  I work through the narrative in my head, figuring out issues and potential story problems.  Figuring out new twists and ideas to enhance the suspense, the excitement, the humor.  I have actually been on a walk at work and realized a significant plot hole existed and rushed back inside to email myself a potential fix to the problem.

Make sure that when you do begin a new draft, you date the draft in the filename to know that you’re working on the most current version.  I didn’t do this on The Field, and it was a headache trying to track down the most recent version. Don’t be like me.  Do something like The Field_DraftThree_02062018.  Then each day you revise, you Save As… and change the date.  

Take Your Time, and Take Some Time

As you complete each draft, give yourself some breathing room away from your story. Don’t worry; your brain won’t let you forget about it.  This gives you some distance and objectivity regarding your story and will help you make harder decisions easier when editing.  Sometimes it can be hard to let go of a favorite line of dialogue or a chapter that you love, even if it’s not working in a newer draft.  

Giving yourself a week or two between rewrites can help refresh your mind and allow your brain to subconsciously identify story issues in the previous draft.  Again, I’ve had this happen where I’m taking a break between drafts and realize that a chapter falls flat and needs to be cut.  

Keeps notes on any changes, cuts, or additions you want to make, but don’t go back to start a new draft until you feel you have to dive back in.

The Writer Wears Many Hats

Once you are secure in what you have written and have a strong story containing all you want the reader to experience, it’s time to think like an editor.  Yes, you want to pass your manuscript off to someone you trust to edit and give feedback, but you should be the first person who takes the initial pass as the manuscript’s editor.

You know what you want to say.  You know what story you want to tell.  The tone.  The themes.  The characters and their characterizations.  Who better to go through and ensure that all of those things are 100% how they are intended to be?  You are that person.

This is a systematic process.  Take it one sentence at a time.  Set small daily goals at first.  Read through. Does everything in this paragraph make sense?  Does it serve a purpose in the story?  Does it deliver information about character or plot?  Does each chapter move the story forward?  Are there moments where things lag?  Why? What’s the problem?  How can it be fixed?  Can that section be cut to tighten things up?  

Remember, you are Editor now, not Writer.  Your role here is to make sure things are clear for the reader as you want them to be.  If you feel new content needs to be added, make a note of it and keep going.  

I would like to also note that during this stage, cutting stuff is fine.  Adding new stuff should wait until after this editing process is complete.  That way, you know if what you think you need to add is redundant or even necessary as you progress through the story.

Midnight House has many characters involved in a lot of activities, so this was a great process to use multiple times to focus on each character.  This ensured that their arcs were solid, that their interactions with other characters and story arcs worked, and continuity in their characterizations and dialogue (especially if parts of merged drafts were used) were consistent.

You’ve done it!  Your hard work has paid off, and you now have a solid manuscript with a great story and characters.  Congratulations!

Now it’s time to give your story to a new set of trusted eyes and get their feedback, input, and editing suggestions.

Next week, we’ll talk about getting feedback, finalizing your manuscript, and getting it ready to publish.  

See you next week!