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Continuity is key to your story working as a whole, and indeed if you’re writing a series, your series being successful as a whole. One of the most important parts of the editing process is checking that the story remains consistent from beginning to end, across novels and across volumes. Continuity straddles that structural editing/ line editing divide so you need to look at it both on a large and small scale.
In this fortnight’s lessons we are going to cover a few different ideas, all linked by continuity, through a series of audios, lessons and exercises. You will learn how to keep track of character traits, the tools for finding holes in plot logic and how to maintain a consistent tone and theme throughout your manuscript.
TOPIC ONE: Continuity, Theme, & Tone – An Audio From Kim
Listen or download the audio for this section here!
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TOPIC TWO: The Importance Of Continuity
Continuity is a big beast to get a handle of. When you write a manuscript over a year it’s easy to miss the little changes you make over the course of the story simply because you can’t remember every trivial detail. But for a reader who powers through your novel in several hours, any slip ups in continuity are glaringly obvious and can kick them out of a story faster than a bouncer.
One real life example that comes to mind is the story of fantasy author Sara Douglass. Sara didn’t realise until after a book had gone to print that she had a character whose hand had been cut off in a previous story, weaving a basket with two hands in a new story. An astute reader picked it up, but the mistake was beyond her power to rectify. Don’t let your manuscript get to that stage!
To a great extent, it will be experience that will help you in keeping a tight handle on your story. But until you get better at picking continuity issues up, your scene map, a few post-it notes and the list of things to look out for below can help.
TOPIC THREE: Things To Look Out For – Character Traits
A lot of this is covered in our primary and secondary character video lectures. The issue of continuity and character traits is just the more practical end of the lesson.
Physical character traits are the easiest thing to slip up on but they are also the easiest thing to keep straight. For example, you can keep things like eye colour, hair or any other physical trait consistent by doing a global search for eyes/hair etc. This will help you catch any eye colours that have changed from brown to green to blue over the course of the story. These mix ups tend to happen to secondary characters more than primaries.
The element of character traits which is less easy to keep track of, and usually requires you to keep a continuity document, is character history slip ups or character’s acting in direct odds with that history. In the first draft you’ll need to watch out for magically reappearing parents and siblings, motivations and fears. To make sure the history and character’s actions (which are dependent on that history) stay consistent across the manuscript, keep a continuity document for your novel. Basically, any time you mention anything specific from a character’s background, put it in this document under the name of the character and in chronological order.
The continuity document will help you pick up if your newest fact fits with what’s come before, leaving you less work to do later when you come to edit your rough draft.
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TOPIC FOUR: Things To Look Out For – Plot Logic
The key points in your plot must be in line with the logic of the fictional world. This goes especially for historical and speculative fiction. If you’ve decreed that dragons can’t breathe fire on page five, then they can’t breathe fire on page five hundred unless you’ve addressed that in some way.
But plot logic issues are not restricted to those genres. They can be found in any novel. For example, if a detective complains about no smoking at the station in Chapter One, then unless it’s been explained otherwise, we assume there is no smoking at the station in the final chapter.
The key points must also be in line with the logic of the real world as we understand it. For example we understand a woman who’s married has to have a good reason to take off her wedding ring. So if she appears without a ring in a scene, we would wonder why she’d done that. If you hadn’t intended a little affair or divorce subplot you may find your readers mightily confused.
TOPIC FIVE: Things To Look Out For – Physical Setting
Most writers muck up continuity of setting, particularly in long books. This relates mainly to settings that are re-used, especially those that are only re-used a few times. Writers make up these places, then they become more familiar with them and as a result they change, the first mention not matching up with the second.
We recommend that when you re-use settings, draw a little mud map and then, on an editing pass-through, see if things have changed. You can also do this by using your scene map to guide you. Re-check each setting listed in your scene map and make sure that b-block at the high-school is always nearer to the fence than c-block or that Mrs Jones’s house is always at the eastern end of the street etc.
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TOPIC SIX: Things To Look Out For – Chronology
Chronology presents the biggest problem, especially in a book that covers many years. There are several reasons why this happens:
- The author didn’t plan the story in advance (about half of all writers don’t) and has gotten themselves into a pickle.
- The author has shifted around a lot of scenes in their scene mapping process and gotten themselves into a pickle.
- OR, the author writes a lot slower than the reader reads.
You’ll find the last one effects how the passage of time works in your book. This creates little bubbles of improbably fast action that trip a reader up.
Say for example your character is smoking. You write the start of this scene for a little bit, stop and think for ten minutes, write more of the scene for a little bit, stop and think etc. Then after twenty minutes of considered writing you say to yourself, “Man, this character has been smoking that cigarette for ages, they must be done.” But it only seems that way because of the speed you’ve been writing at. The scene actually happens in the blink of an eye for a reader. Suddenly you have cigarettes that get smoked in a second and scalding cups of tea and glasses of wine that are consumed in the blink of an eye. Remember, while writing you’re ‘drinking it’ a lot slower than the reader is reading about it.
This is how you end up with characters that fall in love in two days in a manuscript even though it took you six weeks to write and sentences that say months have passed when it has been years. On the opposite side of this, also watch out for great wads of un-narrated time. What happened? Does the reader need a quick flashback summary?
Keeping chronology consistent requires you to pay attention to minute details such as what season each event is taking place in, or when a birthday occurs. Forgetting what season you are in can result in misplaced summer breezes and winter deluges; plants that don’t bloom in certain places at certain times of the year; the length of a mid-winter’s day in England impossibly stretched so the sun goes down at 7pm.
Changes in viewpoint can also ruin chronology in a narrative. For example:
- Character A walks into a bar and picks a fight – we cut to Character B for a summary of the past six months – back to Character A who is waiting at emergency for a broken jaw. A dizzying and rather uninteresting set of jumps in chronology that may lose your reader.
- OR, Character A is raking autumn leaves thoughtfully, vowing not to get into any more fights – we cut to Character B who is packing for the Christmas holidays – back to Character A who is rugged up against the cold. Such a rapid change in seasons is disorientating.
If chronology is a concern, create a calendar of events. This will assist in maintaining the narrative timeline if scenes are moved around. Keep track of character birthdays too, so you don’t have characters married in toddler years, or teenagers sitting in booster seats.
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TOPIC SEVEN: Consistency of Tone
Slightly more ephemeral than the others, but something to definitely look for, is consistency of tone. Switching tones can leave a reader feeling betrayed because they believe a book to be one thing only to have that changed on them. Take for example a historical romance novel where the characters are prim and proper, but when the heroine and hero finally get to intimate relations, it’s nearly pornographic. The tone of that scene does not fit the rest of the book and the reader is grossly underprepared.
There are several genres in particular where the art of tone is difficult. Prime candidates are erotica and comedy, genres that are well known for the mixing of tone. This is potentially because elements of these genres rely on a physical response.
This begs the question: if a comedy/erotica book doesn’t stay funny/sexy throughout, when does it become no longer comedy/erotica? These are complicated genres: think of the work of Marian Keyes, who makes you laugh and cry at the same time, and shows like Psychoville, True Blood or League of Gentlemen. You need to make sure that the comic or erotic element is present in every scene because without it the tone inevitably shifts. You have to be just as careful at the other end of the spectrum too, writing a serious novel with the occasional comic/sexual elements, as this can be excruciating if the tone is not handled well.
Another genre that struggles to balance tone and is also quite physical in its elements is Horror. If things don’t remain scary, or if it’s ghostly gothic with a few thrills then suddenly we’re into a slasher scene, the change in tone can drive readers off.
You also need to consider a reader’s preconceived notions of tone based on the age and gender of the assumed readership. Especially for children’s and YA authors. For example, we expect children’s fiction to be written for children, and the register and vocab to suit that assumption. There are books in the market that completely confound that (Harry Potter), but you will need to ask yourself if you are a YA/children’s author, are you planning for the book to be read, or read out by a parent? Because if your main market is parents, they are going to make purchasing judgements based on how ‘hard’ a book’s vocab and tone will be for their children to grasp.
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TOPIC EIGHT: Consistency of Theme
Consistency of theme is also desirable, but theme is a tough nut to crack. Theme is the thing that emerges naturally and organically from the story if it is written from the heart. It’s hard to conceive a theme up front and then write a story to order. You write a story and the theme comes out of it, not the other way around. Themes remind us that we are connected and that stories matter!
If you would like to enhance a theme in your story (Note: this will work only if it’s strong and present in the first place) here are a couple of straight forward questions to ask yourself:
- Does the story have a theme? Has one emerged?
- Is it clear enough for the genre?
- Is there only one theme? If you have multiple themes it can be confusing.
- Are they subsets of the first (If you attempt to mix ‘crime doesn’t pay’ and ‘love conquers all’ then the novel may fall off the rails)? Or are the other themes extraneous extras (In which case, delete)?
- Have you missed any opportunities to develop the theme? E.g. If the theme is about women’s complex relationships with their mothers, does the story have sufficient scenes between mother and daughter? Do you have sufficient introspection/exposition to show it?
- Is the theme too heavy-handed? Are you hitting the reader over the head again and again by saying, “See, love conquers all. See love conquers all.” Let the theme emerge for the reader as it emerged for you.
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Theme emerges naturally and organically from the story if it is written from the heart, and is hard to conceive upfront. Themes remind us that we are connected and that stories matter on a deeply personal level.
This exercise will:
- Help you identify themes within a story and,
- Build your analytical skills to hone and refine your own themes.
WHAT TO DO:
Choose five favourite stories. They can be books, movies or television shows. Try to identify a theme for each story, and then post your thoughts in the Themes Forum. Have you mentioned the same stories as someone else? Do you agree with their assessment of the theme?
Now turn your analytical abilities to your own work.
- Have you given any thought to the theme of your book?
- If not, what is the one thing you hope readers take away as the message?
- Identify and mark three or four scenes in your novel that exemplify this theme.
- Work with the scenes on either side of the above scenes this fortnight. Lightly weave in the theme into those scenes too.
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