On Continuity in Creative Writing

diary-srb-1118480-mOne necessary component of engrossing, readable fiction is always cohesiveness: and today, as I edit “The Crimson League” for its second edition release this Autumn, I am thinking more and more about the role continuity plays in cohesiveness.

There are so many forms and levels of continuity. A large part of editing–not the whole, certainly, but a large chunk–involves keeping track of and maintaining, or improving, continuity. You could dedicate an editing pass or two JUST to continuity issues. And that’s what I want to discuss today: continuity issues.

What are the major things we authors can look out for as we edit a draft for continuity?

CHARACTER CONTINUITY: PHYSICAL TRAITS

Personality cohesiveness–asking yourself, “would this character, believably, say or do these things?”–is a different issue. I am talking more basic, surface-level things here.

  • Does a character’s eye color change from scene to scene?
  • Does a character, mid-scene, shift from standing by the door to sitting in a chair?
  • Does the way you describe hair length, or height, change without you meaning it to?

Keeping detailed character sheets, and referencing them, is a great way to handle these kinds of issues. If you’re like me and you don’t generally outline before a first draft, such sheets become all the more vital to draw up AFTER the fact, to refer to every time a character is physically described.

SETTING CONTINUITY: WITHIN SCENE

Setting continuity within a scene involves basic things like not transporting characters across the room unintentionally, as mentioned above. It also involves a lot more:

  • It’s easy to forget a character is holding something.
  • Sometimes a door or window just closes of its own accord. Ghosts! Ghosts I say! Unless you’re writing paranormal fiction, you might not want that. (So who you gonna call?)
  • Sometimes furniture, or trees and flowers, or a rug, can appear or disappear without you noticing.
  • Doors can change location, or lead to different rooms than you mean them to. (I have totally mixed up left and right in my writing, although I know that in the League’s headquarters, the washroom is to the right. To the RIGHT of the main room….)
  • The color, shape, or material of man-made items–carpets, chairs, walls–can also change.

SETTING CONTINUITY: ACROSS SCENES OR EVEN NOVELS

This is perhaps the most difficult kind of physical continuity: keeping track of room arrangements across scenes. All the things that you have to keep track of within scene–wall color, furniture, where doors lead to and how many there are–you need to keep track of across scenes as well, each time a setting is repeated.

If you are writing a series, you might even have settings repeating over novels and across years. This can be a  fun opportunity (at least I’ve found it so) to show the passage of time and the marks it leaves over people and places. I really enjoy changing one or two memorable aspects of an important building or room from novel to novel after ten or fifteen years have passed!

A fantastic example: Hogwarts from year to year in the Harry Potter series. How the school is different under new management in book five, with all of Professor Umbridge’s notices getting plastered ALL OVER the place. Or how the Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor’s office–physically the same room–looks, smells, and feels entirely different based on who the teacher is that year.

PERSONALITY CONTINUITY

This is always heavy, heavy content editing, so it’s very different from the quick, surface-level details we’ve been talking about so far.

We all know characters, like people, need to change, grow, and develop as they progress through their stories. But those changes shouldn’t necessarily happen all at once, and they should make sense. They should be sensible progressions from who they character is at the start and how he or she adapts to changing circumstances.

ITEM CONTINUITY: WHERE IS THAT THING????

Where did my characters leave that spell book? More importantly, their horses? Do they suddenly have them with them again, without ever going back for them?

And did they just leave a location without taking their sacks with them? My characters, at least in “The Crimson League,” are on the move a lot. So making sure they don’t leave necessary things behind them, when an exit or departure is clearly described, is important.

How has continuity been tough for you to tackle? What mistakes do you find yourself on the lookout for, because you know you’re apt to make them?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy Victoria’s other posts about editing. You can also sign up to follow this blog by email at the top right of the page.

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43 responses to “On Continuity in Creative Writing

  1. Interesting post. I have had a problem with my time line where characters anded up in 2 places at the same time.

    • Ugh, oh no! Those kinds of problems are the worst. I’ve fixed similar issues in one of my stories. Time continuity stuff…. YEP. Even just keeping track of the days and weeks so you know what season you should be in is tough!

  2. Cate Russell-Cole

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    As I am world building for The Chronicles of Mirchar, this is an issue which is coming up more and more and is critical to polished, believable writing. One other ingredient is needed too: don’t rush it! Writing a draft in a month is one thing, but it takes a great deal more to produce a novel. Many thanks to Victoria Grefer for her helpful posts. They keep saving my bacon!

  3. Lots of useful tips. Thanks!

  4. I don’t have a problem with rooms or even houses. They’re so embedded in my memory when I first describe them that I feel I’ve been there before and, therefore, can easily recall where the table is, or the door. It’s eye color for me. Not with my main characters, but with “walk-ons” those characters I only use twice, once at the beginning and once at the end. For instance, a police officer. He’s standing outside a building at the start of the novel, and guarding a key witness at the end. What was his eye color again? And I have to go ALL the way back and look it up! Pain! Someday I will write these minor but necessary things down in my notebook 🙂

  5. Yes! This drives me insane when I catch mistakes in another author’s work. I’m obscenely careful with my character work. Probably obsessively so. I am precise. A few years ago a major author changed a secondary character’s looks up completely in a book. I went back and double-checked, just to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. I couldn’t believe such a major error was allowed to go through like that. It’s made me much more careful with my own work, for sure. Excellent post!! 🙂

  6. I’m not big on description, that I guess prevents some of these things happening, but I’ve still found characters turning up in the wrong place or looking different that when they first appeared. Leaving the book resting for a while and reading it again after some time makes visible things that you can’t see at the time you’ve just finished (because I think we read what’s in our head rather than what is on the page). The personality issue is more fundamental for me and being a psychiatrist one of the things I find more interesting…

    • I totally agree about distance…. Distancing yourself from your work is SO important!!! That goes for all of us. It’s important for us, from time to time, to approach our work as much as an outsider would as we can.

  7. I was laughing about that last one because I tend to forget the location of various items and buildings during a first draft. I’m also infamous for screwing up eye colors over the course of a series. I tend to do an editing run solely for physical trait continuity.
    I have my characters move a lot in a scene and I’m always using items to give them something to do while talking. Otherwise they’re like mannequins to me. A slip up that I do a lot in this regards is forgetting the positioning of a character. For example, Luke sits down while talking and a paragraph later he’s pacing or interacting with a painting on the other side of the room without getting up. I tend to fix them immediately when I’m on a good writing click, but if I had to walk away for a bit, I try to go back to see the position of each character.

  8. I always watch for emotional continuity with characters because that’s the fastest thing that pulls me out of a book. Other than that, I wouldn’t be able to survive without a book bible, especially if it’s a series! And I’ve spent one book re-looking up every nitpicky thing because I second guessed myself on whether I had it right. Never again.

    Great post, Victoria!

  9. It’s so incredibly easy to make a continuity mistake. My personal bugaboo is the passage of time. Some character or other is always saying things like “Remember when we tipped that cow three days ago?” While I don’t outline, I find it very useful to keep a timeline as I write to keep track of what happened when.

    • Outlines are so totally helpful there!!! I think I need to start outlining AFTER a first draft. I love the adventure of not knowing where my story is going as I’m writing it, but after the fact…. I need to be organized.

  10. Great post. I tend to not outline short stories, attempting a loose outline for my WIP novel, so I tend to forget that the protagonist suffers an injury to his dominant arm early in the story and later on uses that injured arm to fight off an attacker. Or a character suddenly has in his possession a type of weapon never mentioned earlier. Spontaneous inventory LOL. Usually catch stuff like that in rewrites. I think that using character sheets is a great idea for avoiding a lot of stuff, and helps make the character and story stronger in the long run.

    • Character sheets can be really helpful! You can even track inventory and such there. Spontaneous inventory is a problem for LOTS of us! (Me, for sure!) And the whole using an injured body part thing…. YEP.

  11. Reblogged this on Wild and Woolly Wordsmithing and commented:
    I had a post in my head for this very subject for this week…but the Crimson League beat me to it with much more style and finesse… Wow. Just wow…Enjoy!

  12. Had to reblog… wow…awesome post. Thank you!

  13. Now I’m wondering if I’m a bad writer. I get the personality continuity, and am writing stuff that I hope forces me to deal with whether a character’s actions, thoughts and words are consistent (within the arc). But I must not be providing enough detail to the settings or descriptions. Guess I better think about that.

    • Don’t stress too much 🙂 Every writer prefers different levels of description and detail. It’s not too some degree is right and another is “wrong.” It’s more a matter of preference than anything else. Just make sure you use beta readers. If you confuse them, they should let you know 🙂

  14. Thanks for the useful tips! I think I’ve had a case where doors were mysteriously opening and closing too. What’s the number to ghost busters, again?

  15. I have been keeping a spread sheet for each character to help with my continuity. For my fiction my characters are on the move a lot too and forgetting something like your weapon can result in a character death.

    God help me if I ever get to the same point as JK Rowling who had to hire a person who did nothing but continuity.

    However, you don’t have to mention every time that the character moves an item. Some situations, if you have covered yourself with a blanket statement, the readers will assume that the characters have necessary items with them.

    In my zombie fiction no one goes unarmed – ever. I make this point repeatedly to save me pages of mentioning every time a character moves her M16.

    • Fantastic point about the blanket statements. Readers don’t need a running tally of an inventory. But if a character goes off without a bag or a bundle, for instance…. that can be a problem, I’ve discovered!

  16. Usually, I’m pretty good at keeping my continuity in line–at least in regard to my characters. I’m a character-oriented person, and it helps that I draw them enough that forgetting their physical details is almost impossible.
    My main continuity problem? Time. Somehow, a drive that took eight hours one way took about half an hour on the way back. I mean, I do write fantasy, but they tend to avoid time jumps.
    Maybe I should invest in marking things down on maps, or making a timeline to figure out exactly when and where everything takes place…

    Good advice, as usual!

  17. Another great post, and very useful. Continuity is so important, it’s something I always re-check about three time to make sure I get characters right and actions, etc 😀

  18. Great points as usual. All things I’m considering as I’m working on my series. 🙂

  19. Reblogged this on Dropped Pebbles and commented:
    Great points for writing any kind of books.

  20. Reblogged this on Confessions of a published author and commented:
    Great post…again!

  21. I pinned this on Pinterest. You’ve shared such great advice.

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