Continuity in Storytelling: How to Keep Facts Straight When Writing a Novel
By: Laura Smith
It’s common knowledge that author J.K. Rowling can answer any question off the top of her head about a character or event in her Harry Potter novels without ever contradicting her response. Rowling knows her world inside and out, a string of knowledge that her fans constantly challenge and appreciate, especially in the fantasy genre where every detail is practically built from scratch. However, that’s not every writer’s style.
Sometimes a writer only knows what makes it onto the page. They can’t tell you what happens before or after the events of the story. They never came up with last names for certain characters. When it comes to minor characters, they might not even have names at all. How well a story is developed outside the text isn’t crucial for the quality of the story itself. What is crucial is how well those details coincide with each other on the page. In novel writing, especially, the author needs to develop a system for keeping track of their setting, characters, plot, dialogue, etc. Below are some of the most important aspects to monitor as a story unfolds.
Making a Calendar
Whether they do it unconsciously or consciously, one of the first decisions that a novelist makes is coming up with a timeline for their story. This can be done as they’re outlining their story or just deciding as they go. They don’t necessarily have to have the entire plot established before they start writing, but it does help to have a general idea of how long it will take to get through the plot.
All of my books have taken place over the course of a few months. If I know the exact year in which it will be set, I replicate a calendar of those months of that year and pencil in each major event of my story. If it is not set in a particular year, I create the calendar myself, setting it up so that important dates fall at the right time. I figure out what the weather will be like, what the characters’ schedules are (are kids in school, do they take a vacation, etc.?), what holidays they will celebrate, if any, and when to set my major events, including the novel’s climax.
Since my books are written for children, I have to work around school schedules, extracurricular activities, and seasonal events. Sometimes things can get tight. My latest novel revolves around a little girl’s softball schedule, and I found myself reworking events around this schedule in order to make the right events coincide with each particular game or practice. Even if a reader isn’t replicating the writer’s calendar, they will be able to tell if something is off with the timeline, and that choppiness comes off as lazy and unprofessional.
Even when dealing with small amounts of time, as in a story that takes place over the course of a day or a weekend, it’s still important to plot out what happens and when, making sure to include daily events such as sunrise, sunset, and mealtimes and even mundane tasks such as personal hygiene, walking the dog, or taking medication. Time is a huge factor in developing a story, dictating events just as time dictates real life.
Building Roads and Architecture
Many of the settings in my books are based on houses that I know or streets that I have driven down thousands of times. Of course, I do change things around to make them unique to my story, but in doing so, it’s easy to forget these changes. It’s also easy to forget how a house is set up or how a street is laid out when you want your characters to move within that space.
Though I’m no architect, I like to create floor plans of each character’s house, and I like to make a map of a street and/or town in which each story is set. This makes it easier to trace a path and describe the actions that a character takes in this space. One character can’t walk from the kitchen into the living room while another walks from the kitchen into the dining room through the same door. A ranch house can’t have a second floor. A gas station can’t be on the corner of the street one minute and then in between two buildings the next. Neighbors can’t be side-by-side one minute and then across the street the next.
In one of my novels, I wanted one of my characters to wave at others from his bedroom through a front window of a house. Then, I realized, that I had already established that his bedroom was in the rear of the house. So, I had to reconstruct the scene to lead the outside characters to the back of the house so that they could see the inside character waving from his bedroom window. Even if readers wouldn’t have noticed this spatial detail, incorporating this helps to give the reader a clearer picture of the house and the inside character’s location to make the rest of the scene easier to imagine.
Developing Characters through Continuity
Inventing characters is difficult because they need to be complex and interesting, and this can take time, but in the first draft stage of novel writing, stopping to build characters can get in the way of building the plot. It can be tempting to throw in a filler detail here or there just to get to the meat of the story, but this can lead to serious continuity errors and sloppy character building. Taking the time to create a backstory for each major character can help to reduce the time it takes to sort through these continuity errors in the editing process.
Names are a huge continuity offender. I have a hard time coming up with names myself. So, I’ll throw in any old name as filler. Then, when I come up with a better name, I’ll use the “find” and “replace” tools in Microsoft Office to search for all of the places where that name appears and plug in the new name that I want to use. Of course, it’s still important to go back through the story and search for shortened versions of the name, misspelled names, or even instances where the wrong name was used altogether. The same way that parents can call their children by the wrong names, writers can do the same with their characters.
Ages are important too, especially when writing children. Sometimes I forget what grade my characters are in, and I have to go back and look it up, especially if they have older or younger siblings who are close in age. Siblings can’t be in the same grade unless they are twins or one was skipped ahead or held back, and if that’s the case, it needs to be explained.
I also have to keep track of their families. Do they live with parents, siblings, grandparents? Should I give these minor characters names just in case I casually reference them in the background of a scene or need to give them a line of dialogue? I usually do, just so I have an arsenal of minor characters at my disposal who can populate my scenes and who make sense to the story. This led me to start keeping a list of all characters along with their age, grade, physical features, profession, family, and any other generic information that forms the character. This master list has saved me loads of time in helping me to create details and dialogue that wasn’t so much crucial to telling the story as it was in building authentic characters who interact with each other in realistic ways. They can also be easily dropped into the story to help move the plot forward when drafting the bare bones of the novel.
Plot and action usually receive the most attention when writing a story. As a result, small details can be given throwaway descriptions that don’t always match up. A character’s shirt can be yellow in one scene but blue in another without any explanation as to the change in color. There could be three apples in the refrigerator, but in the scene, four characters end up eating apples taken from the refrigerator. It would be extremely tedious to make a list of every detail in every scene of a story. A better method is to use the “find” tool again or simply reread the scene, searching for any references of that object to make sure it’s consistent throughout.
In one of my novels, clothing was a detail that I constantly referenced. So, it felt necessary to keep track of the outfits that each character wore in every major scene. I cut out pictures of outfits from magazines and online and pasted them into a book. Then, I noted which outfit was worn by each character in each scene. When I went to write or rewrite that scene, I had a clear picture of each outfit and could describe it in detail without ever changing the outfit mid-scene. It also provided me with ways that the clothes could be used in each scene. Hoodies with pockets could be used to hold items that the characters were carrying. Bright pink shoes caked with mud helped to sell how wet and soggy the terrain was in a particular location. Continuity can work to a writer’s advantage when they focus on particular details.
Edit for Continuity
A novel is edited numerous times before it is submitted for publication. So, an entire editing session should be devoted exclusively to continuity. Reading with the little details in mind will help to catch these embarrassing mistakes before somebody else does. It also helps to take notes or build up a detail to make it more meaningful or helpful to the plot, characterization, tone, or theme. Details need to be continuous, unless the story calls for changing details, such as a dream sequence or the use of magic. But even if that is the case, the reader has to be told on some level that these changes are intentional and that the reason for these changes will be revealed later.
The ultimate goal of novel writing is to build the most convincing world possible, taking the time to craft a string of detailed scenes that tell a compelling and identifiable story. Continuity equals clarity, and clarity helps to sell this world, whether it resembles reality or a fantasy crafted in the writer’s imagination. It’s always a challenge to keep it all straight, but as long as characters are called by the right names, it’s not snowing in the south in the middle of June, and objects don’t multiply, disappear, or change color at will, that’s a good start.
By: Laura Smith
About the Author:
Laura Smith was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, I am the author of three self-published middle grade chapter books and have written for several blog sites, including HubPages. I’m also a volunteer editor at LitPick, a student book review website. My favorite topics to blog about are movies, writing, nostaglia, home improvement, and pop culture. I have also interviewed dozens of self-published indie authors over the years about their books and writing process. I’m constantly submitting my books to publishers and agents, working towards traditional publication, and my ultimate goal is to have one or all of them made into a movie. Please follow me on HubPages, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!
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