Creating a System for Continuity in Stories

Whether you are writing a short-story, a standalone novel, or a series, continuity matters. Stories that are shorter or have smaller scopes have less potential for continuity problems but are not immune. Learning how to spot continuity errors – and having a method for keeping track of them – is an important skill for any writer to have.

Continuity is defined as, “The unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over a period of time.” Concerning fiction, it is, “…consistency of the characteristics of people, plot, objects, and places seen by the reader or viewer over some period of time.”

You’ve likely heard the phrase “continuity error” hand in hand with any singular mention of continuity. A continuity error is, “Editing errors [that] can occur when a character in a scene references a scene or incident that has not occurred yet, or of which they should not yet be aware.”

My light-hearted advice for all writers is: Learn to love Venn diagrams.

Practical advice, however, is below.

Let’s start with the most common ways writers can get tripped up by continuity.

Common Continuity Error #1: Time

Suggested Help: Keep a detailed outline that doubles as a timeline of scenes

We read books chronologically, so the order that scenes unfold and convey their information to readers is critical to make note of. This is for two purposes. So that characters don’t make decisions or commit to actions based on information that has not yet been revealed. Two, the reverse, to prevent characters from acting as though they had not learned something already established. Another time-based continuity error would be forgetting the existence (or lack thereof) of cell-phones. Or, the personal freedoms available to your characters based on the setting of your story.

Common Continuity Error #2: Place

Suggested Help: Make yourself notes on scene locations, including any relevant specifics

Places are usually synonymous for location based continuity errors, but can also mean the details of said location or place. For example, if there is an island countertop in your protagonist’s kitchen that disappears without any mention of house renovations between chapters 2 and 5, that is a place-based continuity error. Also, bear in mind whether something can exist. If you describe a home as a row-house but go on to mention that there is an exit on each side of the building, that would qualify as a continuity error.

Common Continuity Error #3: Characterization

Suggested Help: Detailed character sheets. Include physical attributes, personality descriptions, life history, family and friends, and as many other details as you feel inclined

Characterization continuity errors are usually referenced in terms of a character behaving inconsistently – like if a vegan is defending the existence of bacon, or if an agoraphobic is enchanted by the beauty they see from the top of a cliff without a single mention of crippling fear. It can also be little things. Giving a character two birthdays. Referencing two different eye colors for the same character. Saying someone’s childhood best friend was named Castiel in one chapter only to mention their name as Gabriel in another. Additionally, if a character speaks a certain way, either with an accent or not using contractions, it needs to be the same at the beginning of a story as at its end.

Common Continuity Error #4: Plotting

Suggested Help: Create a [cause->effect] or [first-this -> then-this] outline

Plotting is both more than and as simple as a chain of events. It includes when certain characters gain information, what the antagonist is up to, and what all the secondary characters are doing/thinking, all at the same time. Remember: nothing ever stops existing even if it’s not currently mentioned on the page. The types of outlines that govern plot can be complicated or simple, depending entirely on the type of story you are telling. My suggestion is to prioritize what things are critical for you to know (usually the protagonist and the antagonist). Your first plot outline should allow for filling in details later. Bear in mind that of any outline you might be motivated to create, plot outlines are likely to change the most with each draft. They need to stay consistent to themselves, not to any previously created plot outlines. This will help prevent errors born from conflicting plot sequences.

Common Continuity Error #5: Objects

Suggested Help: Keep a list of important objects. Attach them to characters (or a ‘void’ when they aren’t in anyone’s possession). Notate when they enter and leave a character’s possession

Objects are the easiest things to keep track of and yet they are some of the most often overlooked victims of continuity errors. These errors are almost always scene based. If a character has a knife: are they holding it, did they drop it, did one of their opponents take it, and why do they suddenly have it back? Imagine if Frodo had set it down the One Ring when he changed his shirt three chapters before they got to Mount Doom without picking it back up. Oops!

Reminder: Editing Workshops!
The Philadelphia Free Writers Association and Writing on Point are partnering to offer two FREE workshops during the month of January. They will be on two consecutive Saturdays at the end of the month, the 21st and the 28th. You can visit the Writing On Point Facebook Page for more details. (‘Like’ us!)

After our first draft, it is attention to detail, a good outline, and the ability to catch errors during self-edits that help a writer address continuity errors. Editors will be able to spot them, too, but it’s much better if you can catch them and fix them yourself. That way, if there were any you missed, your editor is able to identify them clearly because you already removed what you could.

Practicing various types of outlines is a good idea. Most writers develop their own methods over time, and although they often borrow elements from each other, they tend to be unique. Some people use notecards. Other writers prefer sticky notes. I like different colored pens so I can easily identify the topic of the note when I go back through to rewrite. There are some problems that could apply to multiple types of continuity errors, so I left them out from the earlier bits in order to mention them here.

The Big No-Nos

Illogical, Unexplainable, or Unrealistic

  • It’s important to look out for cliches that go above and beyond, and cross into the realm of being convenient versus something grown into the story. If you haven’t heard the phrase deus ex machina, you should take a moment (when you’re done reading this article) to go look it up. There is one moment in a story that is the most at risk for this brand of error and that is the climax. All that build-up, and tension on top of tension, but then suddenly something happens that negates the promises you made to your readers.

Contradictions

  • This can be contradictions in given information, character behavior, or in the world you’ve created around your characters.

Coincidences

  • The best way I can sum this one up is to paraphrase one of the Pixar Rules of Storytelling. It’s okay to use coincidence to get your character into trouble, but you absolutely cannot use it to get them out of it.

Unanswered Questions

  • Usually these are continuity errors created through oversight. It’s important to be aware of what your readers will be curious about, and to address them in some manner. It’s acceptable to leave the audience hanging, like the spinning top at the end of the movie Inception, but not to forget about them.

Knowledge

  • There are things you know as a writer, things the reader knows as you reveal them, and things your characters know as they discover them. It’s very, very important to keep track of who knows what and when they learned it. (I’m including you, as the the writer, in that list, because there are occasions when a character or the writing muse only makes you aware of something over time. It can help to know when you learned it, so you know what draft/chapter/scene you were in when you were made aware, and therefore also know what draft/chapter/scenes you had written without the knowledge.)

First Person POV has been increasing in popularity over the last decade and offers some unique challenges. The largest added burden is to keep in mind what your character knows vs what the audience/reader knows vs what you as the writer know. That is not unique to First Person POV, but can take an extra eye to detail and no small amount of creative problem-solving.

There are two approaches to continuity errors that writers should learn. One is to prevent them, and the second is to identify them so they can be fixed. Keep in mind that the more errors you can prevent, you’ll have less to rewrite. It can also save you from errors that effect your story on a large scale.

Consider making notes as you go, pausing every so often (I would suggest every 10-15k for novels, 4-5k for novellas) to complete an assessment of what the characters are doing, plot progression, what the antagonist is doing or likely doing, and where your characters are located at that point in the story. It’s not necessary, but it can be helpful, and you’ll have a chance to spot really obvious problems before they even become continuity errors.

Can you name any continuity errors from books you’ve read? What was your most frustrating continuity you’ve encountered in your own work? Have you ever had an epiphany after discovering a continuity error? Do you have a preferred method of taking notes or making outlines for your stories? Feel free to share any personal experience or advice with our other readers. The comments are always open.

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