How to Keep Continuity in Your Novel
Keep it consistent.
Writing a novel seems like a monumental task. It's overwhelming because it's a large task. Most people can't do it in one day. I'm still working on that, but I would have to actually double my typing speed to do it and my typing speed is already up in the range of the legendary legal secretaries and court reporters of my youth who were doing 120 to 150 words a minute without errors on actual typewriters because making corrections would slow them down too much.
Making corrections today is a physically easier process. My backspacing over errors is about as fast as my typing, it's part of the same process. Because I've got that DEL and backspace key, it was easier to work that into my process than to train myself to touch the right keys every time without ever twisting my fingers. I don't make many errors but my comfort level is a lot lower now than it was before I got a computer. The results are as typo-free as when I did use a typewriter, because I date from that era.
Today's writer can throw the whole process into a separate task by running the spell check function and patiently creating a user dictionary entry for every single original character name, syllable hash city name, specific term for the tool used to make magic wands that can only be made by certain craftspeople who dedicate their lives to it and so on. You can invent things whole cloth and on top of that, you don't need to fill your house with boxes on boxes of notes in hard copy. If you're a heavy documenter, you can fill your hard drive with enough good information on your backstory that only your literary executor will care about and read to fill your entire house and someone else's garage if it was all printed out.
Writers in the times when my mentors were explaining the process were using physical notes and cutting corners to save paper. Typing on the backs of previous drafts. Cutting pages apart and taping them together in order to do Cut and Paste because that was actually faster than retyping the whole thing in order to move the perfect opening paragraph from page two to the start of the book. So a lot of the reasons I found novel editing an overwhelming, daunting proposition have been eliminated by technology.
Back then any writer would've given his eye teeth to have a secretary doing a lot of that and filing the junk. Now we don't need one, unless it's to answer fan mail and maintain a webpage.
One of the biggest reasons for the paper explosion Way Back When is that editing a novel is a complicated task involving many different tasks. Each of them is separable. They all need to be done. They don't all need to be done at once. In the days of typewriters and handwritten manuscripts it was more efficient to do them all at once because that cut down on the retyping process, which took buying more supplies and a lot more time organizing the successive drafts. Also you couldn't look back at previous drafts for something you left out without burrowing through files enough to support a small government office.
Imagine how bad novel writing was in the days when we didn't have typewriters or paper, when it was cuneiform tablets. You're talking blocks and maybe miles of storage. Maybe this is why I'm a science fiction writer -- every cool thing that science fiction promised I could have for my work is under my hands right now. My little netbook is a tad smaller than a hardback and I can put an entire library in it or create one, not to mention store all the drafts of every novel I wrote complete with all the half finished ones, fragments I can mine for incidents, cool ideas and dumb fan fiction I wrote on my own novels.
That's one of my starting points. Fan fiction on a novel I finished but I want more of it. This usually just results in sequels. I might laugh at it while starting, but I'm at least as good at writing on the second one as I was doing the first, more likely a little better at it. So the sequel turns into its own book in a setting that I own anyway and builds up a larger backstory of cool stuff that only insanely dedicated fans would ever keep track of, some of which they will have to derive the hard way because it never made it directly into the books but got stored as side files.
I write fantasy and SF so continuity in the backstory is an obvious necessity. But it is for novels that don't have any speculative elements just as much. There are famous bloopers in print. One of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novels had an important scene, one the entire plot turned on, take place in a third story bedroom in a two story house. Yet this novel is a classic.
It only goes to show that the masters do make mistakes and even the best editors don't always catch them.
Editors didn't have Cut, Copy and Paste in Fitzgerald's day either. You'd think this would happen less often because of that. But it's human error, not machine error that creates the problems. If you're at all prone to perfectionism, this kind of thing can drive you batty trying to make sure that when you make one change in a novel, such as a character's name and description, it does go consistently through the entire book.
I edited Raven Dance about forty times. At least half a dozen were after I changed blond pompous psychic Rik to curly brown haired class-clown psychic James. Right as it was going to print, a friend of mine did a last proofread on it for me, bless her. She got the dedication.
"Who's Rik? I thought I knew who was at the rebel council meeting but he showed up out of nowhere and I hadn't run into him before."
Groan. "That's James. I changed his name. Let me see the page."
Cut, retype, fix, and James, who hadn't actually had a line in the misnaming but did have a forgotten bit of description as Rik, was back to being James. The rebels didn't suddenly gain a mysterious yet useless new member of the council who never did anything but show up at meetings and look goofy.
That's continuity. He didn't have to be a psychic. He could've just been two roommates for a character instead of one, but that would affect how crowded their apartment was and cause different group dynamics. Those could scupper the plot.
Continuity is what makes novels feel real. Almost anything is believable as long as it's self consistent and the reader can trust that what was observed in chapter two was actually observed. You can show that it wasn't a real phone call but the character overhearing a movie in the next apartment, you can show that the character heard voices and had a paranoid moment, but you need to trust that character did hear that at that time.
If a magic wand works as reliably as a cell phone, it will be trusted the way cell phones are. People will not be startled if a broken one fizzles and doesn't work, or if the character got lucky and the broken one did work if it was held together right, or worked funny. But have the character do magic without a wand in hand and you've lost continuity. Wandlore can be unique to the Harry Potter books in its specifics, but it's consistent throughout every one of Rowling's wizarding community books including the backstory ones like Tales of Beedle the Bard and the Hogwarts schoolbooks that wound up on the market.
One of the most brilliant examples of perfect continuity over a long series is Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Discworld is screamingly funny. You can't read a page of it without cracking up. Most good humorous writers manage a quotable screamer a chapter or two, with some pretty good gags in between. Pratchett will average two or three quotables a page. This is what he's known for and that's its own knack.
But every goofy thing that ever took a story literally in a Discworld novel is part of the world. Discworld is solid. One golem gets freed and winds up employed by the City Watch. He nobly decides to spend all his pay buying another golem to free him so that the two of them can save up to free another. It sounds like this is going to take forever at the usual Watch pay scale.
Yet in Going Postal and Making Money, the Golem Trust is an enormous charity that now has some human donors and a people who wanted a receipt for freeing themselves from slavery are succeeding in doing so that way. You run into golems doing all the immigrant jobs in Discworld and all the consequences of immigrant cheap labor are going on in Ankh-Morpork. You get the same complaints about them from older ethnic groups. Golems acculturate and that leads to new golem gags and the city and the series rolls on still averaging a couple of quotables a page.
Terry Pratchett gets better at it with every volume too.
Continuity is also a plot engine, at least for me and by observation, Terry Pratchett. The first question in writing an SF or fantasy novel is "What if?"
What if the world really did sit on the back of a turtle and other unlikely ideas about it and things that happened in fairy tales were as literal as gravity? There's the What If of Discworld and most fantasy novels.
"What next?" comes after What If.
What is the worst possible thing that could happen to the hero as a consequence of his saving the world? The novel may finish off with some sort of pat on the back or applause. But generally if the hero survived by shooting the goon that was hired to kill him, someone who hired that goon is now even more angry and looking at sending a better assassin or maybe giving the next one some backup. He won a fight. It raised the stakes. That's how plots build. Little conflicts gain momentum and turn into bigger ones.
So the process of keeping continuity and paying attention to every detail of what you already decided was true in the world of the novel is also the framework for what's going to happen in the next chapter or the next volume in the series.
It does not matter what your filing system is.
You can do it by any method that works. This is where different authors invent completely personal ways of keeping track of things and every one of them is the best possible way to do it until that author refines it by inventing a better one.
Writers who use the Snowflake Method are breaking up the task by doing successively longer and more detailed versions of the same story. The shorter, simpler ones are easier to check. So repeating the basics of the plot, the names of the characters, the events of the plot in order aids memory and a Snowflake writer is going to have relatively few continuity problems.
Other versions of outlining do the same thing -- you can check the outline rather than reading through the entire text to remember whether the hotel was in Atlanta or Miami. "Flew to Atlanta" was there a few sentences above the chapter you're working on, so it's convenient. That method works.
I use reverse outlining because I'm a linear-organic writer. I keep continuity by immersion. I don't put the book down till it's done, writing the first draft in one continuous process. Preferably uninterrupted by anything that isn't routine and demands too much attention, such as moving out of state, having to change doctors or getting a new housemate. I once put off writing a novel because friends moved in and it was a sensible decision. I would've thrown off a half novel with all the complications of adjusting to living with someone new.
Major changes, such as deciding that the hotel should have been in Miami, require at least one careful editing pass per change. Breaking up the editing process into multiple different ones that can be one separately is the way to make it less overwhelming, but that also means documenting everything that happened.
If I'm on form, I create a chapter by chapter synopsis as I'm writing the book.
I'll finish a chapter and jot one or two sentences about what happened in the chapter. Who got introduced and what happened. It may run to three or four if it had a lot of twists or new characters. I use RoughDraft, a donationware word processor that includes a "Pad" attached text file to every file created as soon as you type even one word into it.
I start my Pad file on page one of the text. In the Pad file I put CAST LIST at the top. I should really call it NAME LIST in order of appearance because I'll also jot down the name of the kingdom, the river, any coined terms and anything unique to the world of the book. Then under that list, which is constantly growing, I'll put the chapter synopsis. Then under that, any other notes such as guessing ahead in the plot.
I'm only speculating and haven't decided any plot guesses. By the time I get to that point, I may have come up with a better idea. That's fine. That material doesn't need to be accurate because it'll usually also represent all the red herrings as if they might be true. It's a collection of plot trivia that's useful but the synopsis is what I treat as accurate. It's also my rough draft for the submission synopsis, telling just the plot without the details.
When I forget to do that, I have to do it again afterwards on an editing pass. It's what I start with. Events happening in a third story bedroom of a two story house are bad enough, but reality breaks down completely if I decided a character was innocent but already wrote a scene where she committed the crime.
The author has to be a reliable witness to the events of the novel. It has to ring true all the way through. Information that wasn't available earlier is fine -- discovering that phone ringing was on the TV next door rather than in the room is just a discovery. But the phone ringing when there wasn't a phone is so shocking that it must be used as a plot point -- proof of real magic or auditory hallucination.
I met Gordon Dickson at a convention when I was a college kid, recent dropout due to campus size and disabilities. I had a grand idea of writing fantasy novels that would be true to magic the same way as good hard science fiction is when it's done by a rocket scientist or engineer. I could study anthropology and paranormal stuff and magical systems from history, using them in the premise for fantasy novels and gaining a great deal of realism.
He listened, amused and interested. Then he said "That's a great idea. If you do that, I think you'll have a great backstory. But you don't need to. That's your choice and your style. You could make it all up and it would be just as good as long as it's self consistent."
"It wouldn't matter?" I was imagining that readers would probably be checking the magic in my novels to see if it contradicted known ceremonial magic traditions out in occult bookstores and the like.
"It wouldn't matter. If in your book a blue feather gives the power of telepathy, then it does. You just state that. But every time a character uses telepathy, that feather had better be there. It can be rolled up in his hat, but it has to actually be onstage and the reader has to know it's there. Then your magic will be believable. You make it up. That's why it's fantasy and not science fiction."
He was right, too. I almost didn't believe it at the time. Terry Pratchett is the proof of it. Suspension of disbelief is possible for things as loony as the turtle theory and suburban British witches using their wands to do housework.
Part of Rowling's genius is that the characters in the book are treating their magic exactly the way people treat new conveniences and entertainments, the inventions everyone's grown up with throughout their lives. The applications of the magic are as mundane as the magic is exotic. Spells to scare your enemies and attract your lover are offered in every voodoo shop. But if magic were real, it would become commercially available and someone would open a joke shop and someone else would be cursing your roaches away.
Even if not everyone was a magician, a great many magicians would be making a good living cursing roaches away rather than either taking over the world or saving it. That's continuity too -- cultural continuity.
In addition to the tangible continuity of a novel's universe, there has to be consistency in characterization. A character who's shy and retiring is not going to suddenly turn into a social success without any explanation between chapters. What that shows the reader is that either the author is an unreliable witness and no clues are worth anything, or that the apparently shy character is lying through her teeth and just pretending to be shy on that first appearance.
The way to confirm the latter of course is to show the reason later on. If she comes up shy again in chapter four and consistently lays it on thick with the same character she pulled the shy act with before, or characters in a similar situation, then you've done Show Not Tell and defined her as a good liar.
This is also a good solution to discovering you made that mistake.
I had one character who drove me nuts because I couldn't remember if her eyes were gray or blue. They'd be gray in one scene and sapphire blue in another. Then gray again. It seemed to loosely connect with her mood and was consistent with who she was talking to. I finally figured out that the babe wore blue contacts sometimes and left it in, because later in the book I'd mentioned she was a mistress of disguise. So she consistently played with her appearance for reasons of her own.
It would have had to be settled one way or another if she wasn't that deceptive a character.
When writing intuitively, look close at those inconsistent behaviors and ask "Is the character reliable?" You may be discovering something about the character and carefully pre-editing out a detail that's a good way to show the reader she can't be trusted. It would not have worked for Rik vs. James to have the character going by two names and wearing a wig, because by character he was an honest guy among people he trusted -- in both versions, it was essential to the plot that he was trustworthy.
So one fix for continuity errors is just to have another character observe them later in the book if they're plausible for the character, so the question gets raised and settled. "Oh, she wears contacts. She likes to change the color of her eyes." The reader noticed it first, but continuity is healed and a story question has been answered.
Every inconsistency or apparent inconsistency in the background is potentially a serendipitous plot point. The reasons for it can be much more interesting than if the mistake hadn't happened. So in keeping continuity, it's important in my linear method to reserve judgment till the end of the book. A writer using Snowflake method might not have even made the mistake because eye color went in during the "describe everything" pass and would've stayed consistent.
It's easy to doubt what you did, dither over things and think that maybe a different name or gender or locality would work better for the story. The process goes faster if you're decisive though, because once it's decided it's easier to keep track of. Some of these decisions wind up in those "Notes" in the pad file. "Should I change X to a female character?" would go down there but I wouldn't actually do it till the end -- because by the end I might have found some important plot reason why he had to be male.
Each change requires checking over every single instance in the whole book to make sure it's consistent. So major and minor changes create more work. I like to write very fast, so I became decisive and just used the old golf saying "play it where it lays." I find solutions to continuity problems most often by asking "Could that be true within the story?" and then answering the question with things like "Yes, she wears contacts."
It reads better if she takes them out to change them onstage when she's alone, when the reader's in on the deception.
Your mileage may vary. Honestly, my method of writing novels is very personal, it's adapted to everything from my disabilities to my habits and personality. I have tried other novel writing methods, found that I can use them and they're not as much fun for me. They're not as convenient or enjoyable, so I'll do my job in the ways that make me happy because I'm in charge. The end result, however you accomplish it best, is that you'll write a good novel and everything in the novel is consistent with everything else in it.
That's not much of a how-to, is it? I just said my method is personal and might not work for you. If it doesn't, what can you do?
6th in my 30/30 Challenge!
How to Organize for Continuity
The key to the best way for you to organize your continuity checking is to look at how you organize anything else that's a big complex project, one that can't be done all in one day. Especially if you have to put it aside for days or weeks before getting time to work on it again. You know your life. You know what types of organization methods work best for you.
If your life runs smoother by not organizing it, if you're a Messy Desk person when it comes to doing the bills and returning books to the library and doing the laundry -- then handle your novel that way. Use sticky notes. Scribble on backs of envelopes. Shove notes about it in as bookmarks in reference books and let them develop Sedimentary Organization on your messy desk.
Messy desks are actually organized in a right brain way.
Looking at a stack of reference books, recently read fiction, new books, bills, stuff on a genuine Messy Desk organization style, the person can remember where it is by chronology.
I thought of it while I was rereading Harry Potter. Order of the Phoenix is in the middle of the stack right on top of the reference book about medieval London. I remember that was last week. So it must be under the latest copy of Natural History because that came last week and I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.
The middle steps of that logic process vanish. They're wordless. It's a feeling that it's somewhere under a bright colored magazine with a frog on it. Sure enough, it's there. Messy Desk writers don't even think about it. They get used to thinking of the frog cover and reaching under it. If no one else disturbs their desks they often have no trouble for weeks finding anything. If anyone cleans up for them, they're as lost as if a visibly organized person emptied all their files and alphabetized bookshelves on the middle of the floor.
If you are a Messy Desk organizer, accept it and just try to make jotted notes of continuity stuff so that you can find them again when you pick it up later after a break. Very often the process of writing a note helps fix the contents of the note in mind. I've found that many times I don't reread my notes. Making them helped me remember it, so I remembered and didn't need to find them again.
If you're normally comfortable with a physical organization method and like having a clean desk and alphabetized bookshelves, then it may help to be more specific with titling your notes and doing them that way. Plot Notes in one folder, Character Studies in another, Eye Colors on a page, Worldbuilding folder. That process can work beautifully and it's an added benefit to whatever fan someday writes the Concordance of your novels because you can hand it over and they can find everything too.
I honestly believe Messy Desk organization sometimes evolves in workplaces as a way to protect the process of the work from bureaucratic interference. Someone in a Clean Desk pattern is vulnerable to someone else in the office walking off with an important file because they know right where it is, filed alphabetically. I once worked a job where every step of the process of typesetting had to be done precisely the same way so that anyone in the office could work on any project at any time. It drove me nuts never seeing my work completed, never doing a project start to finish. Most of all when I got blamed for other people's errors.
Clean Desk practices get touted all over the place as ways to "get organized and stay organized" to make work easier. However, what they make it easier for is other people to work on your project and judge how it's going. When all libraries used the Dewey Decimal System, a librarian could file a book that came in from another library easily and a new librarian wouldn't need weeks to learn the unique organizational scheme of that specific library.
You're alone. You're an author. You don't actually need that defense unless your spouse or roommates interfere with your novelwriting, which is a huge personal boundary invasion. Unless you are collaborating, your novel is your personal project and no one else should criticize how you do it. You set it up for your convenience. So if you're on the borderline between Messy Desk style and Clean Desk style, consider whether the Messy Desk is actually needed.
If you are collaborating with another author, Clean Desk or some variation such as agreeing how to organize all notes and both partners know how the process is going to work and where to check what makes it easier. I'm sure Messy Vs. Clean desk arguments happen often between collaborators, as often as arguments over spending money between spouses.
Two Messy Desk writers working together have to communicate well and be willing to answer the question "What color are her eyes?" and put in the effort to find out when that information's needed. Or "Was she wearing some specific brand of perfume?"
Two Clean Desk ones with different organization styles -- paper and paperless -- have to work around those differences too. So collaboration has all sorts of difficulties. Most authors are working alone though, right up to the point an editor makes suggestions for changes.
This will happen. It's an inevitable side effect of selling a novel. The editor will make suggestions and worse than that, they would come out a ton better than what you came up with in the firsrt place because editing is a very competitive job and a specialty in its own right. Being able to look over a good story at a glance and with one diamond-cutter sentence tell the author how to turn it into a great story is what makes a good editor.
They do that. If you're better at triaging your friends' books than finishing your own, consider editing. Judge your results by whether they use your suggestions and then get more success with the changed stories.
Or at least consider editing as well as writing, since many editors are also writers and it's often possible to see a problem you need to learn to handle in someone else's work than your own. It's less emotionally loaded to mention to a friend "Your descriptions are great, but some of the dialogue is a little flat. It's a shame because they're such good characters."
Or "You get all the words right, but your punctuation is completely random." Gee. I'm guilty as charged. I started overcoming it and being able to fix it because I helped a few dozen friends with theirs. Learning to be a useful critiquer is a way to become a better writer.
Of course the best thing is to accept that you and me and all writers make tons of mistakes all the time and it's the process of fixing them creatively that makes for brilliant novels. There's a lot of social pressure to do the impossible -- create a perfect clean finished first draft of your first ever novel so that it's professional quality as soon as you finish getting it down. This does not happen except maybe for Snowflake Method because most of the creation is editing processes.
So you need to check continuity and maintain continuity by using methods that are easy, convenient, pleasant and happy for you. Try different ways of organizing it. Outline before writing. Outline after writing. Make sure all the events in the novel don't contradict each other separately from making sure all the locations are accurate and consistent. Make sure the descriptions are consistent on a different pass. Breaking it into many smaller tasks is more satisfying in general because it's possible to finish a small task in one day.
That will give you a good day and a sense of accomplishment that's much harder to get when you just got one day farther into an otherwise overwhelming project and the end seems nowhere in sight. There have to be little daily rewards, a sense of completion to the day's work. If you work continuously, measure that daily goal by word count instead.
"I edited five pages of the novel" would work for someone who found it easiest to fix all the names, events, places, characterization continuity at the same time while also making sure the sentences were effective and everything is spelled right.
Whatever method is actually the most comfortable for you will emerge gradually in trial and error practice. So keep a personal journal or a process journal and keep track of your progress in organizing your work. Most of all the results of different trial and error experiments. I thought that cutting corners by leaving "naming" to be a separate process would speed things up. Instead, it was a less pleasant way of accomplishing the same thing. It was harder to name characters after I knew who they were than to use their names as a starting point to find out who they were.
Your mileage may vary.
All of these different levels of continuity need to be made consistent in the final draft. My point about serendipity stands -- the fixes are usually better than the first go at keeping it solid. The fixes are where new interesting details about the book that are essential to the plot matter most. But that comes into my character driven method of plotting, which is another Hub. Keeping it solid in the first place by having everything documented before you begin and then making changes by careful systematic effort may free your mind from worry and leave you creatively adding more layers of detail and richness.
Historical novels and mysteries especially benefit from good documentation and preliminary work. The sheer mass of information that can be checked by other people is so overwhelming in historical novels and hard science fiction that it needs to be kept organized -- an error that gets missed can't just be fixed by changing reality in the series and explaining it with a creative bit of handwaving. Some historian reader will get very huffy about it. Disclaimers help, because new historical and archaeological evidence can destroy a major point the plot hangs on.
Jean Auel mentioned about her wonderful Earth's Children series that while she researched prehistoric Europe essentially and has many scholars to thank for the richness of her setting, she chose the theories that best fit the story she wanted to tell rather than weighing them by how likely they are to be true or popular. She deliberately went against the evidence on one point and explained that in a foreword. So it can be done -- just pay attention to what you're doing.
That is the same no matter what method you use for continuity. Be careful, give it the time and attention it deserves. Whatever stage of the process you do it and whatever method of continuity checking you use, the end result should be a novel in which no funny little story questions get raised for the reader and left unanswered without being things you can build a sequel on. When they know it's in a series, this is acceptable.
It is a story question why someone managed to be telepathic without a blue feather. If the real answer is that a purple feather is even more potent, then it has to be hinted at with a few clues so that the very sharp readers know there's more that they don't know about the feather magic. It can be implied if red feathers give clairvoyance: red and blue make purple, so purple feathers give both clairvoyance and telepathy. Do that and you'll get away with the purple-feather scene, but it has to be done carefully or it just looks like a blunder.
There's the key again: in whatever method you use, be careful with continuity and don't consider a book finished until everything in it is accounted for as both necessary to the story and consistent with the world of the book. Necessary to the series counts as necessary to the story, that's how next volumes get introduced. It's pretty similar to chaptering but on a larger scale.
Have fun -- and take your time with it. It's worth the effort because strict continuity is one of the elegant fine points of a good book. It can help make it a great book even if it seems so humble and unexciting compared to snappy dialogue and fast action. It's what makes the implausible seem real and the most unbelievable setting become immersive - character continuity most of all. Your entire novel could be surrealism, set in a dream, where anything in the environment can change in an instant.
Yet that surreal novel, the dream that changes a character's life, could be a wonderful and important story and if that character's consistent in who he is and his memories and the emotional connections of the dream story make dream sense, the novel will have deep continuity. There's the one exception to physical continuity -- an error in it can be ignored if it was a dream. But it has to have meaning in a dream sense and push the plot forward or it was irrelevant.
Characters who stay in character true to themselves are strong and memorable. They become sympathetic because readers know them. They become interesting because readers get to know them intimately, sometimes as close or closer than their real friends. That's the subtlest continuity but it can hold together everything else, so keep that in mind when you're writing. It won't matter how you get there, but doing it is that important. So give it your attention and work out the best way you can do it with the most enjoyment in the process.