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Editing for Continuity

In fiction writing there are two main types of writing continuity: Logical Flow and Object Continuity. Both are important to maintain readability of the work. I’m a pantser (I make stuff up as I write) so I have to be very aware of continuity, or my manuscript ends up a jumble of unrelated vignettes. Over the years, I’ve worked out a system that works for me. I know some plotters who’ve adopted some of my strategies. Of course, they do the hard work before they start writing, but the process works as well for most writing styles.

Logical flow

With any writing, it’s important to maintain a logical flow and consistency. This becomes even more important if you write anything, fiction specifically, that jumps around in a timeline. A smashed logical flow will confuse and irritate readers. Our goal is to help readers enjoy our story and want to read more. That won’t happen if they can’t work out what’s happening or they’re constantly dropping out of the story to say things like but it was morning or It’s raining. Why aren’t they wet? or That can’t be. They’re only 25; they would have only been three then and wouldn’t have been able to lift the sword, let alone kill a top assassin. These are all things I’ve said while reading stories. Sometimes I still finish reading the story, but I rarely buy anything from that author again.

For me, Logical Flow encompasses things such as:

  • Timeline: what happened when, where was everyone at that time, how old were they?

  • Setting: what the area surrounding the characters looks like. This aspect is often broken into specifics such as:

    • The land (mountains, valleys, farming, etc)

    • Climate, season, weather from day to day

    • Time of day from scene to scene

  • Character personality and speech. Some people would probably drop this one into the Object Continuity section but I struggle with calling my characters objects, so it’s here in Logical Flow. Characters must change and grow throughout the story but that has to happen in a logical and clearly delineated way for it to make sense to the reader.

Object Continuity

These are small things that will drop the reader out of the story and, if they’re like me, potentially irritate them enough that they stop reading. It can be difficult for the writer to notice them because you see, in your own work, what you expect to see. You wrote it, you know what it looks like. The reader doesn’t and they will notice when you change things without reason.

Object Continuity encompasses things like:

  • Eye colour

  • Clothing

  • Objects in use, eg swords, magician’s staff, mug of ale

How to achieve consistency

There are some very talented writers out there who can keep everything in their heads. I’m not one of them. Even with shorter works, like novellas, I need to write down the important things so I maintain consistency throughout.

There are a few things I do to keep track of everything.

  1. Timelines. I write timelines for everything. The story has a timeline. Each character has their own timeline. I use a spreadsheet so I can keep track of who does what when in relation to the story. I colour code everything so I can see at a glance if there’s a clash or something out of time. This was particularly important when I wrote The Satin Bowerbird. This story is part of Tangled up in Blue which contains the story of three sisters after the death of their grandmother. The stories are told concurrently beginning with the grandmother’s funeral so matching timelines was vitally important. It was a brilliant project to be involved in and I’d love to write with other writers again, but perhaps not in a concurrent timeline.

  2. Setting. I write narrative for this, with sub-headings. I describe the land, the sky, the heat/cold—all of it. I try to create interesting metaphors for this section. I’m not very good at original metaphors but I love the way they make setting evocative so I keep trying. I usually begin this in Word or Scrivener but I usually transfer it all into a spreadsheet at some point so I can link the setting sheet with the character sheet, to make sure they’re wearing appropriate clothing.

  3. Character personality. My characters get a lot of attention and they’re the one thing I begin to plan before I begin writing. My original character analysis rarely survives the first three chapters intact, but it’s a place to begin. I begin with a narrative that reads something like a eulogy. I had vital statistics at the end. I interview the characters to learn how they speak and what their sense of humour and general outlook on life is like. I also need to discover what their moral stance is and what their breaking point is so I play ‘Never have I ever’ and ‘Truth or dare’ with them. At some point in the story, these things have to be challenged so that the character growth and change has a logical reason for happening. These are living documents. I change things throughout writing the novel when the original things don’t work. Of course, that means I then have to go back and change any reference to the original aspect of their personality in the earlier part, but that’s what editing is for.

  4. Object continuity is a little more difficult for me to keep track of, primarily because I don’t plan before I write. I overcome this by writing the first dirty draft in Scrivener. I can drop interesting facts, object placement and other things into linked documents so it’s all there when I need it next time. When I’m checking things like this in Word, I use track changes but it gets very messy and there’s still a lot of backtracking and searching to check things. Physical appearance of characters gets dropped into a character folder in Scrivener. I don’t have to go searching for a different document anywhere; I can just flip to the one I want, quickly check, then get back to writing.

You can see in the image the pages I've created for characters in Opal Tears. The physical description is of Hagan and has been edited heavily during the process. His career description is so far from that first one, it's laughable. Suffice to say there are no Mining Engineers in Thalazar with its mediaeval lifestyles.

The next blog will be all about Christmas and what my family is doing this year. After that, I’ll get back to the editing and we’ll have a look at copyediting and proofreading.

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