Nonfiction writers, this week I want you to go back through your books and re-read them, checking for the consistency of your message. Make sure you stick to what you say. Eliminate any paragraphs that wander off topic and start getting into something irrelevant or contradictory. This is your version of continuity editing.
Fiction writers, you get the harder job.
Continuity refers to the internal consistency of a storyline, plot, or imagined universe. Continuity errors appear when a writer forgets a rule they previously established or otherwise contradicts themselves in their writing. They also appear when a writer violates a law of the for-realsies universe.
Continuity errors are bad. We do not like them. People like me get really upset when we see them in fictional universes we love. *ahem* Star Trek *ahem*
So it’s important for your novel to have good continuity. How do you check for that? Look out for these things:
1. Rules of the universe
If you establish a rule that governs the universe of your book (e.g. faster-than-light travel takes a huge amount of power, zombies are immune to metal swords, littering is super duper illegal), make a note of it. Keep this list of rules handy, and after re-reading your book, make sure you didn’t break any of them. Some of the rules may be really minor things (e.g. the ceiling fan turns clockwise), but if you make a mistake with them, somebody will notice.
2. Rules of the characters
Joseph is a vegetarian. Sandra likes to sleep in. Kurt can read Esperanto, but not French. Just like in the universe as a whole, you establish rules that govern your characters. Keep a list of these to ensure you don’t violate them.
3. Necessary orders of events
At some point in your novel, somebody may explain that the quest to obtain the Divine MacGuffin has to precede the placing of the seven stones on the Altar of Wisdom. Or something like that. If not, you probably have your characters engage in some activity that takes place in the real world, like eating or sleeping or crossing the street. Make sure the steps in these activities happen in the right order. If Patricia eats chips, and then on the next page she opens the bag of chips, that’s a continuity error and should be corrected. Ditto for messing up the timing of the Divine MacGuffin quest. Because that might bring about the end of the world.
Don’t try to write hard science if you have no idea what you’re talking about. You will get it wrong. Do some research, make sure you’re at least in the right galaxy for what you’re trying to describe, and then have a scientist or otherwise informed party take a look at your work and make sure it adheres to real-world rules.
If you’ve never been in a fight, do your research before writing a fight scene. Have a martial arts teacher look over it to make sure you don’t have somebody punching through another person’s leg or something silly like that. Read these awesome weapon features I wrote to get a general idea of how each armament can be used. For firearms, talk to somebody who’s used them, and make sure you don’t have a character fire too many bullets from one clip.
Customs established in the culture of your written world should be adhered to by your characters. If they break those customs, there should be some sort of reaction from the surrounding people. This applies to things like standard attire, ways of speaking, respect to authorities, food choices, etc.
It takes four hours to drive from New York City to Washington D.C. Your characters should not complete that drive in an hour and a half. Check your timing whenever your characters travel. This also applies to activities like waiting in line at the DMV, which should take a reasonable number of hours. (Maybe days, depending on where you live.)
I know your cell phone is powerful, but it cannot hack a toaster. That’s just not a thing. If you’re unfamiliar with the technology your characters use, like mega telescopes or laser cutters or electric cars, talk to somebody who works with those devices to see if your stories are reasonable.
Make sure the human body can actually do the things you show your characters doing. This also applies to the physical abilities of your specific characters. If Howard injures his leg in scene three, don’t have him play soccer in scene six unless he’s had sufficient time to heal.
If you or your characters quote something, do so accurately. Unless you’re making a point through the inaccuracy, in which case, carry on.
Many other things impact continuity, but these are some of the major ones that readers will notice first. As you edit your book, check your internal and external continuity, ensuring that your story and characters adhere to the rules you make up and the rules of the real world.