Continuity errors might seem one of the least important aspects of a writer’s list of things to watch out for, but they are easy to make and sometimes difficult to spot and yet remain an important part of the writing method.
Writing a novel isn’t an instant process. It takes months (years even), and during that time it is feasible and sometimes unavoidable that writers will inadvertently create continuity errors, simply because it’s hard to remember what happened on page 12 when you’re at page 200 of the story and you’re beavering away to get it completed.
Just as in movies, the mistakes can sometimes be glaring or sometimes quite subtle, but they are errors nonetheless.
Time – Time of year, time of key scenes etc.
Place – Setting, place names etc.
Characterisation – Clothes, personal objects, birthdays, names, traits etc.
Plotting – Plot flaws and gaping inconsistencies.
Time continuity errors happen because writers forget timeframes. A writer might have a story set during the summer and thus in chapter 4 he or she mentions that it is June, but then a few chapters later, and without realising, the month has changed to July. Likewise, they might forget that it’s summer and write something more akin to a wintery scene.
There are also times when the time might actually be mentioned because it is relevant in a key scene, so the writer mentions that it is 10pm in chapter 7, but when referring to it again further into the novel, that time suddenly changes to 9pm.
While tiny details like time might seem unimportant, you can bet the reader will pick up on them. Overall, it shows lack of attention.
The same rule applies for setting – it’s easy to mix up place names, particularly if they begin with the same letter. It’s easy to forget that a character might be boarding a plane in London, but then the name of the airport suddenly changes to Luton halfway through the story.
Characterisation is a prickly area for continuity mistakes. Don’t have a character start off with blue eyes at the beginning of the story, and then by chapter 20 he has brown eyes. Does a character wear glasses at the start of the story and then halfway through he is inexplicably is cured of his short-sightedness because the writer forgot that the character wore glasses?
What if you describe a character’s clothes in one scene, then several scenes later the character is wearing something else completely different? Again, this is an easy slip up to make. You might not spot it, but the reader will.
Also, make sure that character names don’t morph into something else, or are spelled differently in chapters. Their traits, personality, their style and idioms etc. should remain constant throughout.
Plot continuity is paramount – errors here cause massive plot flaws and gaping holes. For instance, if you have a character that is scared of heights and you’ve highlighted this as part of their characterisation early in the novel, then during the exciting climax don’t have the character heroically climbing up the side of a building without a whiff of fear, unless of course you make it part of the plot. In other words, the character is forced to confront that fear in order to save another character from danger.
Pay particular attention to this area so that you don’t create to make everything fit. Make sure your plot is watertight and not full of those gaping holes.
Objects cause writers all sorts of continuity gaffes. Got a patterned rug in chapter 3, but the patterns vanish by chapter 8? What if a character is driving a 4 x 4 in chapter 10, but by chapter 11 it’s become a saloon car? If a character is using a Blackberry at the beginning of the story and then it changes (without explanation) to an iphone, that is a common error.
Did a character place an object on the table in the dining room in chapter 12 of your crime novel, but a chapter later the object vanishes or turns up elsewhere in the scene?
Colours can also change, so make sure the blue car you describe early in a scene stays blue. If a character picks something up to use, like a gun, then make sure that the character still has it. It’s easy for that object to simply vanish while you’re busy writing the following scenes.
To avoid common continuity faults like these, during the writing process, make a list of the names you’ve used/will use, make a note of key dates and times in the story so you don’t get in a muddle. Keep track of key events or places in case you have to refer back to them later in the novel.
Doing this makes it easier while editing. And of course you have to be thorough, so when reviewing your work, keep your lists and notes in mind so that you can check to make sure that times, places, names, objects, characters and plot flaws remain constant throughout.
The idea with continuity is to keep the information consistent from one chapter to the next, so there is a smooth, seamless transition of time, characters, plot, setting and objects.
Next week: Keeping viewpoints balanced.