Written by JJ Barnes
It’s important for your story, and your audience, that you carefully track your continuity.
Story continuity shows the writer is in control because nothing happens that wasn’t intended. From one scene to another, nothing changes about the people or the environment they’re in that wasn’t intended to change.
The continuity in on screen and in books can be controlled in different ways. In film and TV, continuity errors can happen due to wardrobes changing suddenly, placement of props on the set, or weather. However, I’ll be focusing specifically on the written word. As a writer the story continuity is your responsibility.
What Is A Continuity Error?
Written continuity errors can occur when the writer forgets a small detail about the characters. You might forget somebody’s eye colour or hair colour. Maybe you’ll forget how much backstory you’ve previously revealed, such as family or past relationships. Or you might fail to track your characters emotional state from one scene to the next.
When you forget a detail, it’s usually something so small that it slips past you unnoticed. You’re already remembering so much that tiny details can get dropped in favour of the big plot lines. However, your audience isn’t burdened with the task of remembering everywhere the characters have been and everywhere they’re going. The big plot lines don’t overwhelm them, so they’re more likely to notice the little mistakes.
What Do Errors Do?
When your audience notices a continuity error it boots them out of the story. Readers are left wondering if the mistake was intentional, and if it was then why? Or they’re wondering what the truth of that character is because your story is unclear. Which part of the story was the error?
When your audience is outside the story looking in to work out what they’re meant to be thinking, you’ve lost their attention and you’ve lost their trust.
You need your audience to put themselves in your hands completely and rely on you to get them to the story climax uninterrupted. If your audience feels you’re a careless or unreliable storyteller, they are never going to fully invest in your story. Even if they’re curious about the climax, they won’t completely connect to it.
Why Do Continuity Errors Happen?
The first thing to remember is that continuity errors, in first drafts especially, are common and not a problem. You’re trying to create an entire world, and manage and construct the lives of multiple people within it. If this your second, third, fourth book in a series, it’s even harder. You’re not only managing the lives as they currently are, but you’re trying to keep the lives and events of all their formers stories in your head too. If you write stories outside of your series as well, the pressure increases. You are tracking these stories, and you’re making sure there’s no bleed through. One story world can’t accidentally mix into another if you’re not really careful.
My first book, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, came out in 2016. Since then I’ve written two other adult books, a children’s book, a TV show and a film. That is a lot of life, a lot of history and events, I’m trying to manage in my own head as well as vaguely keeping track of my own existence. Normal people, the non-story tellers, only have to keep on top of their own life. I couldn’t possibly tell you every tiny detail of every event in my first book, but I’m currently working on the third…
How To Track Your Continuity
The first thing to do is to edit thoroughly. A first draft is allowed to be messy, that’s what it’s for. But then your job is to fix it. Read it, fix it, read it again and fix it again. Then send it for proof reading and they’ll read it and notice the details you’ve missed. Editing is an essential part of a writer’s job. It can turn your scruffy mess of an idea blob into a beautifully crafted story that will draw your audience in and emotionally connect with them.
I highly recommend recording details about your characters that you can refer back to. Especially if you’ve written multiple stories. I have spreadsheets detailing everything about each character in every story. I include family, friendships, enemies, magical powers, eye colour, hair colour, personality traits etc. Any key events that have impacted them and in what story that event occurred.
My writing and editing process is hugely aided by knowing I can check my character details and make sure that what I’m writing is consistent with my previous work.
Scene Level Continuity
In terms of scene level continuity, rather than over arcing details such as appearance or history, be dedicated to tracking how each character feels and making sure they behave accordingly.
If you’ve shown a character to be angry in a previous scene, you need to tell your audience they’ve either moved on from it, by showing it in your story, or maintain that emotion. If it’s simply slipped away and your audience wasn’t shown when or why, that character has been broken. Consistent emotions are a real key to making your characters feel real, broken character continuity breaks the story.
Keeping track of your continuity gets harder the more your write, but it’s also more important the more you write. Put real effort into it, record your characters in whatever way makes most sense to you. You’ll find your story is better because of it.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose