We’ve all seen it – a bruise that moves from the left to right eye after a cutaway, a hat that flies off in one scene but is firmly in place in the next, a lamp broken during a struggle that miraculously mends. Members of movie and TV production crews in charge of continuity try their best not to let these slip-ups occur, but occasionally they creep in – even in animated media. Although these errors are more obvious when we see rather than read them, writers need to be just as vigilant to ensure continuity in their writing.
Last week, I discovered a big one in my novel-in-progress. When Eric Shinseki resigns, Chicago Tribune reporter Janelle Martin is reminded of a year-old bioterrorist case purportedly engineered by a veteran trying to draw attention to the months and years some veterans have to wait for VA health care. So, in late April she drives to Iowa to find out what’s happened to the accused veteran and what would drive him to violence. The problem is that Shinseki didn’t resign until May 30th. The fix wasn’t as easy as changing April references to June. Because I want the action to take place during the college academic year, I had to reset the story in October. That meant going back and changing not only the month that she hit the road but descriptions of the landscaping around her interviewees’ houses, the state of the leaves on the trees and the liturgical activities of the priest with whom she talks. She also would wear fall instead of spring clothes.
Continuity can become more difficult the more detail writers provide. Done well, detail add a richness that engages readers. Lack of continuity can put them off. If a woman breaks a heel running, she can’t dash into a room as if both shoes were the same height. If a character takes a jacket off in a restaurant, be sure he remembers to pick it up when he leaves.
Outlining and pre-writing character descriptions can help avoid big issues, such as conflicting physical descriptions, inconsistent character traits and unresolved plot points.
Writers have different ways of keeping tracks of those details. A few years ago, crime writer Jeffery Deaver told the Charlotte Writers’ Club that since he has a lot of plot twists, he keeps a big board to help him remember. If he makes changes during the writing process, he simply moves things around. I’ve found erasable pens to be an invaluable tool. I use them to note, change, add or delete key events and details on my story arc.
Get the details right now and you’re a step ahead when your book is optioned for a movie.