On continuity errors

9781922200365-Cover (1)I’m currently at work polishing a second draft of my fourth novel, in readiness for other pairs of eyes. It’s an intense process involving steady concentration and a decent memory. It’s about containing whole themes in my head and watching when they appear to ensure that what I wrote before, what’s right there before my eyes and what comes after in later chapters, flows along nicely. I haven’t put Saturday before Friday. At noon there’s definitely a sense of time flowing by after the last time I mentioned said theme, say at dawn. I might find that character x couldn’t have known said event had taken place unless I do something to make it possible. Worse, I haven’t allowed enough space between events one and two, for a third event to be squeezed in between.

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Evidence of a poor writer? Someone cobbling a story together in piecemeal fashion?

No.

Then where’s the planning? Surely these things shouldn’t arise. They wouldn’t arise if I’d planned it all out properly.

Not true.

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Perhaps some authors plan out every detail in advance. They have lists of scenes and detailed timelines. They are meticulous from the off.

I write differently. I start with a sketch of an idea, maybe a sense of a theme, and one or two characters. I might have a cast of characters thinly conceived. I always have the setting. Always a strong sense of place. And I will have incubated the story for years.

Then, within a paragraph, the muse has taken control of the narrative. Up pops a character with such potency and so much to say, she demands a parallel narrative of her own. New themes emerge. Events present themselves. Little twists. I run with ideas, stream of consciousness style. I write with only a dim memory of what I wrote before. And I don’t look back, I press forward. I don’t care about grammar or syntax. I trust to luck that I’m not stuck repeating myself. That the ideas are evolving. And the characters too.

Once I have the bones of a whole draft, I set it aside for a few months. When I come back to it I have to battle through a jungle, hacking out paths, weeding, planting and transplanting, grafting this to that. I scrutinise every paragraph on every page. I develop scenes. Flesh out characters. Strive to get the balance right between all the elements of story – action, dialogue, reflection, description.

I go over the story three times before I call what I have a second draft. I put in eight hour days. Sometimes twelve. I fix every single thing I can find. I don’t want to say there are five people at a table and only describe the four of them that were there, a flaw I discovered in a highly praised work of literary fiction I read recently, a flaw that had me flicking back the page and re-reading the scene several times. A flaw that had me thinking, how the hell did that get past the copy editor?

I read a popular work of fiction a few years back in which the author had gone to some lengths to describe the dim light of a wintry New Year’s Eve, then the character walked into a bright and sunny kitchen. Huh? In the same book, the character was swimming in a pond on a wintry day in January, at four in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky. Whoops!

I’ve softened my condemnations of such errors. They shouldn’t be there in published works, but I can see how easily they slip by. The author is so close to their own writing they can’t see it. When we make certain changes to one spot in the narrative, there’s a ripple effect. Every single related point has also to be changed. If you change Burt to Ed, he has to be Ed forevermore. No mention of Burt. It’s the same with place and time.

I think continuity errors are most likely to arise when the author makes small changes and forgets or misses the ripples. For example, there might have been five people at that table, and the author got rid of one of them. But overlooked the ‘five’ stated on the previous page. 

Just now in editing the middle of my story, I noticed the lack of development of the character of a frog. In my last round of edits I’d inserted the frog as a motif, thinking to add texture and interest. But I’d been lazy. I hadn’t tracked the development of the frog throughout the story.

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After posting this piece I shall return to the frog and do that tracking. Otherwise it might slip my notice. It’s that sort of meticulousness that fixes the continuity errors. And it’s up to authors to do that work because they are the only ones to know it that intimately.

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