Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#30: Continuity Trapper Keeper

by Seanan McGuire

This is definitely one of those that needs a little expansion before it starts making sense. Here you go:

If you're writing any sort of series, whether it be a series of short stories or a series of novels, you need a continuity guide. The format is up to you. The level of detail is up to you. But believe me, even if you somehow manage to forget that your hero has green eyes and turn them hazel, your readers won't, and they will eat your soul.

When I was a kid, I found continuity errors unbelievably offensive. If I could always remember your main character's favorite sandwich, childhood pet, and preferred route to the spooky old house on the top of the hill, why couldn't you, the author, remember the same things? You created them!

Ah, the innocence of youth. Let's talk continuity, why it matters, and how to maintain it. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

What Is Continuity?

Continuity is, at its simplest, the art of making sure that everything continues to make linear sense (unless it's not supposed to). Our days will generally come with their own built-in continuity. We eat breakfast after we wake up, and generally after we get out of bed. If we put on a green shirt in the morning, it's not going to be a red shirt in the evening unless something got spilled, and even then, linear time doesn't allow for skipping that boring "changing your shirt" scene. Natural hair colors change gradually over time (as small children age, or as dark hair starts to silver); unnatural hair colors happen very suddenly with, again, a scene of transition. Things change in a sensible, followable manner.

When you're dealing with a work of fiction—any form of fiction, from comic strips to full-length Hollywood movies—continuity isn't nearly so effortless. The original Superman actually had someone on the crew whose entire job was to review the various scenes and make sure Superman's, ah, um, yeah was always "tucked" in the same direction, because those tights let you see everything. Visual productions will generally have multiple people responsible for watching the continuity, making sure that props don't move mysteriously, that actors wear the same clothing from scene to scene, and that things are basically realistic enough to let you deal with the innate unreality of the movie.

(One of my favorite continuity errors is in one of my favorite movie musicals of all time, Little Shop of Horrors. Towards the end of the movie, Audrey is attacked by Audrey II, and rather vigorously gnawed on. When Seymour pulls her out of the plant and out of the flower shop, you can see the blood staining her wedding gown, since that plant has a lot of teeth. Audrey trips and falls out of the frame, and when Seymour pulls her back into the frame, the blood is gone. This little continuity glitch is an artifact of the film's new ending, which differs dramatically from the ending of the stage show. Oops!)

Sadly, most authors don't have a team of continuity-checkers standing by to make sure they always remember the color of the hero's shirt, where the heroine parked her car, or how many bats were described as being part of the giant swarm. It's all going to be on you, and that can be a hell of a lot harder than you think it is.

Well, Why Can't the Author Always Remember?

We begin with a confession:

My first published work of novel-length fiction, Rosemary and Rue, will be coming out released in September of 2009. Now, the process of producing the book people will eventually be able to take off the shelf and hold in their hands began with writing the original draft (naturally). After that came several full revisions as I worked to chase down and hammer-smack continuity problems, and then came several rounds of smaller corrections. Finally, I got to sit down with the final page proofs and make any corrections I thought were necessary before the book went to print.

Almost all the corrections I made—after revising each page a minimum of ten times—were continuity corrections.

I know what Toby looks like. I know what she likes and dislikes, what colors she's inclined to wear, and where the majority of her scars are located. I can write her accurately—which is to say, "behaving like a cranky half-human, half-fae private detective who'd really rather not be here today"—under almost any conditions you can name. Toby on a submarine? Sure. Toby goes to space? Okay. Toby gets called for jury duty? You got it. I can't promise that every possible scenario would be fun to write, or fun to read, but I could definitely write it. Most authors are going to be like that with any major protagonist they work with, and even with a lot of their minor characters. We create these people. We know them. So we should know their continuity better than anybody else alive, right?

Uh, yeah. Not so much. See, it's that very "after revising each page a minimum of ten times" that kills us. The book you read once, we write multiple times, sometimes even several dozen times, and that doesn't really take into consideration the plotting phase, or whether the book is part of an ongoing series. (Series can tangle your continuity worse than damn near anything else. Don't believe me? Ask somebody to explain the X-Men to you sometime. Watch the heads start to explode.)

Over the course of a single novel, I have to keep track of where Toby is, what she's doing, how she got there, who's there with her, whether or not she's been injured recently, whether or not she's eaten recently, and half a dozen other factors—all without really factoring in oh, I don't know, a little thing people like to call "the plot." The color of Toby's borrowed tank top is really not a priority.

It doesn't help that sometimes, authors work themselves into metaphorical corners, and have to go back and basically rip out twenty or thirty pages before starting over. Now we have not only the new, "official" reality in our heads, we have the out-dated, now-alternate reality jangling around in there. The average author's brain is cluttered with continuity that's been discredited because it just never made it onto the page. Sure, we'll probably catch the really big stuff, like the characters that didn't exist before or the giant sinkhole in the middle of what used to be downtown, but will we remember the sudden Pop-Tart break on page forty-seven?

A lot of people call the act of taking old continuity and making it invalid, or inserting new continuity into old text, the "retcon," standing for "retroactive continuity." The sudden inclusion of Dawn Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great example of the retcon at work. Once she exists, all the stories that came before her change...and some of them change in ways that should make the world as we know it a very different place.

Continuity is dangerous stuff. Handle with care.

Caution: Continuity At Work.

So how do you keep from forgetting the things you're most likely to forget—the little things that will wind up mattering hugely to the people who read your work, but which can fall out of your head the minute you move on to the next chapter?

Well, the first, and most obvious solution is to write everything down. Problem: you've already done that, and you're still not remembering everything. So clearly, you need to create a continuity guide for yourself. Now, I'm not going to tell you how your continuity guide should be formatted, because what works for me is unlikely to be a perfect fit for you. Some people do lists of vital statistics, followed by notes on character quirks and background facts. Others may just have one- or two-page character profiles, expanding them as necessary. It's very personal.

I tend to start out with lists of vital statistics, followed by short backgrounds and lists of skills, and then expand as necessary. I don't force things to stick to a tight, specific format, because that way lies madness, and losing things. My character profile for a character who shows up in book two, dies in book two, and never comes back, may be less than a page. My character profile for Toby—who appears in every book, does a lot of things, and has a lot of personal details to keep track of—is five pages long, and includes a personal timeline. I recommend going with whatever works best for you.

The second, and equally vital solution is simple: read your own work. I'm serious. Before I started reviewing the Rosemary and Rue page proofs, I sat down with a galley, and read the whole thing from cover to cover. That both reminded me of "when I was," continuity-wise (the "oh, yeah, that hasn't happened yet" moment), and helped me see the continuity errors that already existed in the book. I'll be re-reading Rosemary as well as A Local Habitation before I sit down with the page proofs for book two, and so on. Now, if your continuity is good enough, you may not need to read the entire series for every new book...but it's still a good idea to read them all occasionally, just to be sure. Remember, reading your own work isn't egotism, it's quality control.

Finally, acknowledge that you're going to miss things, because your head is going to wind up very cluttered with spindrift and nonsense and other things that didn't make the page. Yes, you're eventually going to get that reader mail asking how you could be dumb enough to miss the fact that you said so-and-so was allergic to watermelon six books ago, and now she's chowing down on the stuff during the big State Fair sequence in book seven. You're going to be human, just like everybody else. If you can keep your errors to a watermelon-allergy level, and not let them surge forward into "oops, I forgot I killed that guy," you're going to be doing pretty well.

Take deep breaths, take good notes, and keep your continuity guide as up-to-date as you can. And remember, we're all going to make mistakes. We just need to do our best to make them as minor as we can.
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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