Narrative Continuity: Know the Rules and Play by Them

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When I was a kid my friends and I would occasionally play some Dungeons & Dragons. The rules could get very complex. And after a while, I realized we often weren’t following them because we hadn’t considered they existed. Like the rule of encumbrance. The rule of encumbrance is supposed to ensure some realistic standards in a fantasy game. It means that the character’s strength determines how many things they can carry, and the amount of things on their person relative to their strength determines what actions they can and cannot do or how quickly they can do them.

So after several successful campaigns of having my character pick up every broadsword and magic orb and bag of gold and leg of lamb and set of armor dropped by fallen orcs and other enemies, I realized that that whole time my four-foot-three dwarf would’ve had to have been lugging around a sack of loot thrice the size of Santa’s—all while slaying kobolds and riding donkeys and swinging from chandeliers. Realizing that our characters couldn’t do whatever we wanted them to do at all times was a bit depressing at first. But in the end it made the game more fun, because it made the fantasy more real.

When writing fiction, you have to play by the rules too, and we editors have a keen eye toward ensuring that the author isn’t inadvertently breaking them—which includes rules of encumbrance and other issues of plot continuity.

I once found myself copyediting a WWII suspense novel in which the author was playing loose with the rules of encumbrance. Like my D&D dwarf, our freedom-fighting protagonist had a habit of quietly offing Nazi soldiers and then picking up their belongings—again and again without putting anything down. Soon our hero was carrying seven Lugers, a briefcase packed with secret microfilm, various blunt and sharp melee weapons, and his personal belongings to boot, all while performing impossible tasks like swimming and sprinting and hopping onto running boards of moving cars.

This isn’t an uncommon trend in genre fiction. In my experience, it seems that continuity errors in fiction writing are most likely to occur when the author revises sections in separate chunks, when the author puts aside the novel for a few days and then returns to it again, and when the wires of the author and developmental editor cross while making content changes.

While you revise, keep these tips in mind to ensure you aren’t introducing continuity errors:

1. The main tip is to be alert, especially:

  • In any steamy or romantic scene, read slowly. Make sure what’s being described is physically possible. Pro tip: there are always continuity errors in the sex scene.
  • In an action-packed scene, follow the characters’ movements—track that they’re using the same weapons and that they aren’t suddenly holding an object they dropped on the previous page. Make sure things that blew up don’t appear whole again.
  • When revising, raise your alert signal mentally whenever:
    • a character picks up or drops an object
    • a character stands up or sits down
    • a character is said to live in an apartment rather than a house, or vice versa
    • a date or time of an event is given
    • the number of objects or number of enemies is mentioned—count the numbers when they’re mentioned again, and make sure the numbers add up

2. In a separate document or notebook, take brief notes cataloging the above details as you go. Some details, such as the character’s house/apartment or model of a car, will be added to the style sheet by the copyeditor to keep details organized, but others, like standing up and sitting down or entering and exiting a room, cannot be. Read closely and raise your mental alerts.

3. Create a timeline of narrative events. Add page numbers to the timeline for your quick reference against future events. A timeline can simply consist of details jotted down for your own reference; it doesn’t have to be formally done. Basically, if a chronological detail sounds like it can be contradicted later, keep track of it on the timeline.

Examples of details to include in a timeline:

  • ages of Protagonist and Brother and Grandpa back in 1965 relative to their ages in the present
  • date that Protagonist left for Shangri-La relative to date he’s said to have been in Australia
  • time of day Protagonist sets out for Austin from Houston versus the time he arrives, relative to how long the drive would actually take at eighty miles per hour

4. When it’s time to take a break from your revising, it’s best to break at the end of a chapter or section.

Once your book goes into the developmental and copyediting process, you’ll have additional sets of eyes combing for these sorts of issues—but they’re tough to spot. The best prevention for continuity errors is a good defense by following these tips during your writing and revision process.