One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is a break in continuity. Immersion grinds to a halt, the reader does a double-take, and if you’re lucky, they might keep reading (if your book is reviewed by Immerse or Die, it’s a guaranteed strike). So how do you avoid making these crucial errors?
I’ll break them down into a few categories and address each.
A character by any other name…
You’re a writer. You name things all the time; it’s part of the job. But over the course of a long novel, you might slip up here and there with who is who, or how a particular name is spelled. Maybe you decided that Sarah should become Sara, or forget that George’s son was named Grady (and not George Jr., like you switched to in Chapter 7). The same rule can apply to anything you name in your books, from companies, to ships, to invented commercial trademarks. A spelling change in a name might frumple a brow here or there, but probably won’t cost you a reader. Slipping up and renaming people, places, and things midway without intending to is going to chase people away.
How to avoid: Teach irregular names to your spell checker. That makes keeping odd, invented names consistent throughout the story. Reading through the story from start to finish, rather than piecemeal over the course of line editing, can make these errors stand out.
The devil’s in the details
Details are wonderful. They help make a story seem real, bring us closer to characters, implant us into the city where our protagonist lives. But every detail you add is another to keep track of. This might suggest that details are enemies to be avoided, but that’s far from the case. You want those details there. You need those details to create the proper imagine in a reader’s mind. Just as race drivers keep their cars to the very edge of turns and within inches of other speeding vehicles, the trick is to use those details deftly to court disaster and survive. Fill your world with little tidbits to make it more vibrant, and make sure they all fit together and stay consistent.
But that’s a lot of work, right? Yes, but there are a few ways to ease the burden.
How to avoid: Don’t reuse details. If you’ve described a room once, don’t do so again (“I thought the table was unfinished oak, not polished maple”). You don’t need to describe every gesture and facial tic a character has (“Wasn’t it his left cheek with the twitch?”). By not beleaguering minor details, you have less to keep track of, making the important details easier to manage (“Oh yeah, he got that key from old man Smithers; it probably opens the safe in his cellar!”)
A man out of time
Thrillers are prone to this problem more than many genres, but it can happen to anyone. You’ve got a tense situation, a man on a mission, and little time to get it done. Things happen. Some hand-waving might take place. Suddenly, the protagonist is halfway across the country, having a shootout in a desert two hours from the nearest airport. Some nitpicking reader does a little math, and writes a review that over the course of your book, your main character has performed 116 hours of action, travel, and adventure over the course of a two-day plot.
While a scene might only cover a few minutes of in-story time passing, there are implied events that take up “off-camera” time. Ignoring that implied time can lead to some ridiculous timelines. You don’t want to have your character take a bullet, have surgery to remove it (including anesthesia), escape the police guarding his hospital room, steal a set of clothes, “borrow” a helicopter, and fly from New Jersey to the Florida swamps in the course of an afternoon.
How to avoid: This is a matter of diligence. When you edit, think of not only when things are happening, but how long they’re going to take. If your timeline doesn’t fit into the plot, make adjustments to one or the other until everything fits like a jigsaw puzzle.
Related to the character out of time is the character in too many places. Travel is a matter of both time and means. If a character is in Rome on Sunday, it doesn’t require much explanation of how he got to Chicago by Tuesday. That’s fine. But if that character is in a jail cell in Rome at 2:00PM, having him on a boat in Sydney Harbor at 3:30PM just isn’t believable (unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, and some sort of miracle science or magic is involved).
How to avoid: If this is one you have trouble with, take notes. Keep track of who is where at what times. Telepoofing is something more problematic for secondary characters, since you’re not keeping as close track of them as you are the protagonist. Even if you don’t ever write it, figure out how they’re getting from place to place in the background. (“Rome to Sydney… that’s about 20 hours on a commercial flight. He’ll probably stop over in Hong Kong. I can have Professor Xiang give him the formula then. Great, that works!”)
(side note: telepoofing is a portmeanteau of teleport and poof, as in “poof, he just teleported without explanation”)
Close 3rd person POV is very popular these days. It gives you the ability to get inside a character’s head and see the inner workings, their thought processes, and how their knowledge colors their perception of the story. It also allows for multiple characters to give this intimate inside knowledge. But therein lies the pitfall: who knows what?
In any multiple POV story, the reader is going to know things that individual characters don’t. The problem is that the writer needs to keep track of who knows what. Be wary of plot-critical information falling into the wrong character’s head. Characters acting on knowledge they shouldn’t have is a major plot hole, one that can’t be glossed over and which will require reworking before you can publish.
Don’t confuse this with characters acting on knowledge that the reader doesn’t know they have. It’s fair game to have characters find things out between scenes, but you should either come back later and explain how they knew it, or provide enough clues for a reader to piece it together (“That charred book we found… Daniel must have read it before throwing it in the fire.” as opposed to “When the hell did Daniel learn how to draw demon-binding sigils?”).
How to avoid: This is a tough one. You’re going to have to know your characters inside and out. Who has done what? What does each know? Whose opinions are whose? And there’s still plenty of opportunity to make mistakes. You need more eyes. Your editor might catch some for you, but a gaggle of beta readers is probably your best defense against borrowed thoughts.
Thank you. Very helpful!
You mention a lot of pitfalls I’ve seen in other writers’ manuscripts and some I’ve done myself. The biggest pitfall I see if over-explanation. Every move and second in the timeline doesn’t need explaining. It’s not a play-by-play of a game!
Over-explaining is a problem, but if you’re willing to leave it out of the finished manuscript (via editing or self-restraint), knowing all those low-level details can keep you from making unrealistic assumptions about what happens between scenes. Just don’t inflict the boring minutiae on your reader.