We read a book from page one to the end of the novel. We start a trip from home with our luggage and with proper attention to detail, arrive at our destination. It is called "continuity" or the continuing of an action.
As a writer, I must make sure that I have continuity in my tale or I will awaken my reader from the illusion that I have crafted to keep the reader involved.
Consider the following lines:
He grabbed a bottle from the six pack and guzzled the golden elixir before crushing the can against his forehead.
Or consider these sentences …
Bill's body sprawled on the floor, dead. Janet dialed 911 and waited for an answer. She gazed out the window at Bill's brand new 1961 white Ford Mustang. She shook her head at the extravagant waste of money.
"Danger, Will Roger. Danger." The above sequence is crashing my sanity.
She ambled from the bedroom to the bathroom. The phone rang. She answered it and leaned back against the refrigerator.
Whoa! Where is this person?
If I grab a BOTTLE of beer and drain it. That container does not magically change into a CAN so I can crush it against my forehead. Ford Mustang was originally made/released in 1964 so a 1961 version would truly be a collector's item, if it existed. Let us not forget that 911 did not come into existence until 1968 in Alabama and not instituted nationwide in the United States until the mid-70s. Plus, if I stumble into the bathroom, the last thing I would want to lean against is the refrigerator when I answer the phone. A phone in the bathroom is not unheard of but I've yet to know of a refrigerator in a bathroom.
Even the smallest and silliest thing can break the illusion the writer has created. A name change can confuse the reader. I was editing a novel and half way through, the author changed the name of the lead character. I've caught that in my own writing and for the life of me, was totally lost as to who Mark was. It was the original name of my lead which later was changed to Daniel. Somehow I'd missed one change that needed to be made. Fortunately, it was during my final edit that I caught that mistake.
Time is another area where writers can get lost and lose the continuity of their story. I read a novel which went something like this: The lead character attended a nine o'clock meeting, left at ten-thirty and went to visit a friend. Two hours later got home. Was bushed and went to bed for the night. Hmm? If my calculations are correct, it is possibly one in the afternoon.
Sometimes the got'cha is extremely subtle with a juxtaposition of the weekdays. If today is Wednesday, in three days, it will not be Friday, but Saturday.
One thing that can throw a monkey wrench into the works would be locality. I read a great young adult novel but was continually perplexed by the young man (about 13 years of age) drinking coffee. I'm a northern boy and this story took place in Florida. Seems, in the south, the youth drink coffee back in the late 50s and early 60s. If I was allowed coffee, there was so much milk added, it was off-white milk, barely a coffee flavor. I was told that too much coffee would stilt my growth. (As a side note, at 5 foot, 8 inches, I don't think it would have mattered.) Still, as I read about this young boy consuming so much coffee, I kept being jolted out of the story.
Another way to bring the reader out of the dream-world is to use an unusual or wrong word. Continuity is all about keeping the flow going and allowing the reader to enjoy the entertainment being provided. To toss an archaic word or inappropriate word breaks that continuity. Exactly what is a shoal of fish? Or he screamed at her with a wanion?
Strangely, both of the examples are correct. A shoal is a school of fish. A wanion is a curse or vengeance.
But, the object is to not inflict your talent for obscure words upon the reader but allow the reader to flow with the story. Both of those sentences would probably jolt the reader to go "Hmm?" when it would have just as easy to say a school of fish or he screamed at her with a vengeance.
Continuity is keeping your character, your plot, and the time in the proper sequence. If your character's name is Daniel, don't leave a previous rendition of Mark in the story. If your character is drinking a six-pack of beer from bottles, don't impale his head with a can. Know your history if you are doing a time piece. Even the simplest of notations can jolt a reader who happens to know abstract historical details. Also, if your character has walked into the bathroom instead of the kitchen, don't mix the room's decor. Also, if today is Friday, then tomorrow is Saturday, not Monday.
A penny for your thoughts - if you know what movie used that as a continuity issue.
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~ COMMENTS ~
I did this once - had my YA characters call a school - and it was a Sunday. The book had extended over a week and until I sat down and did a day to day timeline, I completely didn't realize no one would be at the school to receive their call. I did come up with some excuse, but I had to come up with one that the readers would buy into. Nice post.
I did a similar thing in my novel "An Amish Voice" where I had them schedule a school assembly for the next day between second and third periods. That would have been on a Saturday and I'm very sure the kids wouldn't have been in class, let alone school. You're right, sometime you have to write down a timeline just to make sure you have it correct.
Great post! I tend to think of writing as lyrical and lulling the reader into such a state as they are IN the scene and experiencing the story. All of your examples definitely cause them to be pulled (or yanked) from the scene/environment.
Good analogy Laura. One should consider a book like a lullabye where the author soothes the reader ... and just like Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) if the wrong word or verse is song or you stop, it is not good.
I've done all these things. I changed the name of my main character, Javor, from Jaro, and also a secondary character to Malleus from - well, now I can't remember.
I also had to work out timelines carefully for my first book, because I wanted the action to cover exactly one year, and that meant the character had to experience all four seasons. For my latest two-volume effort, which covers the Second World War from 1941 to 1945 and beyond, it takes a lot of research and careful planning to make sure that the actions I describe fit with historical fact. Making an error, such as stating that a battle happened on the wrong date, would be unforgivable for many in my audience!
For my novel, "An Amish Voice" I had to create a class schedule for my character so I didn't have him in the wrong place at the wrong time or with the wrong people. A made up life can get very complicated. lol. Wow. I only had to do two years - you had to cover 5 years AND coordinate properly with history. I had some historical moments to deal with, but your's seems much more complicated and unforgiving.
You're right, Onisha. My brother was sneakier and drank more coffee than me - he's 6 foot tall. Unlike Alice, all I ever seemed to find was the "small" bottle, never the "tall" one. And I attempt to find those offending issues before my Beta readers do!
Bob...I had that exact experience with a book I was reading this weekend. The author wanted to emphasize how large a man's hands were, but she used 'his hand could span an octave'. My first thought was I can do that. Took me right out of the story because I'm a petite 5'4 with medium hands this guy was six foot nine...he could have spanned a double octave. I finally got back in the story but it took a minute.
Valuable post, Bob. I can't count the times I've been tripped up when I've run across problems of this ilk. As someone else said, first readers are a must. It's too easy to read past these sorts of things in your own writing.
One of the first things you learn in any sort of film class in college is about the concept of Continuity. It's one of the things I never forgot. If you shoot a scene with a coke can on the corner of the table, even if you don't come back to shoot the rest of that scene for a month or longer, you'd better have that same coke can in that same corner of the table. I notice what are called jump cuts (non-continuity) all the time in films. Funny. It's true though. It's the same in writing. It has to be consistent!
And we, the movie goers, live for that moment when the coke can is missing. I loved the one I saw (forget the title) where the woman is in his arms, looking up at him, then her back is to him, and then she back in his arms, crying. I guess at some point while he was talking, he let go and she turned her back on him... didn't see him let go but the camera changed angle for a quick second. I guess it was for impact, she was suppose to be mad at him. Gotta love continuity.
I am guilty of this as a writer. When I write I don't edit, so in an effort to prevent this very thing I change the color of my font. Anything that I need to research or look at again, I change the color to red, so it catches my eye on the edits. As a writer I get how easy it is to forget to go back and make those necessary name changes or check for consistency in content. But as a reader, there is nothing more annoying than spotting mistakes of this magnitude.
That's a great idea, Nichole. Using another color to make it stand out really helps when you back to edit. Also, when I go back to edit, I attempt to keep track of where I left off with a "RSN" (my initials) so when I come back I know where I was. Of course, I also go back when I'm all done to make sure I removed any RSN. To make corrections easier to find, along with the color red, I also will put in things like "RSN town name" or "RSN whatever" to get the changes to show faster. Just search for "RSN." LOL.