Being a Better Writer: Keeping Details in Line

Afternoon readers!

It’ll be a short one today (in addition to being late). Why? Christmas season at my part-time. We’re doing lots of holiday parties and the like, and we’re doing them every day. Which means … late nights, lots of them, flipping rooms. On the one hand, extra cash and hours … on the other, extra hours that are late. You know, 4 AM late.

Tired? Why yes I am now that you mention it.

Long story short, it means I’m a bit tired, and so got up later than normal. Today’s post will also be a bit shorter than normal.

But that doesn’t make it by any means a topic that’s less important. In fact, today’s topic is a basic one that is absolutely vital but can still be overlooked, as I’ll demonstrate here in a moment. Today, I want to talk about keeping details in line with one another. Or in other words …

Continuity.

Let’s assume you’re not sure what I’m talking about. Well, it’s a simple concept really: Everything in your story has to add up. By which I mean details, characters, and events need to be consistent with one another. If you say a character’s favorite fruit is an orange, don’t forget that detail and later make it pineapple.

Seems easy, right? Well … on the one hand, yes. On the other … keeping things internally consistent, especially as a story grows in length and word-count, can become quite a challenge.

For example, take the book I’ve been reading that inspired this post. There’s no point in naming it or singling it out, but it had a moment early on that made me stop, check the prior paragraph, then read it again, and then shake my head.

What happened? The protagonist, running for their life, pulled out an incendiary grenade and threw it into a hole with the monsters pursuing them. Nothing wrong there.

Except in the next paragraph it magically became a fragmentation grenade, all traces of incendiary fire forgotten. It continued being referred to as a fragmentation grenade for the next few paragraphs, until it came up at the end of the chapter, where once more the character spoke of it as an incendiary.

There’s no way around this: That was a mistake. An error on the part of the author. One that yanked me right out of the story and reminded me that it was just a story. Worse, one that was giving me a conflicting version of events, not because of any unstable narrator, but just because the author and the editor hadn’t caught it.

It was jarring. And mistakes like this often are. Especially if they’re important to the story. Character suddenly “appears” during a scene that wasn’t there when the scene started? The reader pauses, the story on hold. The mental picture they’d built collapses and then comes back together with different information, but the sense of “flow” is disrupted. Whatever pacing had been built? Gone. Scene? Reassembled. The reader has to pull out of the story to reassess this “new” information, and then try to integrate themselves back into it.

And then repeat that process whenever something changes again. Which, if it’s something that is going to come up more than once, is pretty likely. Like the grenade example I stumbled across (literally) the other day, where it came up again and switched back.

Now, here’s the thing. Those of you that are young writers (or maybe not writers at all, but like to read these posts simply for a look inside the author process) are likely, at this moment saying “Well, that makes sense. Don’t make these mistakes. We’re good!”

In fairness, that’s half right. But here’s the thing: These mistakes can be surprisingly easy to make and miss. As I said earlier, the larger the project, the easier it becomes.

For example, the book I’m looking at? The author’s first. And it’s about 500 pages long, though it’d be quite a bit shorter if the print wasn’t a bit larger than normal for a paperback.

But even accounting for that, there is probably at least a good 120,000-150,000 words packed in there. Which is, for those of you that are non-writers, a lot.

Now imagine trying to hit a deadline, get the book out in time, get the early-reader copies out, and go over 120,000 words, word by word, and line by line, looking for mistakes. Or imagine writing that story, being in the middle of a scene that’s flowing better than anything you’ve written in days, and suddenly trying to remember “Did they say there was a sword by the door earlier? Or was it an axe?” You’re pretty sure you wrote sword, and you’re really in the groove, so on you go, the hope being that you’ll remember later, or one of your Alpha/Beta Readers will find it.

This is a very real scenario authors grapple with every day. Stories are complicated, massive, living organisms, and there are plenty of moments where you’re in the middle of writing something when suddenly you think “Wait, did they go right? Or left?” Crud, sometimes you don’t even question something that you have misremembered.

Basically, this isn’t a question of whether or not you’re going to have this happen to you if you write. It will. One way or another, short story or long, there will be a moment where you find yourself wondering about a detail, or even just missing it. It will happen.

That isn’t to say there aren’t tools you can use to mitigate things, however. Lots of authors deal with the tricky balance of keeping things straight and making sure the details line up. And that means there are a lot of tools in the writer’s toolbox (literal ones, these) that can be used to help you keep your details straight.

One of my favorites? The highlighter tool! No joke, this has saved my bacon a number of times. Above, when I spoke about being the middle of a very vital scene that was just flowing out of my mind onto the keys and not wanting to stop and go hunt down some detail that would pull me out? Well, if it’s a detail that can quickly be changed without much influence over the rest of the scene, I simply highlight it with the highlighter tool for later. This leaves me a visual marker that says “check this detail!” Later, when I’ve reached a stopping point, or I’m doing pre-Alpha checkwork, I’ll go back, find the highlights, and double-check that little detail.

Now, if it is a more important detail, one that does influence the scene a bit heavily (like say, for Shadow of an Empire, what kind of weapon does said character currently have?), or if I’m later checking on small details, a fantastic tool for this is the search function, which I use liberally.

Granted, this one isn’t as useful if you’re one of those authors that makes each chapter a separate document (for the life of me, I’ve never understood that approach), since you’d have to open each one individually, but when your entire 400,000-word story is in one document, and you’re trying to remember what a specific character said or did in a single scene? CTRL+F is your best friend. Even if it only gets you to the right chapter or segment of a chapter … in a novel, that’s a boon of help.

Can’t remember a detail? Just search for it!

But there are other tools too. Character cheat sheets, for example. I’ve got a couple of character sheets that slowly gain “details” as a story moves on. “Hates onions in food” for example, was something that I added to a character sheet in one story as a scene wrote itself, and since then it’s become a reminder for when I write the character, so that when they eat it’s food without onions, or the pick the onions out, or something similar.

Now that’s something large, but what about smaller stuff, like say … a grenade in an action scene? Well, get yourself a tiny notepad or stickypad. The kind that you can sit on your desk. They’re very helpful for jotting down a quick reminder such as “Remember! This character has a sprained ankle in this scene!” or “Chapter will end with the car crash!” Anything really. I actually found one while looking over my desk the other day that had been shoved back behind my monitor after I was done that was a note to myself to check on a detail about saddles for Shadow of an Empire, just to make sure something with regards to Meelo’s lined up.

Yeah, a small bit of paper you can leave yourself instructions on? Very helpful in keeping details consistent and for reminding yourself to double-check something. Or making notes of ideas for future chapters, twists …

Really, they’re just useful. Have them and make use of them!

Back to consistency tips, you can also use a program that allows you to integrate an outline with your writing. While I’ve not used one myself, I have heard other authors swear by them. They’re basically a word processor that also has an outlining program laid over the top, so you can assign chapters to parts of the outline, highlight important bits and moments to a sidebar to serve as reminders and easy access points, etc.

Again, I don’t have one of these, and I have my own system. But those who I’ve spoken with who have used one speak highly of the different tools it gives them access to.

Is this everything? No. There are probably other methods out there that I’ve not explored. But some methods that have proven to work is far better than having no solution at all to a very real challenge all authors will face at one point.

So pick one. Or better yet, a few. Stick them in your toolbox. Then, when the moment arises, use them. Keep things straight inside your story. Don’t force the reader out with some that doesn’t line up. Use your tools, and make a great story.

Now, one last note before my usual customary closure: There are select moments when a lack of continuity can be used deliberately. To show an unreliable narrator, for example. Or to show what’s going on is fake or unreal (IE, like a dream sequence). Used with care, you can offer just enough odd details to guide the reader to the conclusion that something strange is going on. Fair warning: this is hard to do, but it’s an effective tool when used well.

That’s it for today. So good luck.

Now get writing.

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