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Continuity- how do you keep it together?

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Continuity errors kill stories.

When Joe Bob dies like a dog in Act 2, scene 3, he had better not show up again in act 4 scene 1 unless there is a good reason for it.

How do you as a writer in a story with multiple threads in your plot keep it together? Timing is critical and errors make your finely crafted plot fall flat.

I use index cards that reference a specific event and lay them out on the time-line.

How do other authors handle this very tricky element of the craft?

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My first novel (still not posted and in need of an editor) was written without reference to notes of any kind, and I learned from that. I'm on my second novel now, but this time I'm using 3X5 cards to layout scenes, dates and timeline, relationships, character growth, etc. There are many tricks that can be used to keep continuity, but the one that works best for you is just that...the one that works best for you. Many writers here have expressed that note cards stifle their creativity or force them down paths that they find should be given up on. Some people use notes to just address their characters personality and nothing more and let the characters go where they want. But, I need more to keep me on the path to final conflict resolution. Unfortunately, my method means that my story has to be almost completely figured out before hand. And that doesn't bother me, because my characters will still fight me and add more to the story then I could have imagined at the beginning.

But I do need a path to follow.

But on the other hand, my flash fiction is written from an idea to conclusion without anything but my muddled brain.

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But on the other hand, my flash fiction is written from an idea to conclusion without anything but my muddled brain.


It seems to work just fine Richard.

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You only have this problem in stories with multiple chapters, multiple characters and multiple plot lines. So, if you need help, good for you because you've undertaken quite a complex task. You have courage.

What I did, the few times I wrote stories long enough to require keeping track of what I'd already written, was to go back after writing three or four chapters and write a synopsis of each. Then, with each subsequent chapter, I continued this. In each synopsis, I tried to include things that might need to be be recalled in future chapters, like the names of anyone that showed up, specific street names or building names, major events, things like that.

I found this most useful and referred to in more than you might imagine. But then, I don't have the best memory going for me, either.

There is another thing you can do, too. That is, when you think there may be a conflict or inconsistency, you can use your FIND function in Word to look for a name or whatever it is you think might be a problem. To make this possible, what I did was not only write and save each chapter by itself, I combined all the chapters together in one document as I wrote them so the FIND function would work.

I never wrote anything on file cards because it's so much easier and faster and more efficient to be entirely computerized.

That's what I did, but I'm a rank amateur and figure everything out for myself. I'll bet there are much better ways that more experienced writers have learned for themselves. But it's a great question because I had the very same problem.


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I've used three things to help organize my novels during the writing process:

1) a brief outline, just a sentence or two for each chapter ("Joe sees a murder," or "Chuck moves to a new city," etc.)

2) a timeline, showing what dates each chapter and major incident takes place (similar to Cole's synopsis idea above)

3) a character list and short description of each person -- name, age, height, weight, hair color, personality traits, physical attributes, and so on.

Nobody will ever see these lists except the author, and the author has the flexibility to use or not use the specific information when appropriate. I'm a firm believer in not disclosing any character info except through the natural story-telling process, and I always do it indirectly. Nothing irks me more than the stories that start out, "my name is so-and-so, I'm this tall, I'm this age, and my hair color is blah-blah." Total amateurville. Let people discover who the characters are over time; don't hit them over the head with information. One trick is to have another character describe your inhabitants: "hey, you have really cool blue eyes," or "how'd you get that scar on your jaw?" or "are you really 16? You seem kinda short to be that old."

I also agree with Cole: I think it makes more sense to make these documents on the same computer I'm using to write the story. I just open up all four files (current chapter, character list, timeline, outline). Even if I never use anything other than the current chapter, it's nice to know all the information is available at my fingertips. I concede that doing it on file cards might work for some people. I know many filmmakers who use an entire wall to hold file cards and drawings with story points, and they'll routinely toss out cards or add in new scenes as the film changes. It's especially hard when you're telling a story that happens over a period of many months, having to keep track of many characters and different locations.

I gotta admit, I have a real tough tiger to tame with my current novel, Pieces of Destiny, in which I already have to keep track of about 25 people and four different cities. A sharp-eyed reader recently pointed out that I accidentally changed the name of an unseen brother in the story, because I'm currently on chapters 11 and 12 and I used a different name for this character in chapter 2. I look on my online versions as a first draft, so this is something that can be easily fixed, but still, it's embarrassing.

On the other hand: I'm in the middle of reading Stephen King's vast epic novel The Dark Tower, and he says "outlines are for wimps." But the story meanders all over the place, and has about 200 speaking characters, so I wonder how honest he really is. Either he's a genius, has great secretaries who keep track of this stuff, or he's lying through his teeth.

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I manage continuity by creating an Excel spreadsheet. Action, events, and characters are listed down the rows in the first column, and the timeline is across the rest of the columns. The details are in the cells across each column. I have a separate worksheet with the details about the characters, and link their name to the timeline. The timeline isn't in lock-step with the calendar. Sometimes there will be several days across a few columns, then the next column or two might be weeks, then maybe some columns that are hour-by-hour. I also have a heading row above the timeline where I insert the chapter numbers. As the story becomes more complex I can easily add and insert rows and columns wherever they are needed.

For example, in a story where a character is injured playing football I add a row under their name and put "broken arm" in the cell for the date when that happened, then put "cast off" six weeks later in the same row. That way I won't have him playing in a game three weeks after he broke his arm.

Since I'm a computer science major (read: computer geek) I find this the easiest and most flexible way for me to maintain what's going on in a long story and how everything relates at any given point in time.

Colin :w00t:

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I use YWriter 5 which has a built in facility for descriptions of characters, places and items. It also has a visual chapter and scene timeline, a notes section, and automatic backup. All in all it's a very good bit of software ... and free.


That said, all the writing aids in the world won't help you if you don't put them to use.

On the other hand: I'm in the middle of reading Stephen King's vast epic novel The Dark Tower, and he says "outlines are for wimps." But the story meanders all over the place, and has about 200 speaking characters, so I wonder how honest he really is. Either he's a genius, has great secretaries who keep track of this stuff, or he's lying through his teeth.

He probably has a plethora of staff to deal with boring things like outlines and character notes. :w00t:

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In the author's notes on Dark Tower, King swears he just sat down at the keyboard and started dashing off the first thing that came to his mind. I suspect there's more going on than that, at least in terms of where the story was going and so on.

I have to admit, it's simultaneously freeing and daunting to stare at a blank page and have absolutely no idea where the story is going to go. To me, even if you have one little sentence that says, "and then so-and-so kills such-and-such," you'll be able to figure out how to get there.

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Rudy Rucker (Frek and the Elixir, Postsingular, and many other science fiction novels) has extensive writers notes on each of his novels at http://www.rudyrucker.com/writing/ (scroll down to Writer's Notes). Some are very extensive: "Notes for Hylozoic" (a novel being released by the publisher on May 26; see amazon.com) is a 385 page, 196,000 word pdf file for a novel that has about 91,000 words; the table of contents for Notes... is 6-1/2 pages long. This is an interesting resource if you're interested in reading how a published author who's written a large number of books goes about the process of writing, how he keeps track of everything -- and maintains continuity. These Notes... are extensive, probably excessive. I'm amazed at the amount of detail Rudy puts into his notes, with many alternatives. I don't know of any other author who creates writer's notes like Rudy Rucker.

Anyway, I've found it interesting to browse through one writer's way of organizing and documenting his writing process.

Colin :w00t:

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When I first started my story I just used the outline I saved in Word. But as we all know, when you write that tends to fall by the side of the road as it were as new ideas are incorporated.

So now I'm using MS OneNote which has helped enormously in keeping everything in check. May not suit everyone, but has certainly worked for me.

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It would seem, James, that the recurring theme here is, do what works best for you, what you find most comfortable and useful. There isn't one right or best way, as is frequently the case in many areas.

But one thing is clear: this is a ubiquitous problem all writers seem to share. It's only the solutions that are different.


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