Continuity and Credibility

by Sera James

As a book coach, the most prominent problem I see in new outlines and first drafts would probably be the magic satchel–the invisibly carried inventory of a video game character–or hammerspace, which is the place from whence cartoons draw comically large items, like a mallet in the pocket. I often refer to them myself as bottomless pockets.

Continuity is the physical reality of your fabricated universe, and it’s important that it is consistent and believable within its own framework. A character who exclaims that they are stranded, although they earlier drove their functional car to this location, is committing an error of continuity. A character who is smoking a cigarette in one gesture, and then, has no cigarette, is committing a continuity error. What this does for your reader is cause a skip in the film, pulling them back into reality, reminding them that this is just a book.

The reason fantastical fiction can cause its fans to weep over the deaths of wizards and elves is that the readers have long forgotten that this is just a book, even though very little about observable reality is mimicked therein. The film has been playing with such consistency and believability in their heads that they have been dragged deeply into it.

Credibility is your authorial command over the space, so its connection to continuity is obvious. In a way, disrupting the dream causes a break in reader trust. This is why it’s essential to track the tedium of your character’s world, even though most of us are much more interested in the boiling emotions and mounting tension. What day of the week it is, what the character is wearing, and what they might logically have on their person is just as important–even more important, really–to the reader. If you can wax lyrical about your heroine’s mental strife, but you keep using her bottomless pockets to resolve crises with random rope and a sudden gun, the unreality of the physical world will trump the heartstrings you would have pulled. In order to care, they must first believe.

In order to control for this, it’s a good idea to outline the schedule of your characters, as well as to maintain an inventory for each which accounts for character type and physical possibilities. An outdoorsy character might have a blanket, but where? Not in their pocket. Did you mention that they had a backpack? It’s also not so simple as writing the backpack in. Why do they have a backpack? And, if you have spoken consistently about their body’s movements (as I hope you have), the backpack should be illustrated therein. If you mention the backpack once, and your reader is instructed to imagine this character repeatedly (bending, turning, standing) without a reminder of the backpack, you might as well have never mentioned it. They will forget it’s there–and is it really there? It needs to be there for you, too. Sometimes it takes many reads for an author to truly settle into this new physical world.

Re-read with fresh eyes. I’ve found it oddly helpful to use a different file format, such as pdf. It removes you from the “writer” mentality, and places you into the reader’s shoes. Even more helpful than that is to acquire the assistance of a beta reader. They won’t be hindered by the explanations we sometimes subconsciously provide ourselves when re-reading, which are missing from the text itself and which our readers are unmotivated to imagine. If it’s not in the text, it’s not there.

That having been said, there is a lot of flexibility for smaller items, like lighters, keys, and coins. Your reader will often understand that people generally carry these things. There is less understanding when your character has hundreds of dollars in cash that was previously unmentioned. 😉