Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Consistent or Confusing? Keeping Your Story Details Straight

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Any major re-write is going to involve changing things, and when you change things, other things can get out of whack. Characters introduced on page 67 no longer reveal their names, yet everyone seems to know them anyway. Clothes change. Time of day changes. Even people change.

How do you keep track of it all?

For a lot of it, the easiest thing is to have a story bible. List every character, no matter how small, and all the stated facts about them in the novel. Hair color, eye color, age, nicknames, background facts mentioned. All the things you might need to reference later.

Do the same thing for your cities or your world, if you have details that need to be remembered. If you change the direction of a river, you don't want your protag saying something is upriver in one chapter and downriver in another. If it's a fact, write it down. Use your own judgment here of course. You know what might be relevant later. And if it turns out you didn't write it down, and need it later, make sure to list it.

For the rest of those pesky details though, it's not as easy.

That's why I like to do a read-through with consistency in mind. This is a time-consuming process, and you'll be tempted to hurry it up, but be wary of that. Spotting inconsistencies is hard enough without spreading your focus too thin. Take your time and check anything that might be off. Flip back and forth between chapters to make sure the dress your protag was wearing in chapter six is the same as the one she rips in chapter nine. (I once had Nya go from wearing pants to a skirt, though she never actually changed clothes in the story. Her hairstyle changed too.)

Character Consistency
When is the first time a character appears? What is known about them? What is revealed? If the narrator uses their name, was their name used before? Does the POV character know anything they shouldn't know about this character? This is especially helpful for those smaller plot-centric characters who might not appear for very long, but affect the story.

Naming Consistency

Names also often get wonky in revisions. The Find feature is your friend here. Do a quick search on every name to make sure they're all spelled correctly (if you use funky names) and you haven't accidentally added two separate spellings to the dictionary (I did this once). Check for nicknames, or alternate variations -- like if they get called by their last name versus their first depending on the situation.

Voice Consistency

While you have that Find menu up, look at your character voices. Does everyone sound consistent or do they sound like another character? We often change who said what in a scene as we revise, but we don't always change the actual dialog. Two characters might not have the same voice and speaking style. "What do you think we should do about this?" is a lot different from "So dude, what now?"

Plot Consistency

Don't forget to do a check on plot details. If something is revealed or figured out, are all the clues still there to lead up to this? Are the decisions to act that led up to this still there? Are those details even still necessary? If you cut a scene, you probably don't need the foreshadowing from three chapters back, but how often do we remember to go back and remove them? Hinting at something that no longer happens is a good way to confuse your reader.

Lastly, one of the most important things you can do when you need to check consistency is to let the book sit for two to four weeks before you do anything. (I know, it's hard to be patient, but it's worth it, trust me). You need distance from the story so all those odd things jump out at you. I've had stuff leap right out after a month away that I glazed over a dozen times while editing. We need to let the brain cache clear so we see what's actually on the page, and not what we remember.

What consistency goofs have you made and caught (or were caught) later? How do you keep your details straight?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. This is gonna come in handy when I start re-writing. Thanks for posting! :)

  2. This is the stuff that makes my head spin! Letting it sit for a few weeks is definitely mandatory.

  3. This is such a timely post since I'm about to start a major revision-you mentioned all the things I'm worried about. I'm going to make a bible, I like that idea-thanks!

  4. Most welcome. I'll be doing my own major revision in a few weeks (well, I assume so), so I hope to have some interesting topics based on things my editor says.

  5. Really useful post -- especially for someone as particular as I am! Things I've caught in my own novel include changing the name of the high school throughout a couple chapters...and I kept letting my characters wear normal clothes to school instead of the required uniform. And once, I almost had my vegetarian protag eat ropa vieja, a Cuban meat dish! I shudder to think of what I'll find when I read the whole thing straight through.

  6. I've started doing this for my works. I wish I'd done it when I started--then I wouldn't have a full-length novel listing with a myriad of conflicting details.

    And then it covers nearly a decade of the narrator's life, so that makes age determination fun.

    *light bulb moment*

    I just thought of a way to use Scrivener keywords for that.

  7. I love the idea of letting it sit for a while. And checking for voice consistency is a genius tip :)

  8. These are all great tips. I use index cards to keep track of a lot of these details and for magical elements I make up.

  9. I use a mind map tool to capture these details, but keeping all of this stuff straight is very difficult and no mistake!

  10. Yep, yep, yep!

    I just finished writing a long mountain trek and realized that I had assumed my female protag was wearing pants. Later when she goes back across the mountains, she's dressed as a boy, but the first time, she's still squarely in her proper self. At that point, she'd never dream of wearing trousers. So I have to go back and add the details of climbing in long skirts. Ugh! doesn't that just SOUND inhibiting!?!
    And of course make sure that she notices how easy the second time is when she has the freedom of trousers.
    So glad I live in this century!

  11. Great post! It hit on everything I've been struggling with for the last month. My story bible has saved me several hours of time.

  12. I'm a sinner... thx for the tips, I'll use them wisely!

  13. I used index cards for a while and found them a great way to shuffle scenes and look at different story flows.

    Amelia, I did a few climb in a skirt scenes, so I know how that goes :)

  14. I read a book where the character's baby brother's name was Caleb and in the sequel, his name was Shane. It made me giggle.

    Usually when I seen an inconsistency such as that, I count it as a plot hole and a major failure on my part if I find one in my own work. Which is why I get my dad to read my work. He's the plot hole finding king.

  15. Oh wow, what a slip! But hey, it happens. Makes me feel better about my own typos. Nice to have a reader like that :) That much be really helpful.