As many authors do, I write many drafts of my books. Partly this comes from the early years in which I had very little time to write, and fitting writing into irregular time slots resulted in untidy early drafts.
Draft 4 is what I call my Continuity Edit. I have a story with a beginning, middle and end, a plot that hangs together and a cast of developed characters. In some novel genres this is almost enough, but when writing thrillers, the reader’s suspension of disbelief must be reinforced by eliminating as many logical flaws as possible. A reader who thinks ‘hang on, shouldn’t he have had those stitches out by now?’ will start to question other aspects of the story.
The most important tool for cleaning up continuity is the timeline. This can be in the form of a calendar, spreadsheet or be written into a diary marked up for the appropriate year. It can be plotted in advance or compiled as the novel develops. However, as the plot is tweaked, clues and sub-plots introduced and characters grow lives of their own the neat plan can go awry. The writer needs to carefully check the draft novel against the timeline, correcting one or the other so they synchronise. For example;
*How long would it take to drive from London to West Yorkshire in 1935?
*How many days would elapse between the murder and the funeral, given there has to be an autopsy, a coroner’s report and the body released for burial?
*How long does it take for that blackmail letter to be delivered, read and responded?
It is fine to gloss over the facts so long as timing is not crucial to the plot and detail such as a tiresomely long journey is not required to add to the texture of the story. If the novel has a compressed timeline, taking place over just a few days, the writer needs to think more about the minutiae of life such as pauses to eat, the length of a character’s daily commute, the time news bulletins crop up on the radio, or the interval between trains. Other things to consider are:
*What else is happening at the same time? If there is more than one main plot thread, events may continue to happen in the other threads while the protagonist is absorbed with one of them.
*What are the minor characters and villains doing off-page? The writer may have to explain this at some point without too much information-dumping.
*Is the story impacted by real-world events? This may be as humdrum as rush hour or as dramatic as the declaration of war.
Cause and effect are important for tension, pace and the delivery of the plot. Motive precedes the crime, crime precedes the clue, the clue precedes investigation, red herrings precede resolution. Some key plot drivers need to be placed before the written novel even begins, yet worked into its timeline and the facts retained throughout the book. For example: she had not seen her ex-husband for two years. Characters with deep back stories should have these checked. How long it takes a woman to rise to Detective Inspector will determine her likely age range. If a man is aged 40 in 1935, he will either have fought in the Great War or have a very good excuse why not.
Next consider such things as weekends and public holidays. If characters have a day job, where are they on any given day? What time does everyone in the office pack up and go home? Will the shops still be open? Is there a postal delivery on a Sunday? Weekends can be very inconvenient in a fast-moving thriller. Character birthdays should not be forgotten and seasonal rituals such as Christmas cannot be avoided.
Phases of the moon are easy to get wrong. A famous Tolkien drawing of the death of Smaug has a full moon shaded out to become a crescent, after the author realised he’d written of a new moon rising just a few days before the event. If you are writing about a specific date in history, you can discover exactly what the moon’s phase was on any given day. It rises and sets at different times in different seasons too. This also has implications for tides if they are important to the story. A reader of The 39 Steps is unlikely to know what time high tide at Dover was in June 1914, but the writer must at least make tides follow the appropriate pattern for the part of the world the story is set in.
Weather adds a great deal to the atmosphere of our stories, but again it needs to be consistent. If it was raining in Chapter 4, there may still be puddles on the ground in Chapter 5. If there is a hard frost in Chapter 6 that will complicate burial of the body in Chapter 7. Weather, and the time of dawn and dusk can throw in continuity issues if scenes are moved from one part of the story to another or the story grows so that early ideas are pushed later. Historically the climate varies too. Particular years are noted for severe winters such as 1963 or summers such as 1976 where there was a month and a half without rain in eastern England. Researching Blackshirt Conspiracy set at the end of 1936 I discovered that it did not snow in London before Christmas for the first half of the 1930s.
When writing a historical novel, the timeline must also fit known historical events, unless the writer is twisting history for the point of the plot. If well-known events are changed, the author needs to make clear that this is deliberate and not a result of sloppy research. However, the prose does not to be dogmatic as this is not a reference book. You as the author may know that the scene takes place at 11am on 17 August 1935 and write it into your timeline, but the reader may not need to be told.
Specific historical events can be ignored or glossed over if they do not impact the characters or the storyline. However, people do tend to chat about the news, sport and popular culture and it can add grit to the novel for some to be mentioned. It also helps ground the story in a particular period. Glint of Light on Broken Glass is not primarily a war story but nobody who lived in Guernsey during November 1917 was unaffected by the Battle of Cambrai.
I use a multi-column timeline to keep my plots in step with history. For Blackshirt Masquerade the left-hand column listed the major European events of 1935 which could impact the story, key British political events and as much as I could discover of the day-to-day activity of Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Four more columns listed scenes from the book arranged in each of the main plot threads. I also added in events which occur off the page, but which will impact the storyline. A decision had to be taken each time my story reached a historic milestone; include it in a scene, assume it happens off page or twist it for the sake of the plot. Wherever possible I stuck to history as written, changing only the details which are either irrelevant or are simply unrecorded. If Oswald Mosley was off on a well-recorded continental vacation, he couldn’t be in London. However, if he was back in England conducting business as usual, it was not unreasonable to have turn up in a scene.
Last but not least are then the obvious continuity errors such as the blonde we meet in Chapter 1 becoming a brunette when she turns up again in Chapter 12. These should be eliminated by careful editing. At this stage of the novel changes to a single detail can require consequential changes throughout the manuscript. For example, if an extra day has to be added to the timeline to account for a large amount of action, there could be a knock-on effect to subsequent scenes such as the day of the week on which they occur. Lines such as ‘yesterday’, ‘last week’ or ‘four days later’ will also need to be checked.
Blackshirt Conspiracy, the second book in the Agents of Room Z series, is just coming to the end of its Continuity Edit, after ten days of pretty forensic editing. Soon it will be in a fit state to share.
This is such an interesting read. It’s honestly worth doing a continuity edit when you write a book to make the story more authentic 🙂
Feel free to share it