If you want to improve your writing, you’ll need to watch out for certain errors that most writers make, such as continuity errors. Sounds straightforward. What is simple isn’t always easy, though, and it definitely isn’t always done.
Continuity errors are mistakes I find quite often when I’m editing fiction. I’m reading along and ooops, something doesn’t fit with what was written before. This kind of mistake doesn’t apply to nonfiction very often, because these mistakes occur most often when making up a story. So let’s talk about this type of mistake that can crop up in your novel or short story.
Continuity errors in writing
A continuity error is a mistake in the consistency from scene to scene. Something changes that shouldn’t have changed. It’s not part of the plot, it’s a slip-up. You’ve probably noticed continuity errors before, whether in books or films. The visual element makes them easy to spot in television or movies.
A vase that was on the table in one scene suddenly is not there in the next shot, and it’s not because it was broken in the scene; they just forgot to put it there during the subsequent shooting. Someone’s glass was nearly empty in one shot, then in the next shot, all of a sudden it’s nearly full. Hmm…
Examples of mistakes in film
In a Transformers movie, the passenger side car door was open in one shot, then the main character is backing up and turning around, and the door is shut. Bumblebee hasn’t revealed his true identity to the driver yet, so it means that the continuity editor goofed.
In The Wizard of Oz—an old movie probably everyone is familiar with—during the storm, a board blows the wrong direction (into the wind instead of with the wind). Dorothy’s hair length changes a few times from shot to shot. Dorothy and the Tinman switch sides between shots while they’re all banging on the doors of the witch’s castle, trying to escape. The Wizard of Oz may be an all-time favorite, and I have nothing to say against that fact, and yet it is full of mistakes, many of which are continuity errors.
Why are continuity errors bad?
These errors can ruin the sense of realism, jerking your readers out of the flow, making them say, “Whoa, wait a minute! Her husband wasn’t a doctor, he was a sanitation engineer!” An error like that seems huge when we list it here, and it is, in a way. It’s also an easy error to make, believe it or not.
Making mistakes like this reduces your credibility with your reader. If you can mess up the color of your main character’s eyes, then what else did you get wrong in the telling of the story? You want your reader to get into the story and stay with you the whole way through. Don’t yank them out of their willful suspension of disbelief. Readers want to believe in the story, believe in the characters, and a continuity error—or anything else that makes them take a step back—interferes with that.
How to prevent errors
When you’re writing, if you are a “seat of the pants” writer, also called “a pantser,” you probably don’t keep notes about your characters or the events in your book. You just write the story as you go along. It’s a good idea to keep those notes, though, and preventing continuity errors is just one reason, but most novel writers just don’t do it. It’s a lot of extra work. Each writer will have to decide whether or not it’s worth the extra effort.
Keeping track of details
There are so many details to keep track of, both in film and in writing. In film, the person in charge of keeping track of all of the details is called the continuity editor. In publishing, it’s a team effort between you and your editor. The more you can prevent or catch on your own, before sending your manuscript for editing, the better. Using a style sheet or a “book bible” can help with that.
Suppose you created a style sheet and a book bible before you started writing your book, and you kept them updated as you went along. You’ve done all you can, but it’s possible that some errors slipped by you. You’re fatigued from reading through your manuscript so many times, and everything’s becoming a blur. How can you keep continuity errors out of your finished book? That’s something a good editor (and some good proofreaders) will do.
Editing is feedback
When I edit, for example, I open a notepad and jot down my reactions, questions, and observations as I read through the manuscript for the first time. I catch my responses for the benefit of the author. Editors are readers, after all, although we see more than the average reader does.
Knowing a reader’s responses can help an author judge whether a certain passage came across as intended, or whether it had the desired effect on the reader (even though it’s only ONE reader to judge by in this instance). If not, the author can rework it, but without that information, would never know about the opportunity for making that change until after the book is published. Included in those notes will be character descriptions, locations, events. As I go along in the book, I notice continuity errors. I refer back to my notes and scroll back to that point in the manuscript to be sure, then make note of that in the comment bubbles as I edit the manuscript (using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word).
Catching inconsistencies and continuity errors
The thousands of books I’ve read and the number of movies and television shows I’ve seen no doubt contribute to my ability to catch inconsistencies. I also have an almost eidetic memory for things I’ve heard and read.
Those are sensible and expected things: my experience with so much writing makes me a better editor. Something else which contributes to it may seem surprising, though: surviving a childhood full of abuse, addiction, crime, and lies. How can that make a person a better editor? Among other things, I learned to spot “what’s wrong with this explanation” and notice changes in what people said when they repeated their stories. It helps me edit fiction, amazingly enough. If you’ve lived through things like that, it can help you write credible fiction. Just keep an eye out for those inconsistencies, and create fewer continuity errors in your writing.