Today I want to talk about the importance of maintaining internal consistency in your writing. This isn’t a subject that gets discussed very much, and in fact it’s largely taken for granted. That being said, it’s rare for me to edit a manuscript in which the issue doesn’t come up at least once or twice—and usually much more than that. It’s the sort of error authors often become blind to through familiarity with their own material.
So when I say “internal consistency,” what am I talking about? This terms refers to an author’s grasp of the underlying facts in their book—either a work of fiction or non-fiction, although, granted, these problems are much more likely to crop up in fiction.
Perhaps this still isn’t clear, so allow me to provide a few examples.
In the real world, certain facts are permanent and immutable. When I return home from work, I always turn south off Main Street onto Popular Boulevard, then pull left into my driveway. This is a simple matter of geography, yet it’s the sort of mundane detail an author might mix up in the case of a fictional character in a fictional city or town. Perhaps in Chapter Two, the main character turns south onto Popular, but in Chapter Twenty-Three they turn north to get home.
Maybe the character’s house is a bungalow at one point early on, but then later in the story the author describes the character walking up to the second floor of his house. Oops!
Another frequent example, perhaps the most frequent example, concerns what characters look like. Authors often don’t have a clear idea in their minds what characters look like, and so their appearance can shift many times over the course of a book. Perhaps a woman starts with long blond hair and brown eyes, then her eyes are later mentioned as being blue, and in a middle chapter she’s gone brunette, but she’s blond again by the last chapter.
Sure, it’s possible she wears coloured contacts sometimes, and it’s possible she dyes her hair between chapters, but if these haircuts and contact lenses aren’t mentioned specifically in the course of the story it’s fair to call the changing details continuity errors.
As an editor, I keep a lookout for these things. I can’t promise I’ll catch every one of them every time, because they can be prolific, but I pay as much attention as I possibly can. It’s remarkable how often these types of errors pop up.
The reason for these errors is that our created worlds aren’t nearly as real to us, or as fully formed, as the world in which we actually live. If your fictional town lives only in your imagination, then you have to be responsible to give it a fixed and consistent geography. Perhaps that means you draw a map—whether the map appears in the actual book isn’t important, as the map is only there for your own personal reference.
And as for keeping the appearance of your characters straight, perhaps associate your characters with photos of real people who you can refer back to periodically when you forget what colour their eyes are.
The problem exists in non-fiction, too, though in those cases it’s more likely for consistency errors to crop up as a function of faulty memory. After all, non-fiction takes place in the real world, and so the author doesn’t have to keep track of an infinite number of imaginary details.
The purpose of today’s post, of course, is just a friendly reminder to pay close attention to the little things—because you’ll be surprised at how passionate your fans will be about them.
Eye colour might not seem terribly important when you’re in the heat of writing an exciting action scene, but it will no doubt drive your readers crazy as soon as they pick up on it.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.