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Continuity in writing – how to keep your ducks in a row

Last updated on December 27, 2018

Continuity in writing is important to me. Maybe obsessively so. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I catch continuity errors in my own work, I cringe.

Sherlock, mind palace - I wish I had oneI mean, writers are supposed to be smarter than the average bear, right? Why don’t I have all that story flotsam in my head painstakingly organised in my Sherlockian mind palace, so I never make a mistake?

Of course, we live in reality here, so that’s not always possible. Successive rewrites often include changes that create plot holes. This unravels the delicate weave of threaded character detail or backstories or locations or changes the order of actions our characters take within a scene. All good things when we’re cleaning up for a better read, lean copy and logic.

But all this can create continuity havoc.

To prevent continuity errors and give myself a short list of reference material at my fingertips, I create myself a roadmap. Aside from keeping myself on track, it also prevents me from having to stop to look things up while I’m in the zone (because you never want to derail that train of awesome when it rolls into the station, amiright?). I evolved the way I did this roadmap over time and incorporate what I refer to as cheat sheets in them. Some of these cheat notes I’ve turned into blog posts to share with other writers.

Now, I very much doubt I’m the only writer who does this or something similar. I recently discovered some writing resources refer to these kinds of roadmaps as a “system” for continuity. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a “system”. I was mostly only trying to do my future editing self a favour.

“Why thank you past me for not being a lazy dick and remembering to leave me clues about what the fuck is going on in this chapter that I tore apart 47 times and no longer have in my head.”

*self-high five*

Oh, like you don’t talk to yourself. Puh-leeze.

Anyway, whatever we call these things, to me, they’re crib notes for a long-ass test that goes on for months or even years.

Big document files make keeping continuity a challenge

Keeping organised goes a long way to maintaining continuity

When I first stared writing longer pieces for myself as opposed to short commercial pieces, it became obvious very quickly that I needed a way to keep something of that length organised. If you’re working on a novel right now or have in the past, you know what I’m talking about. It’s really hard to work with document files that long. Attempting to rework or edit them? Painful. And working on multiple projects at once, especially ones you put aside for long periods of time until you cycle back to them, is a nightmare. I can’t even remember my own name half the time, never mind exactly what I was doing in a document I started 6 years ago.

Because I’m busy – kids, a full-time job, part-time jobs, aging parents, etc., etc., etc. – during any stolen moments of writing, if searching for something takes more than a moment, it takes my head from my story. I can always get it back, but why should I allow these precious writing moments to be stolen from me? I don’t like when anything gets in the way of that. So I created a solution.

After I refined how I did it, I used the same method ever since for every new long project. Not only does it keep me organised, I can easily compare versions of chapters, and it helps me wrangle continuity.

I don’t know if this will work for you, but this is what I do to maintain continuity

I use a basic structure for storage:

  • Every project gets a folder named with the working title
  • In the folder goes another folder named “title or working title – 1st draft” and as time goes on more folders as needed, marking important circumstances like:
    title – 1st edit, dialogue
    title – 3rd edit, technical
    title – 7th edit, formal to vernacular narrator
    title – final edit
    title – publish grade
    title – Amazon format
    title – Smashwords format
And a basic file structure for organisation
  • In the “1st draft” folder and all subsequent folders, I write every chapter and element (like the author note, bibliography if there is one or whathaveyou) each in its own separate document. I only combine them into a single doc once all the editing is done. This makes the individual components easier to navigate around and saves me a crap tonne of time searching through them. Here’s an early draft version’s file breakdown that helped me keep continuity through subsequent drafts while I wrote Blood Runner:
    Chapter Breakdown continuity helper example
  • I create a special document called “title – Chapter Map” – this is my continuity document/cheat sheet for the project. I include this in that 1st draft folder and through all subsequent drafts
  • To track word counts, I make a chapter list in this continuity document like this:
    Chapter 1 – wds
    Chapter 2 – wds
    Chapter 3 – wds
    Chapter 4 – wds
    Running word count:  xxx,xxx wds (xxx,xxx / 344wds = xxx print published pages) <– mostly for my own interest
  • Below this, I make a notation for the start date and end date <– also mostly for my own interest
And then reference info to have at my fingertips
  • Below the numbers stuff, I list my character names with a short character description and/or what their circumstance is in the story, so I don’t have to look back at my notes. Usually, this is a single line or some very specific keywords for reminders
  • If there’s jumping around in time within the story, I note key dates, so I don’t lose track
  • Then I add point form research info, so I have it to hand – this is where I note things like weapons used, locations, anything specific I needed to research or plot notes
  • Below this, I sometimes paste in paragraphs of story that are hinging points (I add these as I create them), so I don’t lose track when I go through subsequent rewrites

Here’s how I put that all together – also from an earlier draft of Blood Runner, this is part of that draft’s continuity doc:

Chapter Map continuity document example

My end goal with this continuity doc? Attempt to give myself all the info I need in short form and do it in one single page. There’s no rule that says it can’t be longer than that. More, this is a challenge to myself to create brevity and pin down theme and find those one-word descriptors. These help me later with writing things like summaries, pitches, synopses or loglines. Seems to work, so I keep doing it.

Are there any continuity magical revelations here? Um, no. There’s also software out there that will help you do some of this automatically as you write. I’ve tried them and they don’t work for me personally, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you. Never hurts to try new things, right?

But there’s no need to spend money on that. If you want something basic to keep yourself on track, take some tips from this approach and create your own continuity “system”.

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