3 tips for continuity in novels

row of palm trees

When writing happens in the cracks and on the margins–in other words, when it’s part of a routine that includes a set of responsibilities like raising kids, operating in the marketplace, etc.–continuity can be an issue. How do you keep track of the developing story? What helps your novel stay consistent?

I’ve found a handful of tools that help with this, so that it’s easier to pick up my writing when I return to it hours or days after dealing with other concerns:

1. A timeline. Even if I’m not setting a story into a specific day, month, and year, I still want the chronology to be consistent for characters and the action around them. In other words, I need to make sure there’s been adequate time for my characters to go to school, get married, learn parachuting, etc. A timeline also insures that a story set in ‘the real world’ will not, for example, have a character writing email before the internet was invented.

A subset of the timeline is a genealogical table. A family tree may not be shown in full detail in the book, but it needs to be part of the ‘working notes’ so that generations and relationships don’t get jumbled.

2. Maps. I wrote a novel about a group of expatriates in a beach community, and while the immediate setting was plain in my mind when I began, I soon found that the story was sprawling across more terrain. Drawing a map gave me a visual guide for distance, as well as where action occurred.

My WIP revolves around a college, so I have a campus map that shows where buildings stand. A bigger map situates the nearby river and towns–all of which feature in the story. In both books, I started with an actual setting–places that exist, and that I’ve been to–and then modified it. Those modifications get charted on my maps, which keep me oriented.

As an added bonus, I can include the map (or a more artistically rendered version of it) in the finished book. That seems to be something readers like.

3. A ‘cast list’. We start books with some of the characters already known or met in the early pages, but as the story develops, more actors troop on stage. A separate cast list reminds us of who’s in this book, what they do, relationships they’re part of, hair color, etc. Not only that, but it’s not unlikely that as matters progress, a character who started out as, say, Scooter Gibbs will need to be called Kip Harsdale instead. Cast lists record these changes and maintain consistency.

Finding suitable names is another–and important–part of the process, and I address that here, at Joe Bunting’s blog, The Write Practice. A cast list then records every name that slips into the story. If that list expands, you might want to sub-divide it into categories, like: main characters, secondary figures, walk-ons, and so on. Frequent print-outs of the list is a good idea, too.

What tools do you use to maintain continuity in your writing?

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