Errors in Continuity

So, today is Back to the Future day, and what could be more apt than a series of films depicting time travel to prompt me to write about continuity errors. Surely, time travel is a continuity error in itself!

Eagle-eyed viewers noticed many errors with the three films, not just with the storyline, but also with the props. Objects – and people – changed from one state to another, or would appear and disappear unexpectedly; reflections of film equipment or the crew could be seen in anything shiny… and all this when there was no time travel actually taking place! Fortunately, these continuity errors may have been small enough not to distract the viewer from the story. In films, they seem par for the course, fun to spot, even, but had Marty’s hair colour kept changing from brown to blonde, or had the DeLorean time machine switched to a Mercedes-Benz gull-wing, then I guess the viewer would become somewhat irate.

Unfortunately, continuity errors in a fiction novel will stand out like a flying car, and not have the same wow factor.  In a story where events run in chronological order, in the same year, and no time travel is involved, it cannot be April in Chapter 10, if it was June in Chapter 5.  Likewise, if a character’s mother has sadly passed away in Chapter 3, she can’t then come to dinner in Chapter 10.

The reader wants to be transported to the world that the writer has created. Any obvious continuity errors will take them out of the flow of the story and spoil the experience.  Here are some tips for the writer on how to manage continuity:

  • Always be aware of the time frame that the story takes place in, whether it be the year, the month, the day, the hour, or the season. (Remember, you cannot pick blackberries in March – not in the UK, anyway!)
  • Maintain a list of proper names and references, such as those of the characters and places, so as to not get confused about the spelling or where an event takes place.  Decide if a character’s name is to be spelled Katherine, Catherine, Katharine, or Kathryn.
  • Keep a record of a person’s characteristics: hair colour, eye colour, important dates and events, their dress sense, their likes and dislikes, the car they drive – anything about them that is pertinent to the story.

When a writer is so involved in getting the story down, it is easy to make continuity errors, and whilst it may be argued that it is a copy-editor’s job to spot them, the more errors the writer makes, the longer it will take the editor to carry out the work, and therefore, the more expensive it will be.

In my experience of copy-editing, errors in continuity tend to come pretty high on the list after mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Whilst an editor will know how to spell a certain word (or at least be able to look it up), punctuate a sentence, or correct grammar autonomously, they will have to ask the writer for clarification, or at least pass comment, on continuity errors, unless it is blindingly obvious.