Tim Marquitz’s Editorial/Writing Guide: Episode 2: Consistency
Something I see regularly in edits is a lack of consistency in the work on several levels. I mean, I get why some of it happens. Authors tend to write in sections, chapter one removed from chapter fifty by days, months, and sometimes even years. It’s understandable that things have changed in that time frame, distractions, a new focus, etc. Something as simple as a change to a character’s eye color is bound to happen now and again because, while the reader is often absorbing the piece in a single sit down, or maybe a few, the author has been going back and forth and piecing things together for ages, or what seems like it, at least. That said, there is more to consistency than keeping character details in line, though I will focus on those first, and then get into the other issues I see regarding consistency.
• Character inconsistency is definitely one of the larger issues I come across, but it’s also the least obvious most times. The best way to combat such things as eye or hair color changing, details to their background or life, is often best to create character sheets for each character in the book who will pop up more than once or twice. This is essentially a cheat sheet. It allows you, at a glance, to determine if you are consistent with the minor details of the character. You can either print this out or have it in a file, but keep it handy when you start to write.
It works the same for locations and historical aspects. Sketch a map if the world layout is large and needs to be kept in line, and keep notes regarding the historical events that impact your story and are brought up in the piece. Yes, it’s extra paperwork, but unless you can remember all these details, you’ll benefit from the cohesion of your world as you can guarantee a reader is going to point out the flaws. If those flaws impact the plot or story, you can potentially lose readers over it. They want consistency, and they will notice when it isn’t there.
• The same concept goes for dialogue and verbal tics. For instance, in the Demon Squad books, Frank “Triggaltheron” Trigg always says gonna in place of going to. It’s subtle, not something major, but it’s a tiny aspect that helps define his voice. The same for Alexander Poe. He always calls people Mister (last name.) He’s consistent with this, again defining a tiny piece of who he is on paper so that the reader has another clue to determine who is speaking without needing a dialogue tag to clarify.
A lot of times, I see authors who don’t stay consistent with these kinds of minor changes. They write what they need to get across in dialogue and often forget these tics, minimizing the clarity of their character’s personality. And while some readers might not even notice, the content more important than the manner in which it is delivered, the idea of creating a character is to make them an individual, make them stand out. Consistency is a huge factor in that.
• Name issues are another common error I notice. Often, an author chooses a name for a character and ends up not liking it, or there’s another reason for a change. Regardless the reason, there is often a cut and paste done to replace the name. Many times, that results in remnant character names being left behind because of the nature of cut and paste. So you have the same character with two names or words that contained part of the character’s name now mutilated because the changes weren’t individually examined. For example: A character named Max is changed to Joe. There might still be a few Maxes floating around in the text, confusing people as to who Max is, but words like maximize are at risk for becoming Joeimize. These kinds of changes need to be patrolled to ensure consistency.
• Much like the above aspects, consistency in action and attitude are another area I see a lot of stumbles. Characters who are brave and powerful early on suddenly becoming weak and fearful later under similar circumstances because that personality shift fits the plot or story the author is trying to get across. (Coincidental plotting is what I call this.) This unaddressed shift in character is the quickest way to lose readers. It’s okay for a character to have a wide range of emotions, varying their thoughts and interests along the way, the character evolving, but a character is a human being in concept. They aren’t simply going to change because the author made them change. They can only change if there is a string of circumstances that lead to it. There has to be a visible evolution of the character to explain these shifts or something that’s been foreshadowed.
For example, say a character is afraid of spiders early on yet nothing else, it’s completely acceptable that he be a blubbering idiot when facing a spider no matter how brave he is facing down a troll. However, if there is no foreshadowing to show the character’s fear of spiders, and he faces down a troll early on, then runs screaming from a tiny spider, you have an issue with consistency. It’s all in how the picture is painted. To have a character who is brave (or whatever personality trait suits the situation) to be adjusted simply to fit the needs of the story, then it’s a consistency issue.
• But beyond character and world consistency, there are more mundane issues I see. Specifically, word variations. Words like toward and towards are often used interchangeably. Forward, forwards, backward, backwards, etc. Any of these are correct, but consistency is the key here. If you start out using towards, stick with it and use it every time. The same goes for OK and okay, alright and all right. This is not a voice thing, something to be altered in dialogue to define a character. This is something that needs to remain consistent across the board, regardless if it is used in dialogue or the narrative.
A writer also has to be consistent with their formatting choices. In way more manuscripts than you’d think, I come across font changes and style adjustments that are clearly arbitrary, either the result of a change in writing devices or a cut and paste shift that went unnoticed or simply some effort by the author to make a piece stand out. If it’s the latter, don’t do this. The words on the page are what are supposed to stand out, not the font or text color. A document should be written in a consistent manner with very few exceptions. Occasionally, as an artistic choice, it’s okay to change the font to replicate something intending to be a letter/document in the text, but most often, this is better left emphasized by italics. The content is what will set it off, not the change of font.
Always make sure your spacing and font type and size are the same throughout the document, using the same paragraph indentations and margins. It makes publishing adjustments so much easier for everyone involved, regardless what publishing road you intend to take.
While these examples here are not the be and end all of consistency issues, they represent the most common issues I see on a regular basis. To allow these kinds of issues to creep into your work is to limit the reach of it. Readers/agent/publishers will find these things off-putting and will question your professionalism. Don’t give them any reason to dislike/reject your work beyond their own subjective interests.
Always stay consistent in your story and document choices, and both will better help you create the best story possible.
(If there are any specific topics you’d like Tim to cover, leave a comment below.)