Why Continuity Matters

Many years ago, I was stressing over the fact that a detail in a short story didn’t match events in the book set in the same universe.  A friend of mine, another writer, asked why it was bothering me.  Nobody would notice, my friend claimed.

I would.  And to this day, the fact that the history  – a small detail that yeah, probably only I notice – doesn’t align properly is like an itch at the back of my neck.

All that comes back into play now when I came to a point in my new novel, Pack of Lies, where my main character, Bonnie, needed to get hold of some information.  How, and through whom?

Hrmmm.  Danny, I thought.  Danny is established as being a very useful fellow in Free Fall and the books prior, and he’s exactly the sort of fellow who would find Bonnie interesting, and vice versa.   But those books belong to the Retrievers series.  Pack of Lies is part of the PSI series.

The trick is, both of them occur – concurrently, in fact – within the Cosa Nostradamus universe.

PSI is very much Bonnie’s story, just as the Retrievers books belong to Wren Valere.  But the world-building blocks are the same, which is both very useful – see above –and very tricky.   It’s that continuity thing again.  If you’re writing a one-off, or even a duology or trilogy, you only have to worry about the timeline in one direction – forward.  There are six books in the Retrievers series, including May’s Blood From Stone, and since the two series are running more or less concurrently along the timeline, I have to make sure that nothing happens that’s too jarring, or contradicts something previously established.  It’s a lot like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but about 10% of the pieces will come from a puzzle you already completed.  Worse, it’s like doing a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, because the timeline goes not only forward and backward, but sideways as well.

Solid examples of this kind of ‘open-universe timeline’ can be found in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, and the Liaden books by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee, to name three series I have on my shelf, and doubtless more I’m too lazy to get up and name-check.

Done properly, a timeline series can be a wonderful thing, layered with history and filled with in-jokes and surprise appearances by favorite characters.  Done badly… and it’s a disaster.  What are some of your favorite examples, and what ones do you think failed?

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  1. 1. Daniel G.S.

    Hi, I think that continuity is the key of success when you write a long story. It’s hard, but not impossible.

    My way of doing it is putting the story on a timeline, on paper, right under my nose. So I never forget the exact point hen the important things happen. An if I create an alternate history, even a “what if”, it tells me when and where to put the knife.

    Other continuity problem is clothes and objects, even furniture, hair color, whatever. Why, some characters never changes during the story, even if if walks around days or months, even years. Maybe how they dress is not important, but for some stories the detail of clothing is essential. They never shave? Never take a shower? Those womans don’t have the period?

    A fiend of mine gave me the solution. “Use stereotypes”. It’s the easy way, but also an stereotyped character can grow.

    Keep working. Nice to read your point of view.

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    The Liaden series is probably my favorite as far as that goes (as far as other things go, too). Marjorie Liu’s Dirk and Steele books have that going on too, though maybe more of a linear timeline for the books. Love those, too.

  3. 3. Clare K. R. Miller

    The Valdemar series is an interesting example because there are several books of short stories, mostly written by authors other than Mercedes Lackey, supplementary to the series. (Or if those other series have such things, I’m unaware!) I’ve noticed continuity errors in some of them and it drives me crazy!

  4. 4. FrancisT

    Lois M Bujold’s Vorkosigan stories manage to sidestep the issue by being chronologically distinct so one follows the other (usually though not necessarily in the order they were written).

    Two authors that have really hit the 3d problem (and mostly coped) and David Weber and Eric Flint.

    David Weber’s Honor Harrington books have become a veritable sprawl and right now he’s having to apologize for retelling stuff we already know but from a different POV and ending books on cliffhangers because the action has to await something that occurs in separate front. The note at the start of Shadow of Saganami explains the problem

    http://www.webscription.net/chapters/A1416591478/1416591478___0.htm

    Eric Flint’s incredible 1632 universe where he has let anyone (including yr humble correspondent) write stories has become even worse. In part this is because we have dozens (hundreds?) of eager writers creating stuff for most of a decade but in terms of narrative time we’ve only had 4 years elapse.

    Continuity there is maintained (just) by an eagle eyed bunch of fanatical checkers but it is a struggle none the less.

  5. 5. Scott Raun

    I can never see ‘continuity’ and ‘Pern’ together without the glaring math error in Dragonflight coming to mind. Lessa was supposed to have jumped back approximately 400 turns. When she was jumping forward with all the Weyrs, they came forward something like 225 turns, and then had a short (12? 13? turns) jump to Lessa’s Present Day. Apparently neither Anne nor her editor at the time did the math – it didn’t state how many turns forward, just X jumps of Y turns. And the error was still there in the most recent edition I looked at.

  6. 6. Deborah Teramis Christian

    Laura Anne,

    Great post, and timely to my own ruminations. I’ve been going over some continuity issues in my own work with a fine tooth comb, and (given that I have literally gigabytes of background info on my world setting) have been feeling an urgent need for the right info management tools to work with so that maintaining continuity is in fact a manageable task. I just posted my own thoughts in this vein here (http://www.deborahteramischristian.com/writing/continuity1/), and mentioned this post of yours in it as well.

    Great minds, same rut? ::grin::

    -Teramis

  7. 7. Till

    Iain M. Banks timeline in the Culture seems solid.

    Whereas Ken McLeods multiple/alternate timelines in the Star Faction etc. series did confuse me. But not enough to not enjoy the books.

  8. 8. Sam

    In a sci-fi vein, John Morressy’s Starbrat and related novels, each is its own standalone tale but the main character from each is an incidental (but sometimes important) character at some point in the other novels.

    In fantasy, umm, well Steven Erikson does it with great aplomb, the crossing over and interesections of those plotlines across multiple books must surely count as a form of insanity.

    Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books must present a continuity nightmare too, writen over several decades, each with multiple flashbacks into the history of the timeline that have knock-on effects in the “present”, after so many books there’s hardly a moment of the previous 600 years she hasn’t covered or any important character’s previous incarnations we haven’t met.

  9. 9. Tapetum

    Scott Raun – McCaffrey is bad for continuity errors. Around our house, continuity problems tend to be referred to as “color changing dragons” due to her perpetual problems with Lytol’s dragon Larth. I’ve never yet read a McCaffrey book without at least one fairly noticeable continuity error – though the math problem was especially egregious, I will admit.

  10. 10. Daryl Gregory

    Me, I’ve always wondered how Garrison Keillor keeps all his Lake Woebegon facts straight. Are they all in his head? Filling notebooks? Or does he not care about continuity at all?

    And are there LW fanboys who rant online when he makes a mistake?

    –d

  11. 11. Fred

    I think a decent argument for why continuity doesn’t always matter are Ursula K. Le Guin’s books, particularly her “Hainish Cycle”:

    http://www.ursulakleguin.com/FAQ.html#BookOrder

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Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman worked for fifteen years in the mines of NYC publishing before deciding that she would have less stress -- if fewer benefits -- working for herself. She's still debating if not having to attend meetings was worth the loss of benefits, but other than that, ten books [and counting] later, she thinks that the decision was a good one. She is the author of the urban fantasy "Retrievers" series for Luna, the forthcoming PSI novels, also from Luna, and FLESH & FIRE: BOOK 1 OF THE VINEART WAR, coming from Pocket Books this October. Visit site.

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