World Building: Staying Consistent
The world you’ve created, if only in your head for now, is the setting or stage upon which the more interesting thing happens. The more interesting thing is, presumably, your story. You have a point to make, a damsel or dude in distress to rescue, or a twist to reveal. In any case you’ve spent time making that setting jump off the page with realism. Now it’s time to make sure it continues to feel real and immersive to the reader. Good writers do that by staying consistent within the structure of their world.
The Dangers of Inconsistency
A world that is inconsistent pulls the reader out of the story. Those inaccuracies become speed bumps on the road of the story. How egregious they are determines how jarring they are to the reader. If the wall color is blue in one scene but suddenly red in another that might not be a problem, if the scenes are separated by chapters. If the color change is only pages away, or even paragraphs then there’s a problem (it’s still a problem no matter how far it is away in the story by the way).
Inconsistencies create confusion in the reader on either a conscious or subconscious level, which again pulls the reader out of the world and the story. As the brain encounters problems in the story, it tries to puzzle through what it just read and match it up to what it thinks it already knows. When these facts don’t align, the reading either slows down or stops. Being consistent prevents this problem so the reader can encounter the pure story being told.
When the world wrapping the story has problems it creates holes into which the reader can fall and then has to climb back out of. When this occurs in the story they’re called plot holes. When this happens in the world, they’re more like black holes because once a reader gets stuck in one they can’t get out. Put enough of these into your world and the reader will never finish the story. This is one way the dreaded one star review gets created. Even subtle problems in sufficient quantity affect the story sometimes to the point of rendering a great story unreadable. Warning signs of this subtle problem are beta and editorial comments like “show don’t tell” and “I’d like to see more of…,” or questions that ask for clarification on any point.
How to Stay Consistent
The Pantsers are going to hate me on this one, but the dreaded outline is one great way to remain consistent. The outline helps you realize what area of your world your story is going into. It gives you forewarning of the things you need to know as the story’s bard. With a detailed outline, your brain will already be kicking out details before you even begin relating your tale. In most cases your subconscious will not only help keep you on track but will also warn you if you’re going astray. This happens when you are clicking right along with the train of thought and suddenly it seems to get derailed or slows down, not because the story doesn’t know where to go, but because a part of the scenery that just went by was out of place. Story Pantsers, who plot out their world while letting the story assume a life of its own, don’t suffer from this as much because they tend to plot out their world in far greater detail than story outliners. Conversely, those of us who outline our stories but not our world tend to fall into this trap more often because our world isn’t controlled as tightly.
A great help to both Pantsers and Plotters is to map out the world and sketch out the locations for our scenes, especially if you plan to have far-ranging action take place at those locations. The more detailed these maps and sketches are, the greater the consistency the story will have. Written maps and sketches can later become really nice behind-the-scenes bonus material for your fans. Think back to the latest fantasy novel you read. They almost always have a map of the world or region in the front. This is a really great way to not only provide your readers something extra, but helps keep the story in line and consistent. Sketches of the streets and businesses where a fight occurs also allows you to add in little details that really bring the scene alive, like what can be seen through the windows, who might be on the streets outside, or even if there are café tables that need to be knocked over as the hero dashes after the villain while he tries to escape.
Speaking of maps and sketches, keep a story bible. This becomes a great reference tool later when your story stretches into book three, four, or beyond. Knowing the places you’ve already visited and why becomes a great memory aid as you have characters talk about past exploits. They can reference specifics that you’ve already noted in the story bible. This adds authenticity to your characters by keeping them consistent with what your reader knows happened. This also prevents the reader from halting their reading to go back to book two and reread where Jack Hammer foiled the evil Dr. Hangnail’s plot because you just called Dr. Hangnail Dr. Cuticle.
Speaking of character names, keep a character log. It really does jar the reader straight out of your story when you call Dr. Hangnail Dr. Cuticle. Even worse, you misspell Dr. Hangnail’s name as Dr. Hangneil because you think it sounds German and you started hearing his voice in your head with a German accent after having watched an old spy movie. The character log will keep you straight on which names you’ve already used too. There’s nothing that will kill your reader’s interest in your story faster than having two supporting characters named Felicia wandering around in the tale. While the cast of your story isn’t technically world building, the throw away supporting characters really are just furniture in the world. Some writers avoid this one by just calling the waitress who brought the food, the waitress. Other writers feel the need to embellish the atmosphere of the setting, the world, by having their heroine note the name on the tag. If you end up with three Lisas in three separate places in the story, the readers will notice and it will affect the review even if only subconsciously.
Why Do These Things?
Because this article is about being consistent, duh? Mostly though because you are a writer. Stories fraught with inconsistencies and errors are the hallmark of amateurish writing. As an indie author I cringe at the thought of my work containing continuity errors. This makes it appear as though I just wanted to throw my work out there and sit back as the money rolls in (yeah, right). The world of self-publishing has gotten so easy that some readers now see self-published ebooks immediately with an eye that notices that they are full of errors and hard to read. Indie authors are having to work harder and harder to overcome this perception to the point that one simple inconsistency brands the entire work with the red letter of shame for being unprofessional. Following these suggestions can help you avoid that stigma and make your writing look more polished. These steps, while not exhaustive or a cure-all, will help make sure book four fits in smoothly with books one, two, and three.
You want good reviews. Readers want good stories in settings that don’t jar them out of that good story. Having a really great tale to tell is only part of hooking and keeping fans. The setting in which that tale takes place is equally as important as the story itself. Polish the world as much as you polish the apple of the tale and your reader won’t be distracted by the inconsistencies.
In next month’s Atlas’ Tool Box, we’ll talk more about those distractions. We’ll delve into what some of the warning signs are that your writing has become filled with distractions, what those distractions are, and how to avoid them. After all, you’ve got a great story to tell so why not tell it well?
Mark Malcolm is a child of God, husband, father, project manager, technical writer, gamer, fiction writer, Marine (’87-’91), has practiced Shao Lin Kung Fu and Tai Chi, been published in magazines and newspapers (editorial anyway), and seen the Southern Cross.
The goals he has currently are to more accurately identify the path God has for him to walk, continue to provide for his family, establish a solid web presence, build a career writing novels through both traditional and independent publishing, and learn to better relate to the people around him.
Mark Currently has his first book out Guardians of the Herald: Angels and Demons on sale from his website where you can get an autographed copy plus short story here: http://www.firstchevalier.com/product/guardians-of-the-herald-angels-and-demons-2/.
Offers structure and content critiquing services: http://www.firstchevalier.com/the-cavliers-sword/fiction-critiquing-services-by-the-cavalier-mark-malcolm/