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Editing for Consistency
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
July 16, 2015
"Consistency," according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is the hobgoblin of little minds." The great philosopher implies that you shouldn't obsess with making your life consistent. And with respect to life, I agree: consistency should not rule your decisions and actions when flexibility is required, especially when you discover information that should influence those decisions.
However, consistency in fiction is an entirely different matter. The fictional world is an artificial world and your readers expect it to be consistent. If you're inconsistent, if you contradict yourself, your readers will be frustrated and confused.
You may think that the goal of not contradicting yourself within your story is so obvious that it hardly merits mentioning, and so boring that it does not deserve a column. However, not contradicting yourself, particularly in a work of any length, is a large part of the editing process.
Furthermore, the concept of consistency goes beyond simply making sure you have not contradicted yourself. Consistency helps you maintain a theme, a feeling, a sense of unity; it helps you to focus your fiction.
Finally, some consistency checks are more subtle than others and can play a huge role in improving your story.
In this column we'll look at how consistency can be applied in the editing process to two different major areas: levels of structure and characterization.
Levels of Structure
I'm a big proponent of levels of structure in fiction. These different levels provide a valuable schematic for checking consistency. So, below are a few of these levels and few of the ways in how consistency can matter on each of them.
Did I spell a name the same way in chapters one and seven or did I change it? It happens, and alas, not all that infrequently (some of my characters' names are difficult and there are many of them). My collaborator and I create a file containing all the characters' names with agreed-upon spellings. We often include in this file other information pertaining to the character -- age, physical description, personality -- so as to remain consistent on other points, too.
Do my phrases make sense and are they appropriate? I once read a sentence with the phrase "her blue eyes were like onyxes." While onyx can be many colors, blue is not one of them, so I wondered at the author's choice of metaphor.
I also check whether or not I have mixed my metaphors and whether they are consistent with the characters and the story.
There are many grammatically correct ways to write a sentence, but many more incorrect ways. And even among those that are grammatically acceptable, only a few will convey my meaning exactly as I want it conveyed.
Many of my nonsensical sentences are a result of previous editing sessions. Words that should have been deleted somehow remain in the text and other words which should have been introduced never made it from my brain. Alas, the more I edit, the more I need to edit!
Proper paragraphs take skill. I study each sentence within a paragraph to determine whether it belongs. If a paragraph is focused on Mary's unrequited love for Frank, then the sentences in that paragraph should be about Mary's unrequited love for Frank. Other topics -- her lost cell phone, her flat tire, the threatening letter from the IRS (poor Mary is having a bad day) -- probably belong in other paragraphs. Note that this is an aspect in which consistency goes beyond simply not contradicting. If you apply it, your paragraphs will improve.
The majority of my editing is done one scene at a time. Some of the consistency checks I do are minor but important. For example, if it's late in the day and the sun is still visible, the sun should be somewhere in the west. All the persons in the scene who should be in a scene should be present and accounted for, even if they contribute nothing to the emotional content of the scene. For example, if I'm writing about a king with bodyguards, those bodyguards need to be in the scene -- even if these extras have no dialogue and do nothing but stand at attention.
I generally believe that a single scene should have a single point of view. That's not to say that I never break this rule, but I have to have a very good reason for doing so. So each scene is checked to make sure that the POV is consistent.
If you're creating a series, there's simply much more to do in terms of consistency. Events, timing, characters, and so on, all need to be reviewed to make sure that you're not breaking your own words. My collaborator and I have another spreadsheet with our timeline of events, including the birth years of our characters, so that we know who is alive when.
Other Literature & Other Sources
Do the elements in your story confirm or contradict what has been written by other authors on the same subject? Now, your story does not have to be consistent with what other authors have written. It may not be possible to be consistent with these other authors, as their stories may already contradict each other, or perhaps your primary reason for writing your story is to contradict the other versions; for example, you may be writing Alternate History or Science Fiction. However, I believe that at a minimum you should be aware of when you contradict what others have written, because this way you can deal with the consequences. One consequence concerns reader expectations. If your readers expect that Julius Caesar died on the Ides of March, and for some reason you want to change this, then you need to work in some information to support your theory or you will confuse them. A second reason for being consistent with other literature if possible is because it makes you, the author, look intelligent and well-read instead of -- ahem! -- ignorant and lazy.
Consistency in Characters
There are other consistency checks besides the levels of structure. Many of them have to do with characters. I've noticed that some authors gift their heroes with every virtue, and burden their villains with every vice. I read one manuscript in which a poverty-stricken heroine refused her evil, wealthy suitor. The author ascribed the rejected suitor with every negative attribute, including greed. Well, if he was so avaricious, why did he want to marry the impoverished heroine? It was inconsistent. The simplest fix was to keep the heroine from calling her suitor greedy and choose a different type of insult. Another fix would be to make the heroine, unbeknownst to her, an heiress.
Characters should behave consistently with their personalities and their circumstances. If characters are hungry, then those characters should be looking for (or at least thinking about) food. If they are worried, then they should not seem confident (or at least it should require an effort). If they are sad, they should not appear happy. You may think that this is obvious, but it can actually be difficult to do. For each scene, ask yourself, what is the dominant emotion or concern for each character? Then make sure that every sentence in that scene referring to that character -- whether it is concerned with action, internal thought, or dialogue -- supports that dominant emotion or concern, or at the very least, does not contradict it.
Characters should also speak and think consistently. Some of this means avoiding anachronisms; some of this means using long words -- or short, depending on the character; some of this means using good grammar -- or poor, once more depending on the character. If your villain is a vulgar barbarian, then he should not sound like an erudite critic -- unless he wants to, in which case he should sound like an erudite critic with the accent of a vulgar barbarian.
Finally, characters should show consistency on a continuing basis. When you're revising your manuscript, you may want to go through it according to character. For example, your novel may focus on Jane, but Jane's mother makes a few appearances. Start at the beginning of your book, and check every scene in which Jane's mother appears -- or is even mentioned -- while skipping over other sections in which she plays no role. Are the mentions of Jane's mother consistent with each other? Or have unintentional differences crept in? Doing this for both minor and major characters will help with the goal of consistency.
It's not impossible for a character to change -- in fact, how a character changes is an important part of a character arc -- but in fiction there should be reasons for a changing attitudes and behavior.
Editing for consistency may be enjoyable or tedious, depending on your personality, your project and even on your mood. Nevertheless, doing it well will make your project better.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.