Continuity. Dictionary.com defines that word to mean a continuous or connected whole.
Why is that my subject for today's post? Several reasons. One, many writers today are writing series. It's become quite a popular pastime. After all, why write one book when you can write three (or six)?
Two, as you may know, I'm writing a series. It makes this a personal issue.
Continuity is key while writing a book that's in a series. You want all the books to come together in one, seamless whole, like you've sat down and read one, very long book. But you also want people to read each book individually and walk away satisfied enough with the events in that one book that they call it a story in its own right. It's a complicated balancing act. It means each book must be connected together in a giant matrix of plot, yet each story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end unto itself.
I read a lot of writers' blogs and books and articles online. And, yet, I've never heard this subject addressed. So, I thought I'd take a stab at it myself.
How do you ensure continuity in a series? There are a lot of obstacles to prevent this. Many series change characters, locations, and timing (past, present, future) as often as they do titles. How do you still bring such stories together into one, integrated whole?
What's the secret to continuity (even when dealing with obstacles)? Plant seeds and clues in the very beginning of your series of what will happen in the future, and then tie them into the story in unexpected or interesting ways. That doesn't mean you should sledgehammer your audience with obvious statements of THIS IS IMPORTANT, but, rather, soft foreshadowing. Think of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker doesn't discover Darth Vader is his father until The Empire Strikes Back, and even then it's toward the end of the movie. Before we find out, there's foreshadowing: discussions about Luke's father's "death" at the hands of Darth, his uncle's dislike of his father, etc.
Being surprising isn't all about jumping odd occurrences on a reader. It's not very believable, for one thing. You tend to believe something easier if your brain has followed clues that lead to the same conclusion as the story goes. Being surprising is about twisting what you've set up into something just a little off-beat, a little beyond what they thought would happen, but still fitting the clues you've planted for them to find.
For an example, try these two examples of the same short story (sorry if they suck, they're spur-of-the-moment work):
Lisa walked through the woods, her steps light. She sniffed the afternoon air into her lungs with an appreciative breath. The freshness brought a smile to her face. A nice walk in the open air had been just what she needed to calm her tension.
Suddenly, a pair of men in dark clothing jumped through the bushes. Before she could catch her breath to scream, one of them had grabbed Lisa and swung her over his shoulder. Lisa quickly recovered and she angrily beat onto her captor's back, and screamed for help. But no one heard. The men ran with her through the woods, not stopping until they reached a large cave.
Once inside the cave, Lisa blinked rapidly, trying to adjust her eyes to the darkness. When she could see better, she searched the insides for threat. She couldn't help but wonder why they had brought her here.
Lisa's eyes widened and she gasped when she saw her brother sitting nearby. He smiled at her, his eyes mocking, as he said, "Hello, Lisa. I hope your trip wasn't too harsh for you."
Compared to this:
She whipped around, frightened. Her heart thundered in her chest as she searched the wilderness wildly. Had she heard a footstep?
She waited tensely for another sound. When the woods remained silent, she slowly relaxed. Lisa brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes as she began to laugh at herself. Look at her! Jumping at the least noise. The paranoia was getting to her, that's for sure. She couldn't even take a nice walk in her own woods without worrying someone was hunting her now.
It was those stupid letters. Ever since her father had left his fortune to her, she'd been recieving these creepy notes. The first hadn't seemed that bad. Just a demand for her father's company to quit "stealing the hard-earned money of the poor" and "raping the environment". She hadn't taken them seriously. But then the second one came.
Lisa shivered. That letter had spoken of more rape and stealing, in fact. The anonymous writer had threatened to rob, rape, and murder Lisa if she didn't change the company immediately.
She'd taken the letter to the police that very day. But the letters hadn't quit coming. Instead, they only seemed to get worse. When her apartment in San Fransisco had been vandalized by the sick-o, Lisa had decided she'd had enough and moved up into her father's old estate. It was equipped with 24-hour security, even guards at the gate to keep out intruders.
Lisa shook her head at herself. She was perfectly safe in her new home. She needed to stop the paranoia before she became some kind of crazy shut-in, never leaving her house.
More noises from the woods around her jerked Lisa from her thoughts. She stared in the direction the noise was coming from, her expression glazed over like a startled deer's. Footsteps. This time, Lisa was sure. Without giving it more thought, she turned around toward the house and began to run. Her long legs surged across the ground, but the noises only seemed to get closer.
Suddenly, two men burst through the bushes ahead of Lisa. She backpedaled wildly, seeking to avoid the waiting men. But she couldn't stop, her own momentum driving her into their arms. The larger of the two grabbed her before she could react, swinging her over his beefy shoulder. She screamed beside his ear, and started fighting for her freedom. She couldn't believe this was actually happening.
The man carried her through the woods, seeming unconcerned by her efforts to fight herself free. Huge tears slipped down Lisa's face as the words from the letters surged back to haunt her. Could those things really be about to happen to her?
The men took her to a cave. Lisa scanned it with wary eyes, but she couldn't see past the first few feet. It was pitch black inside. But the men were unconcerned, running into the gloom without hesitation.
As she was carried into the dark, Lisa blinked rapidly to adjust her eyes. Slowly, her vision returned, and Lisa used the slight light of the one lamp inside to scan the interior. She wondered what they meant to do with her now that they had her here.
Her eyes widened and she gasped when she saw her brother sitting on a rock near the lamp. He smiled, his eyes mocking, as he said, "Hello, Lisa. I hope your trip wasn't too harsh on you."
See the difference? There was foreshadowing in the second, an actual reason for the events that followed instead of a sudden explosion of unexplained scenes. That's continuity in its simplest form. Of course, stretching that over a series is a much more complicated procedure. You also might have noticed the second telling of the story took much longer. Foreshadowing is a lengthy procedure, something that takes time and effort. In fact, I'd call this a speedy version of foreshadowing. Normally, I would wait for several pages or even chapters before I let this particular plot point bear fruit from that seed I planted.
Foreshadowing and continuity are happy bedfellows. The good news: you can have an excellent story if you use them in your writing. The bad news? It takes time and effort to develop them, for one. For another, you have to actually plan what you're going to write in the future so that you can foreshadow the future plot points in the beginning of your book, series, or whatever else you're writing.
Anyway, I've been thinking about that a lot lately as I'm writing my series. I even figured out three places where I went wrong. I had already identified that something was wrong there, but I didn't know what the problem was. My instincts were telling me they didn't fit with the overall story, of course, but my mind didn't process that it was specifically a lack of foreshadowing and integrating formerly introduced story elements into the scenes that was the problem. Once I figured that out, it was no time at all before I figured out how to fix them. Now I'm happily moving on with my writing.
Hope this little suggestion helps someone else who's stuck out there. Happy writing and have a great day!
Writing quote: "There are two kinds of writer: those that make you think, and those that make you wonder." -- Brian Aldiss