One of the main concerns writers should have when planning and writing a series is consistency. But what does it mean to be consistent? It’s more than just keeping track of the character names, physical attributes, family trees, and locations in a notebook or Excel spreadsheet; it’s about presenting the logical facts that you’ve established in a series in a consistent manner, from book to book. Why is this so important? Because even if you (or your editor) don’t notice your inconsistencies, the fans of your series most certainly will—and they’ll definitely call you out on it. If you keep your facts straight and avoid inconsistency mistakes, your readers won't be pulled from the story--and will stay hungry for more.
Below, Karen S. Wiesner discusses the five major red flags of inconsistency—and what you can do to prevent them in your own fiction series.
Oversights are a catchall category for anything in a plotline, character, or setting that concerns illogical, unexplainable, or unrealistic courses of action and plot holes, including coincidence contrivance (writer needs it to work and so creates the groundwork on the spot to patch up a means to force it to work) and convenience justifications (it was the only way to make A fit with B, so I had to do it, didn’t I?).
A deus ex machina situation is one in which an improbable event or element is introduced into a story to resolve all the problematic situations and bring the story to a close. In a conventional Greek tragedy the producers actually lowered an actor playing a god onto the stage at the end of the play and he resolved all the conflicts. Talk about unsatisfying for the audience! Any author worth his salt needs to create plausible backstory and motivation for every action, and she has to make characters heroic enough to solve their own problems. That’s why Oversights are so major in series consistency.
If your character does something that makes no sense in the course of the action or in terms of their internal conflicts and motivations, or if you include a plot point merely for convenience sake, you’ve got yourself a nasty oversight. If, in one book, your character is so scarred by the death of a spouse that he doesn’t believe he can ever move on or fall in love again, and in the next book he has already become involved with someone new and never thinks about how he’s a widower, you’ve made a huge oversight that readers probably won’t tolerate, let alone accept. In other words, you go from one situation to the next without any explanation for the radical change. If you want something to be believable, you need to set it up logically and you need to set it up early enough so it will be readily accepted by the reader. That absolutely requires advance planning.
2. Changed Premise
This category includes information given in one episode that directly contradicts information in another. In a series this can be fatal. If your book series has a Changed Premise from one book to the next, readers will lose respect. If anything concerning character, plot, or setting conflicts with something that was previously established, it would fit under the Changed Premise heading. If you alter the structure or foundational facts that were previously set up in the series, even if you do it for a very good reason, you’ve changed the premise for the story, and readers will notice. If you can’t find a way to make something believable within the entire scope of the series, you’ll lose readers, perhaps for the remainder of the series. As an example, if your vampire can’t see his own reflection in the first two books in the series, but in the third he desperately needs to be able to see his reflection in order for your plot to work, you’ve changed an established premise. You’ll have to come up with a solid bit of plausibility to get readers to accept the change. If you create a world in which no outsiders are tolerated in the first three books, yet in the fourth one a stranger shows up and is ushered into the heart of the community with open arms, you’ve changed the premise of your series.
3. Technical Problems
While problems with equipment and technical oddities were often an issue in science fiction shows like Star Trek and TheX-Files, (and may be in your series, too, if you include a lot of technology that must be realistic), this kind of inconsistency can also deal with inadvertently or indiscriminately jumping into alternate viewpoints or changing descriptions of characters or settings because what was previously mentioned has been forgotten. If your character always speaks in a certain dialect and suddenly stops in a subsequent book, that’s a technical problem. Names and jobs can also accidentally change through the course of a series. If your character’s hair color or eye color changes, or if he was 6'5" in the first two books in the series but drops an inch in later stories, you have what may be considered technical problems.
For instance, in The X-Files both main characters used cell phones throughout most of the series, but the phones were used inconsistently, in ways that forced the viewers to question the logic. In one episode, Mulder was trapped underground in the middle of a desert called Nowhere—was there actually a cell phone tower nearby that allowed him to get good reception? In other cases Mulder and Scully didn’t use the phones when they should have, and in each of these cases, it was convenient to the plot and for the writers/creators that they didn’t use their phones to call the other to their rescue because it would have solved the plot of that particular episode too quickly.
These are probably minor and simply annoying issues at most, and you probably won’t lose any readers with such blunders, but dotting all your Is and crossing all your Ts will make fans appreciate you that much more.
4. Continuity and Production Issues
Again, in both The X-Files and Star Trek, errors often crept up as a direct result of someone on staff not checking the manual or previous episodes before going ahead with the episode. How often was a setting shot reused and only slightly altered in Star Trek because coming up with something new would have been expensive or time consuming? In a classic Star Trek episode, the creators decided to establish that the Romulans had stolen the design of Klingon ships—so they could use a Klingon ship they’d already created. Not only that, but the Romulans also used Klingon weapons. Cheaper for the creators, yes, but viewers can’t help but groan at these production issues. If you’re doing anything "halfway" with your series simply because it would be a hassle to find a better, more creative way of handling it, you’re making your own production problems. Readers will feel your impatience and probably wonder why you skimped.
If you give a character two birthdays or have him get younger instead of older as a series progresses, these are less crucial issues but nevertheless problems. I call issues like these minor because, unless you have fans who are ravenous and must know and understand every facet of your series, many won’t sit down and figure out timelines or even see a problem.
5. Unanswered Questions
If the author is never going to answer a nagging question, why invest anything, especially time and passion, in the series? Leaving a series arc dangling isn’t something an author can do in a book series unless she sets up the series from the first as an open-ended one that probably won’t have definitive closure. While each book in the series must have satisfactory individual story arc resolutions, all series-arc questions must be answered in the final book of the series or readers will be furious, perhaps enough to ban you as an author for life. They’ll feel cheated and rightly so. Don’t underestimate the damage a vengeful reader can do to your career. (Have you read Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne? Do it now and take heed!)To write a series is to promise the closure and/or resolution of unanswered series arc questions. Think of it this way: With the first book in your series, you’ve presented a question and asked your readers to be patient as you string out the development of this theme through several books. You’ve promised that an answer will be delivered in the last book. If you don’t deliver it, you’ve stolen time, money, and even reader emotions, all with a careless shrug of purposeful neglect.
Contemplating a series? You’ll definitely want to check out Writing the Fiction Series by Karen S. Wiesner; it’s the complete guide to crafting an engrossing, compelling and consistent fiction series of novels or novellas.
Rachel Randall is the managing editor for Writer's Digest Books.