Way With Worlds: Continuity Errors

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David

UFO attacking city

There you are, innocently writing along, and you look back on some of your published stories, perhaps to review, perhaps for fun, perhaps to see what past atrocities you committed on your language of choice. While doing this, you then see that which we all fear, the specter that haunts so many writers.

A continuity error.

Maybe it’s a spell working differently than it does later in your narrative, or you got a location wrong in some dialogue, or whatever. Something didn’t happen the way it should, its a violation of your continuity, and its been written and you can’t really take it out because its buried in the rest of the story and the world. Perhaps even your current works rely on that error, which is exceptionally humiliating and terrifying.

If you’re a continuity/setting fanatic like me, itís like having someone pour icewater over your heart. You violated your world, you messed up, you forgot, and probably you botched up future plots. Itís a terrible feeling of impotence, stupidity, and dread, a real cocktail of anguish.

Sure it happens to everyone, but right at that moment everyone is you.

In the words of a certain computerized book, Don’t Panic. Here’s some techniques to help you deal with what you do when you find you got your world wrong.

Did You Actually Make A Mistake?

First of all, you may find your mistake wasn’t one. Review your continuity, review the story. You may have written something that you knew subconsciously and forgot consciously. Or it may not even be a mistake when reviewed.

If you’re a jumpy writer, you can easily make the wrong assumption about things. I’ve seen it happens.

Make sure you’ve actually got a problem because trying to fix a non-problem can make things worse – like running off to fix the error that isn’t in your next story or game and building a huge plot around it. You’ll only complicate matters, and probably make real mistakes.

Is It A Matter Of Perspective?

The problem may be a problem – but only in a matter of perspective. A character may have said something wrong, but maybe that was their way of looking at it, or they mis-spoke (or could be assumed to mis-speak), and so on. The error may be there but it may be appropriate – or at least explainable (or ignorable until the next edition or a patch release of a game, if that).

The “error” may be a bit fuzzy.  So maybe you can just ignore it or make a note of it if somehow it comes up again.

Can You Explain It?

OK, you determined there’s a problem.  It’s not a mistake on your part, it’s not due to or explainable by perspective. You botched something in your setting.

It may not be that bad. Maybe it’s a character issue, like above, only a bit more pronounced than a  simple “probably perspective” answer.. Maybe you can decide someone read something wrong in a textbook. Maybe the robe was green due to some peculiar superstition as opposed to the purple it was supposed to be.

Now if you can explain something, you may not have to go “fix things.” Keep a note in your worldbuilding journals and documents or something. If it’s not a big thing, then you may not need to worry.  You’re covered just in case.

Can You Fix Something By Changing Things?

If you can’t explain (or hand-wave) away your problem, you may have to go fixing things in your setting. So maybe it’s time to tweak your world – if the error is big enough to require making some changes.

This is a pretty easy way to do things; slightly alter continuity to make up for errors. You’re probably doing this a little bit every now and then anyway as you tweak and poke ideas into shape or solidify them. This is also an effective but unradical solution.

Maybe a spell is less powerful than you wanted, so you decide “hey, that is the case” and you need to alter how someone survived an encounter (“after using magic then, I just managed to escape with a good run”). Or perhaps yeah, there was an exchange rate error (“man, remember how many credits I paid on that planet?  Right before the rates went down?”).  You get the idea.  A little bit extra, a little tweak, can work wonders.

Just fixing things often leads to adding on new continuity, and it’s hard to distinguish the two. In fact . . .

Can You Fix It By Adding Something?

Look over the error. Maybe your continuity isn’t damaged, but needs something a bit extra to explain it. Take a look at what is supposedly wrong, and ask what addition to your continuity could make the wrong thing right.  It may even turn into an interesting extra story element.

Perhaps you explain some dialogue errors by deciding a character is bad at geography, and over time confronts their poor educational background.  Maybe your inconsistent writing about money can be explained by having fluctuating galactic exchange rates, which could be an interesting subplot if you’re writing an interplanetary war.

This isn’t much different than the above solution of making a change, except you’re deliberately grafting on a “patch” to your continuiy with something new.

Do not go throwing in something new into your world due to blind panic. It can create more problems down the road when your additions, included due to fear, create more continuity errors because they were created in a rush. Besides, you can get a kind of “mission creep” where you keep adding and adding ideas to fix problems, some caused by new additions, and it all spirals into a kind of perverse image of a creative rush.

Can You Fix It By Subtracting Something?

OK, maybe you can’t fix your error by adding something – perhaps there is a part of continuity that, when removed, fixes the problem and maintains continuity. After all, some parts are more necessary than others to your world.

Personally, I don’t like doing this, its a chance to create more problems, even moreso than adding elements to your continuity. A story universe can unravel quickly if you start yanking out threads of ideas, slowly becoming an unstable skeleton of it’s formal self.

I include it as an option, because it can work.  The heroes weren’t ambushed by orcs that one time because, well, their tribal lands just don’t reach as far as thought. Or maybe there is no cure for that disease in the story (which means you get to throw an invent-a-cure subplot), or the cure was a fraud.

It can work.  Use it with caution.

Retcontinuity

This is the Big Enchilada of correcting continuity mistakes. Its not for amateurs, and in some cases, not for professionals. This is correcting a mistake or mistakes (and big ones) by making them part of the story and the continuity. In short, the problems become part of the world.

We’re all too familiar with this happening in comics, where every few years someone decides to press the “Reboot universe button.” DC’s infamous “continuity collapse” in Zero Hour is perhaps one of the greatest examples, but your changes don’t have to be that radically. Actually they probably shouldn’t be.

But you could run with this and in the right hands it gets interesting. That little flaw can become a cornerstone to something greater.  Decide that the time you got some important history wrong in your own world indicates a conspiracy that has altered historical records.  A bunch of spells didn’t work right due to a hideous building magical fluctuation.

As you can see, this could quickly get out of hand.  But, it is an option.

villain hierarchy
SEE ALSO: Pyramids of power – also by Steven Savage

This is not an option I recommend unless you’re very, very sure you can do it right. I’ve seen ambitious undertakings like this, and its definitely not easy. However, it is an option, and it has the added advantage of turning a mistake into a whole new story idea and hopefully a firmer continuity.

I’m not exactly a fan of this method, but with great challenges come great possibilities.

One warning however is that if anyone asks, be the heck honest about it. Don’t act like you have a plan, just note you found a flaw, and in the effort of figuring it out a greater story emerged.

Besides, people will know.

Conclusion

A flaw in your continuity isn’t the end of the world so to speak, and in some cases isn’t worth worrying about. But when the time comes that you must address one, use the appropriate solution for the problem.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.