One of the hardest things I face when writing a novel is keeping the story consistent. Writing a book-length story may take from a few weeks to a few months, and you put the story down a few hundred words at a time. Over a period of several weeks, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what happened earlier, and consistency can suffer.
If you’re writing from a detailed outline it may be easier, but if you’re like me, outlines are too restrictive. When I start a novel I usually have a general idea of what the book is about, three or four high points I want to hit, and a couple of characters. From that starting point, the adventure begins, and I usually don’t end up where I thought I might. But the journey is fantastic-I discover the story as I go, just as the reader does later on.
The problem with writing that way is that things will often happen that I didn’t anticipate. Characters may make decisions on their own (don’ t laugh, this actually happens), and I find myself on a side road heading for a different horizon than my original target.
That isn’t always a problem, but when you get into the details, consistency can get lost.
If I’m writing a battle or some other highly dramatic scene, I go into it with little clear idea of how it’s going to go. Like the character I’m following, I have to adjust and improvise. Sometimes I get stuck and need a little assist, usually from another character. But if I haven’t set that character up correctly, his actions may be illogical and inconsistent.
What Am I Talking About?
Here’s an example: Say you’re writing a western, something like High Noon, and your character is standing on the main street of some dusty town with nineteen bad guys all shooting at him. He has a six gun and maybe twelve extra rounds on his gunbelt. Eighteen shots in all. He weaves and dodges and zigzags to keep the outlaws from killing him, while firing impossibly accurate shots from his highly inaccurate pistol (okay, but it works in the movies!), and finally kills eighteen of the outlaws.
But there is one left, and he shoots our boy in the leg. He falls beside the watering trough, and his gun is empty. Alone and helpless, he lies panting in the sun as the evil villain (the head villain always survives until the end) walks up and stands over him, his shadow blocking the sun, grinning evilly as he cocks his own pistol for the final kill.
Right here, it would be nice if someone, somewhere, would blow that villain’s head off with a rifle from a rooftop. But if your main character is fighting this battle all alone, it’s a safe bet that you’ve set it up so that 1) no one is willing to help him, 2) no one is brave enough to help him, 3) no one else has a gun.
So what do you do?
- Well, you could have the Mexican priest step out of the mission church with a shotgun, but that would be inconsistent, since priests aren’t known for their shotguns or their willingness to use them.
- You could have the town orphan step out of cover with a pistol and open fire, but that would be inconsistent, since town orphans in the old west don’t usually pack heat.
- You might have six hundred steers stampede down the street just at that moment and trample the bad guys, but…
Well, you get the idea. Inconsistent.
At this point in the story, of course, you have to do something. It isn’t likely the villain is going to find Jesus just before he kills our hero, so someone else is going to have to intervene. What do you do?
The simple fact is, you can do any of the things I mentioned above, or any others that you dream up yourself. All you have to do is go back later and set it up. Let’s take a look:
Scenario 1: The Mexican priest
If, in a previous chapter, you established that the Mexican priest not only had a shotgun, but had been targeted for violence before, it would be entirely acceptable for him to step out of the church at the opportune moment and save our hero. You might need to have him say something like: “I do not believe in violence, amigo, pero Dios helps those who help themselves.”
Scenario 2: The town orphan
You can also have the kid help out, but before he does you need to establish that he has a gun. Maybe he took it off a dead gunslinger before the coroner got there, or maybe it belonged to his father who was killed at Missionary Ridge. He also needs to admire our hero, and he probably doesn’t do anything with the gun except hold it and think of his late father when he’s feeling sad.
Scenario 3: The herd of steers
If you have set the town up as a local rail terminus for cattle drives, it would be perfectly acceptable for the steers to thunder down main street and save the, er, bacon. All you need is to establish why they stampeded at that exact moment. Maybe all the gunfire spooked them, or maybe the dance hall girl over at the saloon, who is sort of sweet on our boy, set the corrals on fire and opened the gates during the gunfight specifically to cause a stampede. However you explain it, make sure it’s logical. In other words, the reader shouldn’t see it coming, but it should make sense to the reader when it does.
The point I’m trying to make is that you may not have thought of all these options when you first started the novel. You find yourself in a crisis with no way out, and you haven’t provided one in the early text. Don’t worry about it. Do what you have to do, and then immediately go find a spot earlier in the story where you can insert a few words (or alter something already described) to set it up.
And here’s a hint-make it as innocuous as possible. Don’t describe the priest’s shotgun in glowing detail, or the reader will guess long before the gunfight that, sooner or later, that priest is going to kill somebody.
If you do it right, not only will your novel be consistent, you’ll look like a genius.
John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.
He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.