This is the final blog post in my "Why Good Writing Matters" series. My husband gets credit for the idea on this one. His profession is pretty much the complete opposite of writing, but he always holds great insight in the field nonetheless. One of the many reasons I love him! Now, onto the good stuff...
Have you ever read a book that had a great plot, intriguing characters, and a distinct voice but lacked consistency throughout? If so, did it irritate you and ruin the book for you, or did you view it as no big deal?
This may not be the case for everyone, but stories that lack internal consistency—that is, they have plot holes or material that contradicts some other part of the book—really grate on my nerves. In my brief research mentioned in the introductory post for this series, I found this topic held the most disagreements. Some readers weren't overly bothered by inconsistencies, and others equated them to blasphemy, ruining an otherwise perfectly good book. There was also a spectrum of opinions in between. Where people stood within that spectrum depended on the type of inconsistency and the frequency of it for any given book.
That just goes to show, there’s a lot of gray area with this one. I'm not certain only a few minor inconsistencies are enough to deem an otherwise well-written book garbage. However, there are a few things regarding internal consistency that really do matter. These are the things that your readers will pick up on and remember even after they've finished the book.
Rules of the Universe
Know the physical rules and laws of your universe. Record them. Memorize them. Following the rules of the universe is a tip for writers of any genre, but breaking said rules results in differing consequences depending on the genre. If you bend or break a given rule in a strictly standard fiction, your readers may notice but be a bit forgiving so long as it's infrequent. If you make this mistake in a fantasy novel, watch out. Not only will there be a dip in believability, but your readers will likely become irritated and more critical as they continue flipping pages, making the experience for them much less enjoyable. By sticking to the rules you set, you'll gain even more credibility for your awesome writing skills.
Writing Through the Ages
Historical fiction novels and even standard fiction pieces taking place a few decades ago lend themselves to a minefield of problems: clothing, language, and objects (particularly medicine and media devices) that are downright tedious to get right. In a full-blown fantasy novel, the author can make up materials, clothes, language, and whatever they wish. So long as they stick to the rules for those things, there is no problem. But when fiction is part of reality, consistency in these things isn't just a good idea; it's a necessity. Novels that take place in the early 1700s need to reflect the era being written. The same is true even with a more modern time period like the 1950s. If you try writing a novel that takes place (in the USA) in 1959 and mention someone getting a mumps vaccine, you're in for a bashing from your readers. The bottom line? Do your homework. Writing a novel that takes place in another era can be fascinating. It can also be frustrating as heck. But if you’re dedicated to doing the research required and you respond to critiques from your beta readers, editor(s), and sensitivity readers when needed, you’ll be greatly rewarded. Well-written pieces of these genres are easily some of the best books out there! Get them right, and you'll gain serious respect from your fans.
By far, the most common and widespread issues has to be with character facts. Think date of birth, relations to other characters, physical features, dialect and word choice, personality traits, etc. If you make a mistake in one of these areas, your readers will notice, and you’ll likely get flogged for it. Since this has nothing to do with research (unless you're dealing with a specific mental or physical illness) and everything to do with organization, make a point to catalog every character during the planning and drafting stages when you write a book. Find a method that works for you, whether it be index cards, a spreadsheet, a writing program, or something else. Then use it as a reference point any time you add a new fact, change an existing one, or are unsure what the existing ones are with any of your characters.
Cross-reference your facts constantly. Even when you've checked and rechecked everything ten times over, go back and check again. Have your editor (who should already be looking for them) check too. An inconsistency in this area can best be described as one of those nagging thoughts in the back of your head. When readers come across one of these errors, they make a mental note of it and never forget it. So do yourself and your readers a favor by making sure to keep even the smallest of facts about your characters straight.
This is an area that I personally struggle with the most; I tend to leap first, then go back and try to undo all the knots I've created. I can tell you from experience that this isn't the best approach. All it takes is just a few knots to produce a major unwanted kink in your plot. So set the facts and adhere your story to them, not the other way around.
Internal consistency soothes readers, increases credibility and believability, and is congruent with good writing. Inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb. Avoid them, and you'll avoid having to endure a painful sore that will blemish your otherwise beautiful masterpiece.