Joyce Reynolds-Ward is our guest author this week. Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer who splits her time between Enterprise and Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have appeared in First Contact Café, Tales from an Alien Campfire, River, How Beer Saved the World 1, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, and Trust and Treachery among others. Her books include Netwalk: Expanded Edition, Netwalker Uprising, Life in the Shadows: Diana and Will, Alien Savvy, Seeking Shelter at the End of the World, Netwalk’s Children, and Pledges of Honor. Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, horses, skiing, and other outdoor activities.
So you have this well-behaved trilogy or series where the writing has taken off. You have your series bible, your timeline, and your list of characters at hand so you don’t have contradictions in continuity. Your fingers fly over the keyboard as the words pour onto the screen, the dialogue pops, the sequence of events flows smoothly, then—oops. You realize that what you’ve just had one character tell another about a past event is—the wrong thing. It doesn’t agree with what you’ve already written, though it fits characterization and the situation. You have visions of the screaming hordes of fandom coming down on you Because Things Don’t Match, and it needs a fix that you can’t just use Find and Replace to repair. What to do?
In some cases you will need to rewrite. But another tool to consider in dealing with this type of continuity issue is to use it as a tension builder and character developer. In real world history, a person’s perspective of even the biggest, earth-shaking events can significantly contrast from of that of another eyewitness from a different angle or viewpoint. Perspective can also be shaded by how honest a character is with themselves about their motives and performance. Even a reliable character has things about themselves that they may not be completely honest about. Or they may need to lie about past events for legitimate reasons.
No matter what reason, congratulations. You’ve just handed yourself a means to complicate and deepen your story even further. Is your viewpoint character unreliable? This sort of discrepancy helps to establish that person’s unreliability. Does the event pack a significant meaning for those involved, enough that even a reliable character might have a reason to be untruthful? Recalling a past event in a different manner from what has been previously told adds to the tension surrounding it as well as establishing a motive for that character’s behavior—and it may emphasize how important that event is. Does difference in ideologies shape a differing recall of past events? More plot and world building elements right there. If played right, a discrepancy in event continuity can add to your plot tension.
But there are some key elements to make this work for you, not against you. First, make sure it doesn’t happen too often, unless you have a justifiable explanation within the story (examples: amnesia, time travel, magic, forgetfulness, encroaching senility). Second, work with this discrepancy. Who wins with each version? Who loses? Third, call attention to the explanation for the discrepancy close to when it happens. Someone calls your character a liar. Or they observe (to themselves or another character) that “this isn’t the version I heard.”
If handled right, a mismatch in continuity can improve your story by adding depth and complexity that might not have been there previously. It can help you establish a character’s reliability or emphasize the importance of an event. Used mindfully, it can be an asset to your story.