Ralph Waldo Emerson (no slouch himself when it came to writing) said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”
Maybe so, but if you’re a writer, you’d darn well better be consistent. If your heroine had short brown hair on page 25, she’d better not have long, blonde locks on page 27, unless she donned a wig on page 26.
Is your villain right-handed in the beginning and left-handed later on? Hmmm. Somewhere you had a brilliant idea that the mystery had to have been committed by a southpaw, so you changed Rudolfo’s handedness.
Catching these goofs is important. The problem is you see what you meant to say. What you wrote, however, may be different and that can create credibility problems for your plot, your characters, and your career in writing.
Your characters’ actions need to be consistent with their personalities and their roles in the novel. Real life may be full of coincidences and at times be too bizarre to seem real, and that’s fine. Life is strange. Fiction, however, needs to be believable. The story line needs to make sense. You’re allowed one coincidence. Maybe. And it had better work.
Getting Out of Trouble
You’ve written yourself into a corner. There’s no way out.
The entire enemy army has the house surrounded.
Or the hero is trapped in the box canyon.
Or the heroine has ingested the deadly poison for which there is no antidote.
What to do?
And then I woke up. It had all been a dream.
This is a cheap shot. It’s the chicken way out and you’re goose is cooked, to mix some aphorisms. It’s inconsistent with what you’ve written before. It tells your readers you’re a lousy writer. You owe your readers more.
Each action creates a reaction. This reaction needs to follow logically from the action. For example, if your character runs a red light, there are many possible, logical, consistent reactions.
He gets a ticket.
He causes an accident.
He gets his wife to the hospital in time to deliver the baby.
He eludes the killers who are stuck two cars behind him.
And so forth.
If the reaction is illogical and inconsistent, your readers are left scratching their heads and may quite possibly shelve your book, never to return to it or anything else you’ve written.
Elizabeth preened before the mirror. She blotted her lipstick with the hem of her robe before joining the other postulants at Mass.
Now, if Elizabeth is hiding out at the convent (think Sister Act), this is well and good. However, if she’s more like Mother Theresa and is devoting her life to the Church, this isn’t going to work.
Know your characters. Keep them true to themselves and they’ll never let you down.
Writing as KK Brees - Headwind: The Intrepid Adventures of OSS Agent Katrin Nissen (Chalet 2010)
Writing as Karen K. Brees, Ph.D. - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Preserving Food (Alpha Books 2009)