Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Continuity and Consistency

This was an interesting topic. Although our first thought was that continuity and consistency would naturally apply to gigantic worlds with lots of works in them, it can also be applied on a much smaller scale.

What do we mean by continuity and consistency? It means that an author keeps track of the details of their world, everything from underlying principles to tiny details, and doesn't change them for no reason in the middle of a story, or in the middle of a series. Kat brought up an interesting question, however: what if you have been writing in a world and you discover that you have done something problematic, such as being unintentionally racist or sexist? How much value should you place on consistency versus the desire to change the world so it is no longer problematic?

In fact, there was a lot more to the question of consistency than I expected going in!

Background research is often a factor in consistency. If you are referencing aspects of the real world, or using principles of the real world, sticking with those is generally valuable. Remember, though, not to get too bogged down in research (research can be a black hole).

Morgan mentioned the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which makes some good points about doing pastoral fantasy well, such as "don't write horses as if they were cars."

When you look at the work of Tolkien, it's not entirely consistent in every aspect, but the languages are very consistent, because as a linguist he cared deeply about having them work.

Star Trek has been going on so long that staying consistent is difficult.

Our discussants felt very strongly that they wanted to see honesty from creators about whether there is continuity in a universe's timeline. If you have had to change it, talk about how you had to change it. If you haven't changed it, talk about why. Just don't change it and then claim it was always this way.

Kate told us about an experience when she wanted to write a story set somewhere in a larger world, but in order to write it properly she had to toss out continuity with a previous piece she had written.

It's important to remember that writers often write what I call "exploratory drafts." These are story drafts where you write along and learn more and more about the world as you go. What this will mean is that the way you portray the world by the end of the draft will be different from the way you portrayed it when you first started the draft. Yes, you will have to go back and rewrite the beginning so that the world works the same way at the start as it does at the end. We all commiserated on how often we had to rewrite opening chapters. Sometimes you will write six different stories, and then realize it would work well if they were all in the same world, and have to revise them so they are consistent with each other.

Keep in mind that it's not a problem if you are writing an exploratory draft! Most of us become better writers as we go.

Kate talked about how difficult it must be for showrunners to keep consistency across the episodes of the shows they create.

Kat pointed out that one solution to discontinuities and inconsistencies is to say that you had an unreliable narrator. Confining the viewpoints that you use is a good tool to keep you from being overwhelmed by a very large world. However, it's easy to fall into clichéd patterns of which point of view to care about. Kat said she wanted to see Pratchett done from the point of view of someone minor like Dibbler's first client of the day.

We digressed a bit into the issue of point of view. The question of whose story to tell and how to tell it, and why, is very important. The right viewpoint can make the difference between a story working and not working. There can be various different ways to zero in on the right viewpoint character - goals, the results at the end of the story, whose arc organizes the timeline better, etc.

Kat mentioned reading a story called Tung Tung Summer, told from the viewpoint of a little girl. The viewpoint constrains everything so much, she said, that the tech does not have to be described in detail. The little girl misses adult complexities as well, which leaves them for readers to infer.

The critical link between point of view and consistency is that individual people's points of view make a really good tool for limiting the need for consistency.

[at this point in the hangout, I lost continuity due to a drop of my internet service! Ordinarily I wouldn't mention it, but it seemed relevant here.]

Our desire to see continuity and consistency in our stories has increased. One societal factor in that increase, Kat explained, was the difference between episodic media watching and binge watching. We are now able to watch entire sequences of thirteen or more episodes in a few sittings, which makes it much easier for viewers to detect problems.

Kat noted that comic book readers are very forgiving of inconsistency so long as you make the context of the inconsistency clear - such as "this is an alternate universe" or "this is a reboot," etc. There are multiple Spider-mans. Star Wars has also morphed, she says, but we're not wanting to admit it.

Kat mentioned a detail from fanfic history, called being "Jossed." It was when you had written a continuation of a timeline in a media property, but then the creator of that property took the storyline in a drastically different direction, leaving your fanfic as a discontinuous stub.

You could think of various versions of the Gospel as fanfic.

What do you do when you run into a disparity? You can do a reboot, conceivably. However, once the story is out in the public eye, it's never a good idea to deny that the error exists.

I mentioned how our discussion with Maya Bohnhoff was relevant to this topic, as she spoke to us about writing in shared worlds using world bibles and other people as resources to maintain consistency.

One way to keep track of your world is with a world bible, or a single place where you keep all key continuity information. You can take notes on a character's eye color, or the most popular food in that town, etc. etc. It is a good idea to note how exactly to spell unusual names or made-up words.

You can use a glossary in your book. Kate pointed out that it's a good idea to indicate somehow that the glossary is there, so people don't struggle through and then realize the glossary is there afterward.

Kate also described being disillusioned for years with Frank Herbert for using French and calling it something else. The books of Thomas Covenant also stole from another language.

Please, get a sensitivity reader for any real-world language material!

If you can, keep spelling things the same way between your different editions.

On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that things are messier in real life. People do change names, or change the spelling of their names. They can have their names re-spelled or changed by other people such as immigration officials or teachers. Town names can change over time, too.

Keep in mind that East Asian countries have different naming schemas for family names, individual names, etc. Kat told us that she named her son after someone who had five different names over the course of his lifetime. Especially among indigenous and colonized people, who gets what name is really important.

Language and culture are inextricably linked, a fact that Morgan emphasized. Research both when you are making decisions about your world.

Kat pointed out that Tolkien made some hard choices early in his process, and was mostly consistent with how the languages worked. When we draw on Myth, though, different regions will often spell the same name differently.

I then turned the discussion in a different direction by talking about overzealous concepts of consistency. How strict are the rules of your world? If they are too strict, you can have a different sort of problem. Culture is not a monolith. People are not necessarily honest about their motivations, culturally. Culture is full of subcultures, and sub-subcultures.

Kate noted that people in a story don't necessarily know what the rules are. She recommended the book the Golden Key by Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott, and Melanie Rawn.

A great point that came from Kat is that we can't underestimate the power of hypocrisy, incongruity, and discontinuity. What people say is going on isn't always what is actually going on. If you have too much consistency, you end up with Camazotz, or at very least an uncanny feeling. Hypocrisy exists on both the individual level and the societal level.

It's always important to ask where you are writing the story from socially. Ask if your character is meeting the right kind of strife. Sometimes people are portrayed with a form of privilege that doesn't match the structure of the world. Privilege, and the lack of it, are very complex, and often oversimplified in fiction.

Can you write a world where problematic stuff like bias is handwaved out? It has been done, but drastically narrows the story frame.

Who you choose to portray is very important. Who is a POV character? Who is an NPC? It's problematic always to tell prince and princess stories.

You want to know what you are doing, and do it on purpose.

Don't forget that even what is pretty vs. nonpretty is culturally different. Whether prettiness is an important characteristic is also cultural. Kat explained that beauty standards change drastically pre- and post-colonization. Beware of centering your standards in a particular cultural spot. Rock 'n' roll, which is considered classic now, was once considered quite scary. Acknowledge this. It has been considered provocative and terrible, so don't call it wholesome and then criticize rap.

The future is here, says Kat, but it's just unevenly distributed. Class is a factor. Beware of too much consistency in the speed of cultural progress. What year do you live in really?

Thank you to all of you who participated in this discussion. Today at 4pm we'll talk about Time Travel. I hope you will be there!