Revising for consistency: the case of the mysteriously changing hair color

I think both look pretty nice. Why must I choose?

A novel is big, literally as well as temporally. At the point I finished a complete first draft of my novel, I had an embarrassing splat of 160 thousand words and a nearly three-year distance from my first paragraphs. Revision beckoned; then it loomed. Although I had an essentially coherent story, more-or-less discernible character arcs, and even a recurring image or two, the fact remained that I didn’t have to read far to discover significant inconsistencies in character presentation (How old is she really?), world building (How does this global transportation system actually work!?), and theme.

In a large text, how do we revise for consistency? If we’re more forward-thinking, how might we write consistently as we go along?

But hold on, Jimmy. Why does consistency even matter?

Central to our work as writers is building in our audience a suspension of disbelief. For the reader to get lost in our stories, for them to fully engage, they must, if only briefly, if only indulgently, believe in the truth of what they read. Suspension of disbelief keeps readers reading—if readers are to care, then they must believe.

Does a character’s hair color really matter in the big scheme of the story? Not at all. But if readers are going to care about a character, they’ll likely need to visualize them, which requires a few physical details that don’t change. So if we do mention that hair color, we should keep it consistent. 

Logically, consistent details throughout a story will allow for better suspension of disbelief. When our stories themselves are surreal or futuristic and obviously inventions, the believability (and thus consistency) of characters and basic physical details is even more important. These become the anchors from which readers spring into the colorful wells of imagination.

So how do we revise for consistency?

In the seas of our words, how to we ferret out the places that need aligning? It’s an imposing task, even if we’re aware of inconsistencies in our writing, simply to locate them.

My first stop is generally Word’s “find” feature, magically revealing all uses of a word throughout hundreds of pages. But in truth, “find” can sometimes prove a quick-fix gimmick which we should avoid relying on too heavily. Sometimes we’ve used different words to describe something that then doesn’t pop up in our search. Sometimes jumping from moment to moment in the novel without reminding ourselves of context can cause us to make edits that don’t fit the story’s flow.

Sometimes, there’s nothing to be done but reread from the beginning. As we go, we can flag locations of sticky details we think may not remain consistent later in the story. When I felt it was at last time to address the inconsistencies in my novel (I trimmed and completed the biggest story-level revisions first), I loaded it onto my e-reader to give a more authentic reading experience where I wouldn’t be as tempted to stop and tinker. Every time I came to a mention of transportation systems, age, hair color, etc. ad nauseam, I made a brief note. Now back at the computer, I’m able to search the much more scannable set of notes and know I’m not missing any. 

I ended up with a lot of comments during my readthrough, from typos to further cuts to determining the location of a particular window that sometimes seems to face east and sometimes west.

Hair color might be easy to make consistent. It can be trickier to change details when we had clear reasons for the original choices. On my reread, I came across an annoyingly mobile window through which my protagonist frequently peered. It variously points east, showing the ocean, and then other times west, for the sunset. I’m currently in a slight conundrum, trying to make a choice. Short of uprooting my character and moving her across the island, her window simply can’t show both, yet the ocean and sunset are serving meaningful roles symbolically that I am loathe to abandon.

The challenge will ultimately be to find some other route to the meaning carried by one symbol, allowing me to restore consistency. And really, in the end, perhaps this is not so bad, as it is forcing me to reexamine my choices, to find a way to express ideas within constraints of the form. A teacher once suggested that the strict form requirements of a sonnet actually improve creativity, because the writer can’t rely on usual modes of expression; they must instead find new words that will fit the form. So it is with our fiction: restoring consistency can mean a loss of meaningful or even cherished elements, but perhaps that with which we replace them will be gold.

Writing consistently from the beginning

As gratifying as combing the story for all mentions of the character’s hair color might be, wouldn’t it be easier if it were just set from the very beginning? This is a question that very rapidly spirals us into the eternal debate of how much we plan before we write. This is a huge topic, one I’m not going to explore much here. I’m sure that many a future post will find its way there. It is true that copious character notes and diagrams of window locations can promote consistency, yet at least to me, I find the act of writing fluid enough in the moment that I don’t think I would probably use those notes even if I had them, and we all know that things change as we write, even with a detailed plan. I think for now, I will be stuck with panning my words for these mysterious inconsistencies, playing with their significance, and ultimately smoothing them out into a more believable, hopefully stronger story.

What are your experiences with consistency in fiction? To what extent do you insist on it, and how do you do so? Looking forward to hearing from you, and best wishes for your writing and for everything else. I’ll be finding a few minutes here and there as I’m traveling these next couple of weeks to iron out my global transportation system, and those pesky hair colors. We’ll see how it goes.

4 thoughts on “Revising for consistency: the case of the mysteriously changing hair color

Add yours

  1. An interesting reflection on consistency, Jimmy. I’m a stickler for consistency. I think readers are incredibly perceptive, and if we aren’t consistent, we take the risk of popping them out of the story. I set up Excel spreadsheets in a workbook before I start writing and add to it as I go. That’s where I keep all kinds of descriptive details. It’s a lot easier than using the “find” function (not that I don’t have to use that too). Good luck with your novel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the spreadsheet idea. I’ve been using one retroactively to map out dates to check the consistency of those. I think you are right that readers are very perceptive – I know when I’m reading, details like that stick out to me.
      Thank you for the comment and the follow!

      Liked by 1 person

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