“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” ~Carl Sagan
How’s that for a goal?
Ironically, that’s exactly what a novelist must do. Create the universe. One page at a time. It’s an awesome power and yet… Oh-so-fun!
Writers have their own methods of creation. Some start from the outside in. Methodical research of locations and time periods, detailed lists of characteristics for each hero and heroine, specific arcs of change and action, and a complete outline before beginning page one. Other writers get a *feel* for the story, coupled with an intuitive grasp of their characters and let the fingers fly.
No matter which category you fall in, one rule remains the same. The universe must be consistent. Whether your novel is set in historical times or present day, whether your protagonist is a demon-slaying vampire or a lingerie-turned-bounty hunter, no matter what the locale, consistency is essential. Think of it as Point of Focus. If the first lesson a novelist must learn is to keep the Point of View from wandering, the second lesson must be to maintain a Point of Focus.
If the unknown killer is methodical enough to put on gloves and sneak up on the dentist (who’s whiffing laughing gas for relaxation), then reach out and hold the mask down on the victim’s face while flipping the dial down on the oxygen tank to asphyxiate the dude, well… your killer can’t then turn out to be a crazed half-wit who responds to questions with hysteria while waving a butcher knife. It just doesn’t make sense.
This is where beta-readers or critique partners come in handy. They’re the ones who will point out faults in your logic or say “Huh?” when you’ve wandered off track. While television gets away with outrageous leaps of logic—some of the most memorable ones: the Brady Bunch dog who is there one episode and gone the next, the infamous Darrin replacement on Bewitched—books simply don’t have that luxury. You must maintain consistency throughout.
Even the authors who write spontaneously (we call them “pantsters”, since they write by the ‘seat of their pants’) should take the time and work up a methodical sweat going over the story to make sure all the pieces fit together.
By the time you finish and edit the first draft, you should know:
The hero and heroine’s backgrounds. Now’s the time to check… Do their actions, their choices, and their dialogue match up with Who They Are?
Your voice. The personal expression must have the same feel from that delicious opening line to the satisfying conclusion. If your thing is short, snappy lines crackling with witty dialogue and sparse description, and you spontaneously decide to toss in a few pages of prose which could come straight out of a Dicken’s novel, your reader will get confused. Or bored. Yikes!
The chain of events. This means Time-line as well as the arc of action. What season is it? What month? What day? What time? If you don’t know, neither will your reader.
The place. Are you in the midst of a busy city or a tranquil suburb? Is the air gritty with smog or fragrant with the scent of a newly mown lawn? Details bring the story to life and (once again) help maintain the consistency of your story.
Ready for your rewrite? Good!
So then… pull up a chair, dish up some ice cream, and help yourself to a fresh slice of your homemade universe.