Discontinuity and Narrative Errors

Your story should be an understandable sequence of events which taken consecutively will lead into one another with factual consistency. This lets your audience digest the information in a familiar manner which makes logical sense. Without this sinew the audience can’t discern what just happened or if what just happened actually happened or matters. Then all that’s left are a bunch of instances, singular and withering. Why are we cooking the flour before adding the eggs? Meh… So if you want to break this rule, show up with a damn good reason.

This is always a risky play because the audience is meant to trust the writer to properly inform about the story. When that trust is broken the audience will feel slighted, cheated and reject whatever comes next. However, when it works it subverts the audience’s expectations and keeps the plot fresh and engaging.

Continuity can be broken in pronounced ways usually brought about by typical story elements: trauma, memory loss, multiple personalities, dreamworld, time travel, multiverses. There are plenty of examples of each working and plenty of each failing and there is rarely a 50/50 split amongst the audience. When the revelation comes it better be on the aft end of a story’s worth of buildup.

Breaking continuity spawns a lot of questions.

If the post-apocalypse colony isn’t the only one to survive the zombies, then why were the colonists so dissuaded from exploring the countryside? And the last zombies bio-disintegrated two years ago? Strange. It takes the audience back forcing them to recall the information and sift for clues.

It’s a mystery and like any good mystery from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie, there have to be enough clues for the audience to make a guess or at least go back and decipher how they could have known as fair play. Sometimes the matter is explicit such as Slaughterhouse-Five where why the prose is structured in such a jumbled manner is reiterated from one character to another. Go back through Shutter Island and see all the little pieces which don’t fit the narrative. Sometimes what’s needed is a light touch and other times you can extend a hand.

What I consider most important is that you, the writer, don’t lie to your audience. This goes for a third-person narrator, and the more omniscient the stronger the bind, if we cannot trust the narrator, who can we trust? One example I see a lot comes from the Oops Actually a Girl trope where one character is purported to be a boy, perhaps young in the face with a high voice, but later is revealed to be a girl. If the narration at any point refers to her as male, the writer has purposefully misrepresented that fact. It’s a small point in an entire narrative but it sets a poor precedent. Now if it’s first-person narration you can go hog-wild knowing, and showing, the narrator to be fallible. Not necessarily unreliable with withheld information and obscured perception but not always right, like a human being.

If you’re going to have discontinuitous information, utilize where that information comes from. Instead of throwing it in the narration, frame it through an in-universe source. Have an inaccurate (satirical) history of the world? Let a rambling, fritz-brained grandparent deliver it over the family’s dinner. Politically charged outlay of the world’s superpowers? Perfect chance for the protagonist to suffer through the party’s mandatory daily newspaper. The source’s questionable trustworthiness can be filled with more garbage than the Pacific Ocean because when they’re discovered to be wrong we learn along with the protagonist. The story didn’t lie to us, characters lied to our protagonist. They were wronged so we demand the lair gets their comeuppance.

Or have the characters craft their own theories.

A gang of kids observe the purportedly haunted house and give their stories as to why it’s haunted and what’s in there. It’s a bunch of kids and if they’re wrong then that’s not shocking but it builds tension, if the entity is dangerous it sets the stakes, when the first hint of one of their suspicions rings true it justifies the next in dramatic fashion. We get to see how the characters think, what they personally fear or think will scare the others. It’s far and beyond better than a faceless narrator opening the story with, “The old Jenkins’ house was purportedly haunted by an unknown entity.” Gee, if only there was someone who knew what the end of the story was and could tell me these missing facts. Cough. Writer? Cough.

Breaking continuity can oft remind the audience that it’s just a story.

This scene where the protagonist finally stands up to her bully was just a dream, but such a wonderful dream it was that she seeks to make it reality. Why was that dream there? Seems like the writer wanted to rush her motivation. You can put anything in a dream and clear it off afterwards like a whiteboard. The sense in the back of your head is the writer wanted to get through that part and ultimately threw up his hands saying, “It’s fine.” It has great uses in exploring the depths of a stolid character or finding someone’s greatest fear but comes off cheap when used to substitute plot points.

What the audience wants to receive in exchange for their money, time, interest is meaning (amongst other things). If used improperly, discontinuity will retroactively undo much of the story’s importance. A large portion of the story was a fantasy. Fine… Does that mean all the suffering the character went through and their growth is now void since it didn’t happen? You have to make it matter somehow.

Oh the fantasy was actually a delusion caused by years of psychological abuse at the hands of her spouse. The events didn’t happen as told but they are analogous to what she suffered. Where it’s full fantasy is when she overcomes her fears and leaves him hence the symbolism of the untraversable open door. Back to the real world she still has to cross that last threshold.” You should be able to have this dialog with yourself and as an answer for beta readers. It’s incredibly helpful to keep this mindset during revisions.

When the ending occurs before the last page or is foretold early on there’s going to be a few questions about why we should invest in the rest of the story. It couldn’t have been placed there for no reason, no part of the story can occur without reason at risk of making cynics of the audience. If it’s character focused use the forgone conclusion to connect us to that character.

He’s a soldier and he knows through divine intervention that he’s going to die in the next assault. Aside from the dramatic tension, delve into that soldier’s psyche and explore what drives a man to act beyond self-preservation. What does a man hold dearer than his own life and how far is he willing to go to achieve it? What does he do with his last few hours on this earth? Explore these concepts in a meaningful way and though everyone knows the ending it becomes of secondary importance. We’re not here for the end of a plot; we’re here to see what becomes of our favorite characters and answer a soul-gripping philosophical quandary.

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