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Melva McLean

Continuity in Film and Fiction

A colourful mess of sticky notes, with squiggly arrows in all directions, on a bulletin board.

A colourful mess of sticky notes, with squiggly arrows in all directions, on a bulletin board.Movies are usually shot in location order, not narrative order, which makes physical continuity important. Last week I was watching my favourite crime show, and the female lead wore a blue shirt in an interrogation scene. The camera caught the cop’s dialogue in close up, then cut to a close up of the bad guy, then cut back to the cop, who now wore a yellow pullover. Oops.

That’s physical continuity gone wrong, but there’s another kind of continuity, and that’s story-line continuity.

Story-line continuity, from an editorial perspective, is the same for short stories, short scripts, features, and long-form fiction; however, one method screenplay editors use to track story line continuity might be helpful to editors of fiction.  

When you are editing for narrative structure, no matter what the medium, it is impossible for most of us to track story-line continuity in our heads. I was taught to use sticky notes, six different colours of them. Before you start editing a work of fiction (a short story or novel), a play, or a film script (short or feature), put four rows of sticky notes on the wall: green for Act One; light blue for Act Two just up to the midpoint; dark blue for Act Two from the midpoint to the climax; and pink for Act Three.

Choose two other colours (I like yellow and orange), one for “setups” and the other for “payoffs.” For those of you who don’t edit fiction, think of setup as a promise made and payoff as a promise fulfilled.

On your initial read-through of a narrative piece, you can jot down plot points, turns, objectives, rises and falls on four rows of sticky notes and pepper the yellow and orange stickys as they arise. Of course, the yellow sticky notes (setups) should dominate Act One and the orange stickys should populate Act Two and Act Three of your narrative (although your author should have already tied up loose ends by then).

It sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t. You don’t have to use sticky notes on the wall, of course. Most fiction editors I know use their software’s note function in some way, and at least one of them has recreated the colourful stickys online. Whatever system you use, you will discover an easier and fun way to track story continuity.

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