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Paul Cipywnyk

Know Your Subject, Watch That Continuity

downloadBlam! Blam! Black Sombrero fired his Colt .45 at the shadow in the barn, then spun and snapped three shots at the posse approaching across the coral. Zing! A shot from behind creased his shoulder, and he wheeled back, fanning four quick shots at the figure in the gaping doorway.


Damn, he was empty! Black Sombrero hit the dirt while grabbing a fresh clip from his belt…

And the reader groaned and threw the book across the room, vowing to never buy another Black Sombrero novel again.

What made the reader so upset?

Perhaps the reader knows a bit about firearms, while the writer seems to know nothing. That opening scene could read well for many people, but if you’re familiar with handguns, it makes no sense and is a mishmash of technologies and eras.

The opening appears to be from a stereotypical Wild West cowboy-outlaw yarn. We’ve got Black Sombrero firing a Colt .45 at a posse. But he shoots it, let’s count, nine times. Nine times without reloading. That’s impossible, since a Wild West-era .45 Colt Single-Action Army revolver has six chambers, and there is no mention of a second gun.

But wait, there’s more – confusion that is.

In the second paragraph Black Sombrero is reaching for a clip. Oh, so it’s a 1911 Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol, not a six-gun? OK, there were outlaws and posses into the early 20th century so I guess I can buy that.

Hold on! But it says he “fanned” the pistol. You cannot fan a .45 Auto, you fan a single-action revolver by holding down the trigger while slapping the hammer with the other hand.

And there would still be the issue of the number of shots fired without reloading. A clip for a 1911 Colt .45 holds seven rounds.

Picky, picky, you say? As a reader, I have thrown books across the room and not finished them because of such errors. As an editor, you have to be able to catch things like this that your writer may have, er, missed. Get it? Missed. Blam!

To get readers to suspend their disbelief and get into a tale, the basic facts have to ring true. Even fantasy and sci-fi genres have to adhere to some framework of physical reality.

Good writers of historical/period novels sweat the details. Heck, all good writers in any discipline should sweat the details. Sweat them so hard that, to the reader, everything flows seamlessly and naturally.

So should editors sweat, too.

Disentangle yourself from grammar and structure, and take another pass looking at plausibility and continuity. How far can a person walk in a day? Is that on a road? Through a forest? In the desert?

What would a character realistically wear? Eat? Where would she sleep? Bathe? Take care of bodily functions? If a character acquires anything, be it weaponry, food, clothing, or knowledge, ensure that there’s a reason for the change.

Readers enjoy surprises, but they have to make sense.


Previous post from Paul Cipywnyk: Zoom, Zoom: Rev Up Your Editing.

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9 Comments on “Know Your Subject, Watch That Continuity”

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Great post, Paul! Editors have to work at many levels – language, organization, style, content … plus good judgment, support, and diplomacy.

  • Michelle Roxborough


    Great point, Paul. As an avid reader and retired English teacher, I agree that continuity can make or break the flow of a story. Attention to detail is critical in a well written story.

  • Anita Jenkins


    My friend writes historical novels, and she researches to the nth degree things like horse-drawn vehicles, dinner menus, costumes and political issues of the time (1850s Ontario). This effort of course makes the book plausible and effective. It also gives Canadians an accurate idea of their largely unknown history.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      We readers certainly hope that authors do their research – for fiction and nonfiction alike. But editors can’t be specialists in every subject. So the question for us is how much should we know to work at a professional level? Obviously we edit only in those areas in which we feel comfortable, but what if we encounter some sections in a manuscript where we know nothing at all, so can’t rely on even our general knowledge? If other readers are interested in comparing notes, I’ll join the conversation on how I handle this common situation.

  • Anita Jenkins


    For documents directed at the general public/layperson it can be helpful to have an editor who knows as little about the topic as the intended reader. If the editor doesn’t understand the text, then the reader probably won’t either. To some extent what Wilf is talking about is fact checking, which is not usually the job of an editor.

  • Frances Peck


    I read a novel recently by an award-winning U.S. author in which the protagonist drove into town one hot summer day (much trickling of sweat and mopping of brow), did a big grocery shop, loaded the bags in his pickup, and spontaneously decided to cross the street to see a late matinee. After the movie he had dinner at a nearby diner. Then he headed home in the truck (nighttime now) and had an accident along the way during which the groceries, including an injurious bag of frozen peas, flew everywhere.

    1. Who would buy groceries on a sweltering day and leave them in their vehicle for roughly 3 hours (movie + dinner)?
    2. How on earth would the peas still be frozen after all that time?
    3. Surprise: the peas and other groceries are in the cab of the truck. Maybe it’s just me, but until then I’d assumed that «loaded the bags into the pickup» meant loaded into the truck bed, since there are a lot of bags and it’s a pickup.

    As a reader, I’m not too bothered by an occasional anachronism or technical goof-up. Those things happen, and if they’re few and far between in an otherwise great book, okay, fine. But common-sense logical snarls like the ones above drive me nuts. I ended up hating the novel because it was filled with implausible situations like this. Each one eroded my belief in the fictional world the author had created, and each one made me wonder: where was his editor??

  • «Blam! Blam! Black Sombrero fired his Colt .45 at the shadow in the barn, then spun and snapped three shots at the posse approaching across the coral. Zing!»

    This error is niggling at me like a tiny sharp piece of coral in my foot! With clues like «Sombrero», «Colt», and «barn», it’s a pretty quick leap to understand that the scene does not take place underwater but in the Wild West, where horses and cattle are kept in corrals to keep them from straying.

    I love and hate these types typos! Love them when I can fix ’em, squirm when I can only notice them!

    • ahem, types of typos 😉

  • Paul Cipywnyk


    Good catch — missed by several eyes :-).

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