Have you had questions when you finished a story? Such as wondering why they made a big deal of the dog following the General before that first big battle? Did you wonder how or why the dog would be important? Whether it had a special relationship with its owner? Whether it might save his life in battle?
In movies this is called a continuity problem. Movie viewers are conditioned to expect that anything given significant screen time will be intentional – and be connected in by the end.
In stories, these questions often happen because the writer set something up – and then forgot about it, leaving a hanging thread on the back of the story tapestry. Not all of these are caught on revision, either, even if the editors are keeping exhaustive notes.
But when a story is exposed to a larger number of readers (this is called publication), the plot holes can become glaring, and the repair job is major.
Extremely detailed outlines may help. But extremely detailed outlines are a pain to change, and many writers (including me) don’t like to do the maintenance required to keep a complete outline current with the story.
I think the reason is that the detailed outlines are meant to cover the whole story – and thus are very long.
My solution is to keep it at the scene level.
Before I write/revise a scene, I make myself fill in/edit a short template for scenes, the pieces of which I’ve pulled together out of a bunch of books.
Many writers create some kind of an outline before they write a scene, but when the scene is written, and that structure skeleton is covered by words, the outline is discarded, never to be used again.
I keep them. And update them. I don’t consider a scene complete unless every line is filled in for the scene template, but I don’t restrict myself to whether the template is filled before, during, or after the writing: just as long as they match when the scene is done. When completely filled in, the template occupies at most a page or two. (I’ll cover the full scene template, and discuss the other entries, in future posts tagged ‘scene template.’)
I put the templates in a parallel file to the actual text labeled ‘Structure’, and one of the main reasons is that two of the entries are:
‘Unanswered questions’ is where I keep track of the questions the reader will have when this scene is over. Beyond the obvious ‘What happens next?’ each one of these questions MUST be answered in a future scene. Somehow. No exceptions. Many of these questions WILL be answered by the upcoming scenes organically, and need no special effort (except keeping track of the answer scene’s number).
The template entry ‘Question(s):’ thus becomes ‘What is the reader going to learn about the story in this scene?’ Simple.
It may seem like a lot of extra work up front.
But when the story is finished, I have a cumulative list of all the questions I left in the reader’s mind – and I KNOW where each question is answered. Keeps me from leaving those irritating lost threads and plot holes.
Such as: ‘What happened to Maximus’ dog?’