Logistics

Stories often begin with a lone kernel of an idea. Mine tend to begin when a few characters appear in my mind and don’t want to leave me alone. A single interaction between them can cause an entire book to be built around it. Generally, that’s how I plot, too. My process is basically just me figuring out how to construct a story around scenes that must happen.

But when I first started writing seriously, it would trip me up. I’d be writing the scene I’d been waiting a year to write, and all would be great. I’d create a setting in which the interaction would take place and go nuts pounding out the words that had been living in my head for so long. It’d be done before I knew it and after a night of sleep and letting it rest I would come back to it and realize I’d made a grave, grave error.

My characters would be so influenced by my neurotic imaginings of their interaction that they wouldn’t at all be influenced by the actual environment in which they were. Outside the sky would be heavy with clouds but they would still squint against the sun to see things better. Loud music would be playing but soft conversations from across the room would still be overheard. The room would be so dark only silhouettes should’ve been clear but for some reason the colour of the wallpaper would be discernable.

It was a result of the scene not evolving in my mind along with the rest of the story. I would have strong plot reasons for it to be a very cloudy day, but because the scene in my mind had always been an arbitrarily sunny one, I would subconsciously impose a completely different kind of weather. It was an issue of continuity.

Since becoming aware of the issue, I came up with a way to resolve it. It’s juvenile in its simplicity.

Keep a list of logistics. These can include light quality, temperature, weather, sound, and architecture.

Here’s an example. First, the wrong way to do it.

Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. He heard her approach quietly behind him.

“Are you alright?” she whispered. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

She hurried to him and helped him up before he could stop her. Prompted by an ingrained memory of his strict mother, he automatically brushed dirt off his knees.

“Leave,” he said.

He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. His breath caught at her beauty. Tears streaked down her flushed cheeks, and her dark hair billowed and flowed in the breeze. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.

There are a number of problems here. Taking the first paragraph where I describe the environment, these are our logistics: it’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. So how does he hear her approach quietly? How does he hear her whisper when she’s nowhere near close enough to be heard through the storm? How can he brush dirt off his knees when he was soaked in seconds? It’d be mud and it would seep into his clothing. When he sees her beauty, how can he see? He’s blinded by darkness. On that note, how does she even see him fall? And why is her hair billowing and flowing when it should be slick against her head? How does he know those are tears on her face when it could just be rain?

These are the kinds of continuity errors that come up very often in first drafts, but they’re easily avoidable. All you have to do is keep in mind the main aspects of the environment. It’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. Add occasional lightning to the storm and suddenly you have a source of light. It does nothing to change your actual story; the weather’s already bad. If she approaches him quietly, have her surprise him with a hand on his shoulder while he’s still on the ground. Now she’s close to him, which means he’d be able to hear her even if her voice isn’t very loud. When she helps him up, have him wipe his muddy hands on his pants and cringe at his mother’s memory instead of trying to respect it.

Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Lightning flashed weakly and the forest floor glowed, tangles of vines and roots glistening.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked away. He stilled at the familiar voice by his ear.

“Are you alright?” she whispered, voice carrying over the din of the rain, her warm breath puffing against his skin. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

She hooked an arm under his and helped him up before he could stop her. He wiped his muddy hands on his wet pants with a grimace and a silent apology to his mother.

“Leave,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear.

He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. Lightning forked across the sky and his breath caught. Even with her hair plastered to her head, cheeks wet with what he told himself was only rain, she was beautiful. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.

Fundamentally, the scene hasn’t changed. All I did was tweak a few actions to make it plausible. But another thing you’ll notice is that the scene was actually made more intimate. He heard her whisper above the rain because she was so close to him, which wouldn’t have had to be true if it hadn’t been raining or if, as in the first attempt, I hadn’t followed the rules of the logistics I’d set. What I’m left with is a scene that not only takes into account the environment so it can play out naturally, but also gave me an opportunity to flesh out a more meaningful interaction.

And it doesn’t stop there. This scene could be even more tellingly intimate. Again, it comes down to logistics.

The rain is cold. She puts a hand on his shoulder. Her hand is warm. Instant awareness. Even if he jerks away, maybe the warmth could be familiar. Of course, warmth in and of itself isn’t only applicable to humans, but having him think of a certain someone in the moment of that warmth tells quite a bit about his psychological state of mind. When she’s that close to him, does he really want to run? What is he remembering when her breath is puffing into his ear? When she hooks an arm under his to help him, that human contact in a time of desperation would maybe be comforting. When she tugs at his sleeve, do her fingers graze the skin of his wrist?

We know how the environment affects him. How does she affect him? How do her actions impact his state of mind?

Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Lightning flashed weakly and the forest floor glowed, tangles of vines and roots glistening.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was nearly hot in contrast to the rain. In the split second before he instinctively jerked away, he thought of her. He froze when she spoke into his ear.

“Are you alright?” she whispered, voice carrying over the din of the rain, her warm breath puffing against his skin. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. She’d always been afraid they would hear. He shivered when she spoke again and blamed it on the wind. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he said and quickly bowed his head away from her.

She hooked an arm under his and helped him up before he could stop her. The contact made his knees weak with longing. He needed comfort, wanted heat, and at that moment he felt she was the only thing that could banish the damp from his bones. He stepped away and wiped his muddy hands on his wet pants with a grimace and a silent, desperately out-of-place apology to his mother for dirtying his clothes.

“Leave,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear. He hoped she hadn’t heard it crack, too.

He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. Lightning forked across the sky and his breath caught. Even with her hair plastered to her head, cheeks wet with what he told himself was only rain, she was beautiful.

The night succumbed to darkness once more and his only awareness of her became the brands that were her fingers brushing against the skin of his wrist. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.

The people around your main character are also part of the environment. So now, your new logistics are: it’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. He is greatly in love with the woman, and she keeps touching him.

Keeping all this in mind is how you go from point A to point B. What was at first a rough draft passage, a bare-bones scene, has turned into a psychologically important event necessary for the growth of the main character. All just by considering where things are, why they’re there, what the weather’s like, and how he feels about it.

           

12 Responses to Logistics

  1. jeffo Jul 18 2014 at 7:10 am #

    Oh, those continuity issues. For me, a lot of them pop up because of how I figure things out as I go–so a character has two sisters and a brother on page 31, but by page 106 I realize it’s only one each. I’m almost never aware of things like that while running out the first draft, but by the time I’m re-reading, I will usually know there’s an issue when I come across it the first time. Good advice, Biljana, thanks.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Jul 18 2014 at 1:10 pm #

      Oh definitely, for me it happens all the time when I’m trying to get a handle on a character that doesn’t appear too often. He’ll have a bald spot in the first chapter, and then a full head of hair in the next. I’ve started keeping track of character appearances for quick reference for that reason exactly.

  2. Marilynn Byerly Jul 18 2014 at 9:59 am #

    As someone who’s been at this longer than you have, let me give you some advice.

    It isn’t not logistics, it’s viewpoint. If you’re solidly in your viewpoint character’s head, seeing what they are seeing and feeling what they are feeling, you won’t have problems like this.

    May I also suggest my article on how to avoid all those sentences beginning with a “he” or “she.”

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2014/06/how-to-vary-sentences.html

    • Biljana
      Biljana Jul 18 2014 at 2:08 pm #

      I’d like to respectfully disagree. I find that to be true only if your character is a reliable account of what’s going on around them. It’s easy to say “be in his head” but the fact of the matter is, the environment isn’t in his head. It has nothing to do with his state of mind (assuming this isn’t a fantasy/sci-fi where he can influence it and weather isn’t being used as a dramatic device). If it’s raining hard, he might be in a psychological position where all he thinks about is her and he doesn’t even notice the storm, but that won’t change the fact that it’s raining hard. He still wouldn’t be able to hear her approach or hear her whisper. Things that your character can’t control, outside influences like the environment or other characters, those are what I termed (perhaps misguidedly) logistics. They’re the things that the character may not notice or care for but will still impact how they see the world purely because not having them impact makes no logical sense.

      I would argue that the point of this post is that sometimes you have to get out of the character’s head and enter instead the world around him. Getting too caught up with being in his head was how I’d make the mistakes. Since the purpose of the scene is for him to have this interaction with her, and I as the author know what she’s doing, I’d focus so much on his mood and voice and his mental and physical reactions to her actions that I’d forget he can’t even see them. Then, in an artificial way to try to fix the lack of light, I’d throw in a full moon, momentarily forgetting that it’s storming because I’m so focused on my character who hasn’t even noticed the rain. That’s where keeping track of the environment comes in handy. Then, later, when you have all the logical facts pinned down, you re-enter his head and see what happens. This is first and foremost about continuity within your world, not just within your character’s mind.

      In terms of viewpoints, there’s a fantastic concept in drama that I’d considered writing about but didn’t, because I didn’t think I could do it justice. It’s all about the process of developing the actions and personality of your character by taking into account all of the physical, unchangeable things around them, and it’s called, you guessed it, Viewpoints. Anne Bogart wrote a fantastic book about it, if you’re interested.

      Regarding he/she, I write these snippets entirely for these posts, so I never name the characters because I consider them to be pretty much archetypes. That’s also why they’re nearly always a man and a woman when I write them. He and she are pronouns that are easy to keep track of. Regardless, thanks for the link! I always appreciate advice and discussion.

  3. Alexa S. Jul 18 2014 at 12:18 pm #

    What an excellent post! This has actually been a problem of mine for a long time, and I have to really go through the entire story I write over again to fix it afterwards. You’ve got a great suggestion for keeping track of things and I’ll definitely have to try it!

    • Biljana
      Biljana Jul 18 2014 at 2:12 pm #

      I’m glad you think so! Little continuity things can slip through so frustratingly easily. The best rememdy is a careful critique partner, but hopefully this helps nip the problem in the bud. Good luck!

  4. Tess Jul 18 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    Thank you for posting this – I love it when people post examples to compare changes. That’s the one way I can really get things. I’ve had this problem too – at times I’ll write out of order, perhaps early on I’ll write a pivotal scene I’m excited about, and then when the rest of the draft finally gets to that scene, things (logistics) are different than what I first imagined for the scene. So it takes tweaking to make it match up, assuming I catch the differences since that one scene always been so strong in my mind.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Jul 18 2014 at 2:32 pm #

      I’m glad the examples work! To be honest I get a bit nervous when posting actual examples like that. The first one was especially tricky because I was so ridiculously aware of the environment since that’s what the entire post is on that it was actually hard to make a purposeful, believable continuity error like you might see in a first draft. It’s actually a cool writing exercise: intentionally writing in a way that you’re aware isn’t 100% true to your setting.

      And yeah, that’s where I’ll mess up, too. Editing to make everything fit can be tedious since it usually has little to do with beautiful prose and character development. It’s literally a cross-examination of the scenes.

  5. Rowenna Jul 18 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    Great post! I think it was good to point out that this is the difference between first draft and revised writing, too. Sometimes in those early phases, you are just getting the story out, and those gestures and thoughts mean something important–and you have to adjust them later to fit, realistically, with the surroundings or course of action.

    I will say, too, it’s ok not to overthink logistics *too* much. Obvious gaffes–like “It was so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face” followed by recognizing someone on sight–are one thing. But your character who “brushed dirt off his knees” in a wet forest? As a reader I skimmed that because I read dirt as “any type of debris” and forest floors are covered in debris–so I imagined him brushing leaf particulate and bark chunks and last year’s pine needles away. (Maybe I’ve spent way too much time in wet forests…) You and/or your beta readers will trip over the logistical gaps, for sure!

    • Biljana
      Biljana Jul 18 2014 at 3:27 pm #

      Ahhhh yes. I’ve been called out before on the dirt thing. I’m one of those people to whom dirt means dirt, separate from mud. But nearly the exact same conversation happened between myself and my critique partners probably a number of times with similar things. I might try to defend it being here just for the purpose of showing a continuity error (they’re surprisingly difficult to do intentionally) but you definitely shot down any possible defense. Good catch, and very good point!

  6. Elora Nicole Aug 5 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    Oh man. Continuity is huge for me. I can hear dialogue and see the shift in the body language, but so often the setting falls by the wayside. Related: timing. If I mention characters watch the sunrise and the next chapter they’re suddenly eating dinner, there’s some developmental editing that needs to occur. Thanks for such a great post!

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