Definition and Continuity

Note: this blog is about writing and publishing. Today’s topic easily applies to words and subjects that can be considered ‘hot buttons’ on the political stage I am not taking any political position here; therefore, any political, moral or ethical offence you find in this post is something you brought with you and not my doing.

My wife is currently serving on the assessment committee at our local university. She and the committee have put considerable effort into defining the words goal and objective for the purpose of assessment at our university. Early last week the committee finally reached agreement and were ready to go forward with applying their definitions; which they would have if someone had not opened the university handbook and discovered that the handbook committee finally agreed on the opposite set of definitions…

This problem is considerably wider than one university in the Pacific North West. Words like gender, ethnicity, moral, and (possibly worst of all) “fairness” seem to change meaning on a daily basis. Even our fiction is not safe. Movie, TV and print series seem to shift on their meanings of what a given power or ability is or can do. Even character backgrounds get changed to fit what a writer wants a given character to do and say.

I’m not just calling this a problem, it is one. Having different meanings for words and different understandings of concepts is a frequent source of misunderstandings, disagreements, and good old fashioned arguments. It is true that people occasionally have different understandings of things. It is true that occasionally you need to change a definition or use a different understanding because the situation has changed. However, neither of those truths forgives sloppiness in meaning or malicious attempts to shift meaning or unfairly profit from a misunderstanding.

Start with definition

We as readers and writers need to understand the words and concepts we use. It is alright and even appropriate that our understanding develops over time. But, we do need to put in the effort to understand the words and concepts we use.

On some of my nonfiction projects my understanding of a term’s meaning shifts significantly in the process of researching and writing. If this happens before the project is published part of the editing process is that I need to go back through the piece and make sure my meaning is consistent, or at least document how and why my understanding changed. If my understanding has changed since a piece was released and I write something new on the same subject I might need to explain why I changed my view and/or definition.

In either case after a writer has found his or her definition or meaning it is usually a good idea to communicate that definition to the reader. In non-fiction it could be as simple as writing the following…Definition: (N) the meaning of a word or concept. In a fiction situation you might build a whole story around a character learning what something means, or you might just want to have good old Captain Exposition drop a one liner about it.

I know that it can be fun to be mysterious about things. And there are ways to go about that (a subject for a later post (or maybe the comments…)). But, if you’re trying to be mysterious and come off as not knowing what you’re talking about, or if you come off as just being slipshod in you thinking, that doesn’t achieve the affect you want. It also makes you look incompetent. Possibly worse, if you don’t have or use a solid definition your reader may feel manipulated. That twist ending that comes out of the blue, the one that your reader can’t go back and find any clues for… Yeah… Um… People don’t like those. People don’t like to feel manipulated. Even if they came to your writing to be manipulated, people are offended by obvious manipulation. Using good definitions is one way of avoiding that.

Continuity

Continuity is the second part of the struggle for meaning. Continuity means that you are using the same meaning or set of facts consistently. It’s not fair to have a character go through all of your first book talking about growing up in Paris France and traveling on her French passport, and then turn around in the second book and say no, she grew up in Paris Idaho because in this book things work better for her to be a citizen of the USA. And, even if you manage to get away with that one, you will annoy somebody when in the third book she turns out to be a he and tells the reader that he has lived his entire life at Paris Island South Carolina (btw you then also have to explain why the person lived his/her/it’s entire life on a Marine Corps base… Just don’t do it!)

If you have a character that likes to tell stories about being from other places that could be ok. But, if you’re just changing the characters background to fit what you as a writer want her to do at the moment, that is a problem.

The ‘retcon’ or retroactive continuity does exist in writing, but to most of the people I’ve talked to it isn’t a good thing. Retcons tend to read as “I’ve written myself into a corner”; “I think the last guy wrote this wrong”; or “to heck with the fan boys this is want to have happen”.

Just like your definitions, sometimes your continuity does need to change. If you’re relaunching a character or series why not do a little updating and refurbishing? But be honest about it. If you are theoretically working in the same world/universe/timeline you’ve just created a lot of other problems for yourself. There are things that you will need to explain and fans that you will annoy. You might want to stop and think about whether it is really a good idea to retcon, or maybe tell your new story with a new character.

Yes, it does take a lot of work to keep your definitions, characters and story lines straight. Yes it can be hard work to create and introduce new characters. At the same time, how easy is it to retcon the retcon of the retcon that you retconned before that other retcon and still keep everything believable for the person that liked your story in episode one?

That’s it or this one dear reader, see you next week.

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