You’ll hear a lot about writing by the seat of your pants, but the truth is, every writer needs some form of organization. Some people thrive with outlines, character sketches, and so on. Others don’t. But even if writing detailed character descriptions and letters from your character to you, the author, doesn’t appeal to you, you need a way to keep track of these things.
You certainly don’t want Cindy to have blue eyes on page 45 and brown on page 231. Believe me, it’s happened. There are also moment to moment changes to deal with, such as what Cindy is wearing when the scene begins and when and if that changes. You need to know how much attention Cindy pays to her appearance… while it may not be discussed directly in the story, it affects her attitude. The reader may not realize exactly what is bothering him when the usual fastidious Cindy suddenly doesn’t care that she has axle grease on her skirt. Unless her circumstances are so dire in that moment, it will bother her… and it may even be a momentary flash of agitation even if her situation is extreme.
These details are extremely important for you to keep in mind, and the only way to know for sure is to be organized. Searching back through your manuscript is not only frustrating, but a huge waste of time you could be writing.
It’s also important to keep in mind when the story is set to have a plot point. These are those moments that are life-changing for your characters. Frank is set in his ways and doesn’t want to step up to deal with the situation, but something happens that makes him do it anyway. This is one of those moments. It needs to happen at the right time, and once it does, he may wish he can go back to his complacency, but he can’t actually do it. Having Frank get complacent again after he’s decided to act is inconsistent. While we do want to make our characters seem real, story structure dictates that once a character has decided to act, he must. That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles in his way… there should be. Which gives you something else to keep track of.
We’ve been watching Burn Notice over the past couple months. The storyline has Michael and his friends trying to get out of Miami. Every way they turned, there were more obstacles. Yes, Character X could get them what they needed, but only if they were willing to deal with Character Y. Once Character Y was dealt with, which led to more problems, Character Z appeared with yet another obstacle. You can bet the show’s writers have to keep careful tabs on who does what and when, so if they resurface at a later date, they remain consistent.
So find a system that works for you. You need to know who and what is happening at any given moment so you can keep up the story.
John and Toni Rakestraw are the owners of Rakestraw Book Design. Toni is the editor; she keeps all those words in line. John is the voice of the company. He can often be found hosting Google+ Hangouts on writing and issues writers face online. Archives for his shows can be found on YouTube.