The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Cigarette

A Lesson on the Importance of Continuity

Photo by Irina Iriser on

Charlie O’Brian and Declan Falker, title characters of their novel, have the unfortunate 1920s habit of smoking.

I’m just going to tell you right now, characters who smoke are just flat out troublemakers. At least in my book.

This book was a cowriting project that I worked on with my best friend, Harriet Stuart (which you probably know if you’ve navigated to this page). Basically, the way we wrote this was by each taking a character–I wrote Charlie while she wrote Declan–and writing lines back and forth. As such, things got missed. Maybe one of us wasn’t paying close enough attention to the last line and so didn’t realize that the characters had already left a building, or done something else that was now completely redundant. It happens.

Our biggest issue was the darn cigarettes.

Seriously, the number of times that we would forget that someone still had a lit cigarette in their hand as they proceeded to do whatever else with their life… We had a real case of mysterious disappearing cigarettes.

But this phenomenon isn’t limited to cowriting. Not in the slightest.

Let me tell you about the disappearing gun.

As a high school junior, I adapted Baroness Von Orczy’s novel The Scarlet Pimpernel into a stage play. I wanted to stay very true to the text, as adaptations that stray too far have a tendency to tick me off. The one change that I knew I wanted to make, however, was the climax. In the book, the hero and villain never actually have a face-to-face confrontation; the way the author accomplished this is really quite clever. It doesn’t work that well for visual media, though. And sue me, I wanted an epic sword fight in my play.

So I set to work writing my own climax, in which the villain holds the hero at gunpoint for a good two or three pages… and then the villain decides to scrap that idea and instead grabs a sword to begin a duel.

Pretty obvious discrepancy, right? If he still had the gun in his hand, why not just shoot his opponent? Why go through the completely unnecessary but incredibly dramatic sword fight?

Here’s why. I forgot the gun existed.

It wasn’t until… oh, probably my twentieth read through of the script that I realized what had happened. Ultimately, in fixing this issue, I was able to add in a hilarious scene in which the hero’s sidekicks come in disguised and subtly empty the gun, leading to the dramatic moment where the villain poises to shoot the hero and all you hear is a click. In my opinion, it ended up being one of the best parts of the play.

So why do these things happen? Why do we make continuity mistakes like these, subtle but sometimes extremely important? Well, for one thing, we can’t actually see what’s going on when we write something on paper. Sure, we can see the words and we have a good image of what’s going on in our head, but we don’t actually have actors coming out and going through every motion. You don’t see the cigarette or gun disappear–you just look up a couple paragraphs later and it’s gone.

One of the best things I’ve found to help with discovering continuity errors is reading your work aloud. It forces your brain to slow down and not skip over things, thereby giving you a better picture of what’s actually going on. (This can also help with proofreading, as it’s a lot easier to notice if you missed a word when you make yourself read every one, as opposed to your mind just filling in that gap.)

And hey. If you want to have a whole bunch of your friends come by and act out every scene of your story, that’s cool, too.

For more on Charlie and Declan, check out the serialized novel here–new chapters coming weekly. For the full Scarlet Pimpernel play, you can find the video here.

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