Watch Your Language: Write Out Those Inconsistencies

inappropriate phraseOne thing that’s kind of fun, and kind of annoying, about being a writer is spotting slip-ups in traditionally published books.

I’m currently reading a well-known trad-pubbed epic fantasy. This trilogy has garnered critical acclaim. It was optioned for a movie (although the option has run out). A video game has been set in the world of this series. The author was even hired to finish another author’s fantasy series after the original author of that series died. (Bonus points if you can name both authors.)

In short, people love these books. But I’ve found inconsistencies in the story.

Inconsistency number one: A dictator has ruled this world for the past thousand years. When he took the reins of power, he systematically stamped out all of the world’s religions, and took to calling himself a god. As a result, a religion grew up around him. There is no indication that the tenets of this religion include any sort of afterlife. Yet one of the major characters in the second and third books – a blunt-spoken fellow – often uses the word hell as an interjection, like this: “Hell, Fred, your idea is going to get us into trouble.” In our real world, such usage would be considered cursing, right? Mildly blasphemous? So why would a guy from a culture that doesn’t appear to believe in an afterlife use the word “hell” as an obscenity? Where would the idea even come from?

Inconsistency number two – and I think this one is worse: In a conversation between the two main characters, the man mentions three people the woman has killed and calls their deaths a “homicidal hat trick.” The man was trying to be funny (no, really), and the line did make me grin. But then I had to put the book down and step away for a moment, because it also made me a little crazy. As you may know, hat trick is a sports term – it’s when a player scores three goals in a single game. I’m most familiar with it from hockey, but Wikipedia says it’s used in other sports, too. But nobody in this series plays any of those games, or even a version of those games. Why would these characters use that term? How would they know what it means?

The point I’m trying to make is that every element in your fictional world needs to be consistent with the characters and the setting. One out-of-place phrase or metaphor can make your reader pause enough to throw them out of the story.

You might think this would only be a problem with fantasy and science fiction. But historical fiction, too, can trap the unwary author, and not just in terms of fashion. Your 1940s characters shouldn’t have 2015 opinions – not unless they’re very much ahead of their time.

Contemporary fiction, too, can cause problems. If your main character is a child, it would be a bad idea to have a simile about booze or guns come out of his mouth – unless the kid is growing up in the sort of neighborhood where booze and guns are commonplace. And if your character gets into a taxi in New York, it’s unlikely the driver would call him “guv’nor.”

It’s fun to point fingers at traditional publishing. But don’t just laugh at their slip-ups; learn from them. Try to make your own fictional worlds as airtight – as believable – as possible.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Watch Your Language: Write Out Those Inconsistencies”

  1. These inconsistencies are so easy to miss. It’s one of the things I ask my beta readers to look for. My books are set in times long gone. So I need to make sure i don’t throw in terms or expressions that are too modern.

  2. That’s why one needs multiple couple of eyes to read through a manuscript. And there are still those who believe they are so good they can do all by themselves. Going from Self-Publishing directly into Self-Delusional Publishing.


  3. If it is any consolation, Lynne, I know some classics make some of these mistakes. If I’m remembering it correctly, I learned the term anachronism in either grade English class while reading A Tale of Two Cities. Still one of the best books ever written, but I remember he had a reference that was applicable to his time and place, but not the time of the French Revolution. (What it was, didn’t stick.)

      1. LOL, Lynne. I find the paradox ironical because indies are held to higher standards–or so it seems. Just so you know, I enjoy “playing the game,” too. 🙂

  4. Fun post, Lynne – I enjoyed that. My own favourite pastime is spotting typos in trad published books. Nearly every single one has at least a couple, and I often find an almost typographically perfect book is let down with a cluster of three or four mistakes in a couple of pages somewhere in the book, as though those pages were edited or went into the MS at the last minute. Always makes me feel slightly less worse about the typos in my own stuff 🙂

  5. I find a lot of these, probably because I read a lot.
    One of the men in my local writers’ group where we critique each others’ writing has a novel beginning at the end of WWI. His MC was watching a parade in Paris and watching the generals pass, he questioned whether they may have been bullied in school. Whoa! Pulled me completely out of the story because bullying in school was not something that was even a ‘thing’ in the 1960s when I was in school. Back then the prevailing thought was ‘boys will be boys,’ ‘fight your own battles,’ etc. If you had a big brother who could take up for you, you might have a fighting chance to save yourself, otherwise, you learned to fight, or took it. Even in the 60s when I was in school – it certainly would not have been a ‘thing’ in the early 20th century. It is barely a thing in some schools now when it should be curtailed severely, but 100 years ago, it would not even have been mentioned. My thought that even the word ‘bully’ was not used. He argued that it was an appropriate thought and question. Conceded that he would give it some thought. LOL
    Would any of you have questioned this?

    1. British public schools were notorious for bullying on a variety of levels, well back into the early Victorian period, if not before. My perception is that bullying is an integral part of the private school and military experience, so no, I wouldn’t question it if the story were set in ancient Rome.

    2. I’d question the author having a character bring it up, especially if it was a common practice during that time period — unless the character goes on to begin a crusade against bullying. Good catch, Barbara!

  6. What makes these kinds of things more difficult is the fact that they are so often second nature to us, and because of that, transparent. Objects, styles of clothing, belief structures, social mores–whatever is normal for us seems reasonable until we drop it into a different era. However, it does all make the game of “spot what the high-priced editor missed” more interesting! I love that game!

    1. Thanks, Meeks! 🙂 I’d like to think the editor flagged it and the author explained it away. 😉 But then why not edit the text elsewhere to make the phrase stick out less? All the author would have had to do for the “hat trick” remark was include a scene where people were playing a field-hockey-type game in the background of the main action.

  7. In historical fiction, it’s even more difficult than one might think. It’s not good enough to have your characters use era-appropriate language. You have to make their language appropriate to what most readers THINK the era sounded like. The most obvious example is “okay.” Most readers would probably say that this expression was spread because of the Americans in WWII, or maybe a little before. Some sources, however, put the word in use in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, if your 1870 character says, “okay,” a bunch of your picky readers will go all Lynne Cantwell on you, and start telling everyone you made a mistake. They will be wrong, but it will have thrown them out of their immersion in your book, which is the main reason we worry about this sort of thing. Most readers will not go and look it up. They will just assume, as most of the human race usually does, that they are right and you are wrong.
    I think Lynne’s example of “hat trick” is perfect. It is arguable that they probably play sports in that realm. But the expression sounds just too present-day, present-world. It threw her out of contact with a book she likes, and probably did the same for a number of other people.
    The moral of the story; being right doesn’t matter. Duck the opportunity to be seen to be wrong.

    1. Funny you should say, ‘However, if your 1870 character says, “okay,” a bunch of your picky readers will go all Lynne Cantwell on you, and start telling everyone you made a mistake,’ because OK was there, a handy abbreviation, ready to be of service for the telegraph operators and by 1870 OK had become the standard way for telegraph operators to acknowledge receiving a transmission, making it well on the way to becoming one of the most established American, and then of course global, words. And so, arguably, it may have ended up with a transitory fate if not for that singular fact.

  8. Aside from the inconsistency issue, that writer missed a nifty trick. Curses are a fabulous vehicle for showing worldview, gender, class, and attitude in one compact and colorful expression. Anne McCaffrey had me saying, “Shards!” for years after reading her dragon books. (The hatching of a dragon’s egg was a central event in that world.)

    1. Agreed, Anna. I used “frack” (from the original Battlestar Galactica) in place of a similar four-letter word for years.

      Of course, now fracking is something else. (Although the planet might end up screwed from the practice, so maybe it’s not that different. And that’s my political allusion for today 😉 ).

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