Consistency is No Hobgoblin When it Comes to Writing

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Most people leave off the word “foolish” when they quote this sentence by Ralph Waldo Emerson, leading us to believe that any consistency is the sign of a little mind, and interestingly, that is exactly what Emerson said.

Here is the entire passage: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Despite Emerson’s condemnation of consistency, the truth is, foolish or not, consistency is an attribute of a good writer. Readers will forgive a writer almost anything except inconsistencies that interrupt the flow of the story.

I once started to read a book where a man spirited away the Shah of Iran. According to the author, the Shah lived fifteen years beyond his supposed death in 1980. The operation was so secret and successful that no one knew about it. But . . . It took only this one very high profile achievement to assure a solid client base for the man. Supposedly, word travels quickly in the very elite circles of power, and so the demand for the man’s services was always in excess of his ability to produce.

What?????? If no one knew that the Shah survived his death, how could word travel? And if word did travel, how could high profile clients remain “dead,” especially since most of them were hiding from those in the elite circles of power? The inconsistency took me out of the story, and I never did finish reading the book.

It’s almost impossible to keep inconsistencies from slipping into a story, which is why self-editing, though vital, cannot be the final editing process. We writers see consistency because we see what we meant to say. Others only see the inconsistency. I am grateful to one of my editors for finding a blatant inconsistency in Daughter Am I. The editor wrote, “It’s not clear here whether or not Mary completely removed her shirt. If she did, when she stood up and ran to the bathroom, then turned around and had the conversation with Tim, she’d have been completely topless. Given their feelings for each other, and their state of undress, it seems unlikely they would have been able to have such a lengthy conversation without biology taking over sooner.”

Oops. I completely missed that. Mary took off her shirt so Tim could massage her sore back, and when the massage turned heated, Mary (engaged to someone else) runs from her feelings and hides in the bathroom. Inadvertently, I had her brazenly opening the bathroom door, standing half-naked, and starting a casual conversation—not at all what my poor innocent Mary would have done. After traveling halfway across the country in the company of seven old gangsters (well, six gangsters and one aged ex-night hall dancer) she’d lost most of her naiveté, but still, she would not have flaunted her naked breasts.

Naked breasts may pale in comparison with unsecret secret operations, but the inconsistency could have dammed the flow of the story for discerning readers. So, the moral of this tale is, if you remove your heroine’s shirt or other apparel, make sure you remember her state of undress and write accordingly.

One Response to “Consistency is No Hobgoblin When it Comes to Writing”

  1. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I agree that we must strive to get our details right and to be consistent. As you say, self-editing can only go so far.

    Right now I am working on a steampunk project with a fist full of other writers. Here I am merrily re-writing history to give 1901 in Australia some edge in terms of steam. I am pushing both the development of the zeppelin and the aeroplane forward by at least a decade and reworking some failed prototype steam engine weapons from the 19th Century so that they are no longer failures.

    In all of this I must be consistent with not only characterization and setting but how I have fiddled with history. For example, I am having the Wright brothers, in partnership with Lawrence Hargrave, fly the first powered aeroplane some years before 1903. Instead of near Kitty Hawk, USA it will take off from a beach on the south coast of NSW. Consistency in this steampunk project is going to be vital to its success for all concerned. We can, of cause, still have our fun.

    In my novel Desk Job, which will soon be coming out, I have gone over the work numerous times in search of any inconsistencies and so have two editors. I believe all three of us have done a good job. I don’t have any naked breasts on display in this book but I do have the razor sharp forearms of my praying mantises and two would-be lovers menaced by said spiked forearms.

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