Keep Your Story Consistent With a Style Sheet
You know how it is when you’re five books deep into a really rad urban fantasy or thriller series, and these characters are like your family. You know them better than your family. Their past relationships, favorite foods, idiosyncrasies, sleeping habits, deepest secrets. You latch on to every new piece of information like a squirrel hoarding nuts, because it completes the picture of them you have in your head. They’re flesh and blood, ready to walk off the page and into your life.
And then suddenly, your beloved characters’ eye color changes. Or the layout of his house. Or her last name. And hell, hasn’t that child been four years old for like…three books now? Is this child not allowed to age? Are we keeping track of this timeline? Suddenly you’re flipping through the pages of older books in the series to make sure you’re not crazy and no, nope there it is, that is not how the breakup went down, he broke it off with her, and that kid should be six by now. How is the author getting this wrong? It’s their series!
You don’t want this to be your reader’s experience. It often happens because of honest oversight and looming deadlines with little time to pore over previous novels and notes to make sure every detail is right. Books, as you know, also take a long time to produce, and small, yet crucial details can be forgotten—no matter how much we love our own work. My mother loves me, but you bet your bottom dollar she has no idea what I do for a living, no matter how many times I remind her. This slip of the memory is, naturally, why authors hire editors to catch those inconsistencies.
Enter the style sheet.
Copy editors and proofreaders use a style sheet while they’re working to keep track of a number of things: preferred word spelling, physical character traits and names, grammatical choices, words/phrases/places unique to your novel; anything that appears once and should appear consistently the same throughout. This way, they can flag any inconsistencies as they show up. These style sheets help ensure that your city names are always spelled and capitalized the same, that your internal rules are rock solid from start to finish, and that your side character doesn’t suddenly obtain a new last name or hair color halfway through the book.
If you hire an editor or proofreader, they will create that style sheet for you and pass it along once the edit is finished. However, if you want to work some of this out just for your own benefit, it’s a good practice to ensure that you’re adhering to your own rules and preferences as you keep writing—especially if you’re writing in a series. Having your own style sheet is actually pretty helpful for your copyeditor/proofreader, too; it communicates your preferences and internal consistency ahead of time, so they can be on the look out for any errors as they edit.
By creating your own style sheet, you’re nipping those little mistakes in the bud for yourself, for your editor, and for your readers.
Formatting and filling the style sheet
Format your style sheet so it’s easy for you to quickly find the information you need, which boils down to separating the information into categories.
- Characters: Devote an entire section to your characters, and not just your first billed cast; any character that gets a name gets a mention. You can keep it brief: physical description and maybe key info like their job, where they live, or their relationship to the main characters.
- Spelling preferences: This section will appear more grid-like, so you can neatly drop these in alphabetical order. Put in the preferred spelling of cities, countries, buildings, slang, job titles, etc.
- Common phrases: If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or anything where the characters and the world has a particular language or uses cultural-specific phrases, put them here to keep track of them.
- Punctuation: Do you use the Oxford comma? How do you prefer to write the date and time? What titles/ranks do you capitalize, and when?
- Timeline: This isn’t typically part of a “normal” style sheet, but it can’t hurt! Use a quick and dirty timeline to keep track of birthdates, milestones, major events in your fictional world that you may reference now and again.
You can write this down by hand in a notebook or use Word, Excel, Google Docs, or Evernote to create your own story style sheet.
Or, if you’d like to work with an existing template, don’t you fret. I’ve got you covered. Download my free style sheet template, save a copy for yourself, and keep those glorious, crucial facts straight!