Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, you’re midway through a story and you suddenly realize what you need to change to make it work. A later development requires some earlier foreshadowing, or you need to remove a detail so your new path makes sense. It’s a lightbulb moment, and often the point where a story really comes together for many writers, but what do you do if you can’t make the change? In fact, what do you do if the story you’re telling is a series and you already published the details you want to alter?
The answer is a ‘retcon’, but is that something that would work in your particular project? Well, I’m here to present the different ways you can apply this useful device to your writing. Of course, one question begs to be asked first…
What is a ‘retcon’ anyway?
‘Retcon’ is short for ‘retroactive continuity’, and it refers to the practice of authors changing events already established in their published work. As a word, ‘retcon’ is relatively fluid, being both a verb – you can ‘retcon’ a story by establishing a new ‘official’ series of events – and a noun – ‘a retcon’ tends to refer to the work in which changes are made. If I present the following two sentences…
Ian was a lampshade. Ian was not, and had never been, a lampshade.
…the second is a ‘retcon’ of the first. Consequently, the first sentence has been ‘retconned’.
In the longer version, ‘continuity’ simply means the established order of events, and so ‘retroactive continuity’ just means a new, official order of events as established after they were originally depicted.
In a ‘retcon’, an author retroactively changes what happened earlier in a story or series.Click To Tweet
A final useful term here is ‘canon’. As in regular usage, this means the ‘official’ version of the story. An event which no longer officially happened is noncanonical, while the official order of events is the canon of a series. This term is useful because the official account of events can change, but the canon (ideally) is an agreement between an author and their readers. If your retcon is successful, everyone agrees on the new canon – the new official version of events – even though they may remember that things used to be a different way.
So, that’s the jargon out of the way, but are you sure you even need a retcon?
Reasonable explanations and omissions
Sometimes, a detail that seems like a problem isn’t actually incompatible with the new version of events you want to depict. For instance, Star Trek: Vulcan’s Heart uses the name ‘Dartha’ for a location referred to as ‘Ki Baratan’ in previous books. Here, the intent doesn’t seem to have been a deliberate retcon, but just an accidental error emerging from a sprawling universe created by many different writers.
Happily, the stories take place a century apart, and so the discrepancy is explained as a natural change that happened over time, made as a new regime comes to power. With some practical thinking, two facts that once appeared mutually exclusive can actually co-exist, making the setting they depict feel more fluid and realistic.
Likewise, it’s sometimes the case that details you wish had been included make sense as things that just weren’t mentioned. For instance, if the maid and the butler have a personal history in Book 3, why didn’t the butler mention any prior acquaintance when the maid was hired in Book 1? I’ll get onto possible explanations later, but before you start planning your retcon, ask if you can get away with the explanation that it just… never came up. This might strain credulity, but since you’re not planning to actively draw attention to that Book 1 scene, it might be the smoothest path.Sometimes, you’ll find that a close rereading of earlier material means a retcon isn’t necessary.Click To Tweet
Some readers hate retconning, so wherever possible, go with the reasonable explanation or the omission. Readers are already suspending their disbelief over what ‘could’ have happened, so weigh up whether it’s going to be harder to get them to turn a blind eye to a possible omission or to sell them on a whole new version of events. Of course, if you decide that a retcon is necessary, it’s best to keep things simple.
Secrets, lies and errors in judgement
The easiest way to add or remove details from a story is to undermine those elements that contradict the new canon. In Stars Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope¸ Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that his father was a skilled pilot betrayed and killed by the evil Darth Vader. Later in the series, it’s revealed that Vader is Luke’s father and that Obi-Wan knew all along.
Creator George Lucas has claimed that he always knew Vader was Luke’s father, but fans point to a host of evidence that this wasn’t the case when the scene was written. If they’re right, Lucas had no problem retconning his decision later, since the information that stood in his way came from a single source. When it’s time to reveal that Vader is Luke’s father, Obi-Wan admits he lied, hiding the truth to try to influence Luke’s reaction.
This is the easiest way to retcon information out of a story – someone lied, omitted key details, implied something that wasn’t true, or thought they were telling the truth but were wrong. Sometimes, this means adding additional information to give characters a reason to have lied, but since all this takes place in the realm of character motivations and interactions, it can even serve to enliven a story, and it might inspire new directions, as in the Star Wars prequel films.
If a lot of people confirmed a piece of information, or if it was shared by an omniscient narrator, this technique doesn’t work as well, but it’s worth exploring the option until you’re sure it can’t work. After all, maybe all those people got their account from a single, corrupt witness, or maybe there’s a way the protagonist could have misunderstood what they meant.
‘This person lied’ is a simple, compact explanation for why something wasn’t mentioned when it should have been or when you need an established fact to be called into question. This is partly because you only need to explain one person’s behavior, which means you’re adding far less new information: the butler didn’t mention he knew the maid because they had a history he wanted to hide. Boom, done, new canon.The easiest way to explain story inconsistencies is always that somebody lied.Click To Tweet
Of course, sometimes, the change needs to be bigger than that. Let’s look at the nuclear option.
Sometimes, you need something to be true, but there’s just no way to pretend it always was. In such cases, an in-world retcon might be what you need. Here, you set up a reason within the story that events have changed from how they once were.
This is incredibly popular in the shared universes of Marvel and DC comics. Since these worlds have been around so long, they’ve needed to update their storylines every so often to stay relevant. Enter a host of wizards, time-travelers, and reality-warping mutants who can reach back through time and shake things up. Need a character to have escaped a death you explicitly saw happen? Well, now a time traveler saved them, and they’ve just been in a coma this whole time.
This kind of decision shouldn’t be made lightly, because it tends to devalue the investment fans have made in your story. You should also be careful that your in-world retcon makes sense within the parameters of the world and characters you’ve created. When the Spider-Man series was retconned by the titular hero making a deal with the devil, fan outcry was huge – not just because decades of stories were no longer the official canon but also because they felt the virtuous, New-York-streets hero dabbling with the occult was a betrayal of the character.
If you’re working with sci-fi and fantasy, this tends to be easier; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books include numerous mentions of ‘history monks’ who deliberately mess around with the time stream. Not only is this used to facilitate a few gentle retcons, but it’s also the blanket explanation for any errors Pratchett made in remembering his own books.
In-world retcons are drastic, and they should only be attempted if you think they’re really going to improve a series. The television series Dallas depicted perhaps the most famous retcon ever when it revealed that the show’s ninth season was just a dream. It was a bold decision, but it was done in order to allow the resurrection of an incredibly popular character, whose absence had hurt the show narratively and in the court of public opinion. Sometimes, a bold retcon solves more problems than it causes, especially when you know your audience is with you.
Reframing and loose canon
Sometimes, it’s possible to cast the preceding story in a new light, facilitating the changing of a few details. The second part of Don Quixote takes place in a world in which the first part was actually a piece of semi-accurate non-fiction. By re-framing his earlier work, Cervantes is able to shrug off a few details as embellishments and also to directly engage with an unofficial sequel released by a rival in the interim.
Another version of this is to write in such a manner that there isn’t a fixed canon. Many of Robert Rankin’s books use the same characters and locations, but with little to no acknowledgement of other stories that have used the same ingredients. In this way, Rankin writes stories where the reader can meet and learn about the characters but where he’s always free to ignore anything that gets in his way.
Similarly, Douglas Adams worked on many different versions of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy story – a radio series, a series of novels, a television series – without declaring any the definitive version. The closest he came was in an introduction to The More Than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide, saying that ‘anything I put down wrong here is, as far as I’m concerned, wrong for good.’
This type of writing doesn’t suit every story, but if it works for you, it’s a way to both avoid upsetting dedicated readers and allow yourself full creative license to write the plot you want to write.
If all else fails, you just need to make a clear change and stand by it. If you’re able, you can represent this ‘official’ canon by ensuring that all new editions or versions of your work include the new, retconned facts.
This is the option that’s most likely to upset fans who prefer the older version – George Lucas’ tinkering with his old movies is the stuff of fan outrage – but you’re likely to get a lot of leeway if it makes for a better whole.
J.R.R. Tolkien altered content in The Hobbit in order to bring it in line with later decisions made in The Fellowship of the Ring. The change was necessary for a larger story to unfold, but Tolkien acknowledged his fans by having one character admit that they had previously lied about what happened – they’re even chided for doing so. In this way, the early version is treated as an understandable error, and Tolkien guides his readers through accepting the new, more useful canon.
‘Word of God’ retconning
‘Word of God’ retconning is an unusual choice in which an author states something which is retroactively true but which may never appear in print. J.K. Rowling, for example, revealed that the character Albus Dumbledore was gay outside of the books in which he appears.
This isn’t a true retcon, since it’s not part of the work itself, but can suit tweaks that are more about context than stated facts. This is a particularly effective way to approach details intended to foreshadow a development that has since been abandoned; the reader knows these details won’t pay off without the fuss of retconning them out of the story.
Writing a more believable retcon
Whatever type of retcon you settle on, there are a few things you can do to keep the reader onboard. The first is to lampshade your change – this is what Tolkien does, effectively ‘admitting’ his alteration in a way that doesn’t alienate the reader by pretending the old canon never existed. I won’t over-explain lampshading here, though, not when you can check out Improve Your Story By Hanging A Lampshade On It.
Another way to help the reader accept your retcon is to try and make it mutually inclusive. By this, I mean that the more you can make the new information work with what you’ve already established, the happier the reader is likely to be.Don’t force a retcon on your readers – persuade them it’s worthwhile by rewarding their understanding and acknowledging the change.Click To Tweet
In his time writing The Amazing Spider-Man, J. Michael Straczynski introduced the idea that the superhero’s origins had a mystical angle – that he was ‘chosen’ rather than gaining his powers by accident. Since the character’s origins are famously due to scientific mishap, Straczynski wisely introduced these new ideas in a way that was compatible with the ideas already present in the character’s canon, even having a character spell out the lack of conflict between the new and old ideas.
Tomorrow the sun will come up. You can tell me all the reasons of science that it does come up, the orbital mechanics, all the laws of thermodynamics. And I can say that it will come up because it is meant to come up. I see no contradiction. Do you?
– J. Michael Straczynski, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man #508’
Another way to promote your retcon to the reader is to tie it into pre-existing aspects of your series. Many readers have speculated that the horcruxes from the Harry Potter series – magical items which empower the antagonist – were only thought up during the writing of the later books. Whether this is true or not, Rowling ties notable items from the series’ past into their reveal, stating that some items already destroyed by the heroes were horcruxes, even though they didn’t know it at the time.
In this way, Rowling ties a potentially ‘new’ addition to the series lore to previous events. This gives the concept instant roots, allowing the reader to fold the new information into their existing affection for the series and to feel smart for building on their knowledge rather than foolish for having memorized details even the author didn’t value.
Retconning with style
As with many literary devices, the above methods aren’t mutually exclusive. For instance, you might tie a retconned lie into something the reader already knows about a character, making it feel more likely and less out of place. Likewise, you might justify a loose canon with some in-world reasoning – Robert Rankin dabbles with different methods of time travel in his writing, leaving open the possibility that this is the cause of his vacillating canon.
In the end, the goal is to persuade the reader that they’re not being cheated. The good news is that – if you’re making the change because you think it will allow a major improvement to the story’s direction – you’re not cheating them, and you should be able to demonstrate the benefits of your new approach. Just remember that readers invest in learning the details of a story, so try not to make that investment a wasted effort, and do your best to make it clear that you’re laying the groundwork to give them something even better in return.
What fictional retcons have you hated, and which have felt reasonable as a reader? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence and How To Write Compelling Character Arcs In A Series for more great advice.