Using Retrospective Continuity

This blog does not normally include spoilers. However, don’t read this if you intend to watch Dallas (seasons 9 and 10), Star Wars (1977), and/or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Last week, we touched upon the concept of retrospective continuity, where facts established in the plot of a fictional work are adjusted, ignored or contradicted by what comes later.

The term only appeared in the 1970s, and its common abbreviation ‘retcon’ is only 30 years old. Yet the actual device has been used for as long as there have been stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it with Sherlock Holmes, as have major publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

In my experience, retconning works best when the change in question:

  • is small rather than sweeping
  • adds to existing canon rather than negates it

Let’s look at when it was done well in mainstream culture, and when it was handled badly.

Season 9 of Dallas was broadcast in 1986, and a major plot point was the aftermath of the death of Bobby Ewing, who had been killed by a car. At the end of the season, however, he appeared again, and the entire season was written off as the vivid dream of Pam Ewing.

This instance was a big change rather than a small one, and took away existing canon instead of adding to it, so many viewers were unhappy with how it was handled. That said, the show continued until 1991.

Now let’s look at Star Wars, the original from 1977. It had been a point of contention among fans that the Death Star had a weak point, namely an exhaust port, that could destroy the whole behemoth.

In Rogue One, however, that weakness is revealed to have been deliberately placed by Galen Erso, so anyone who knew about it could easily destroy the behemoth. Vulture.com explains it in much more detail than I do. Here, it was a lelatively small detail that became important later in the story, and it added to what was shown in Star Wars rather than negating it.

Unlike the Dallas retconning, this move went down well with fans, even impressing the folks at ScreenRant.

The Stories That Have Legs

Around this time last year, I intended to write a silly joke for Twitter. It was intended to read along the lines of ‘Does anyone remember before the Internet, you had to phone in your YouTube order and wait for the videos to be delivered?’

I never posted that joke because I kept thinking of details I wanted to add. at last count, that one-liner has gradually morphed into a short story of more than 1,800 words.

Now another piece is currently growing legs in a similar manner. My old school sports grounds are on a main road, so I often walk past them. This prompted a one-off story about a group of teenage school pupils who are required to take games class, but either loathe it or are at least indifferent about it, so they find other ways to keep themselves occupied during this time.

Unusually for me, I posted it to a popular writing website to see what the feedback would be like. Some commenters pointed out there was a potential cliffhanger, so I wrote a second part to fill that gap.

That second installment received as much attention as the first. By this time, the characters were so well-rounded that I could take them out of games class and into other locations, so a third part quickly followed.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the one-off story, I’d only named a handful of the 14 characters. This was fine for the sequel, which took place in the same location the following week. However, it had been established in the one-off that the summer break was nearly upon them. The narrator is shown to ask the named characters to meet up again during summer, but none of them were keen for their own reasons.

I therefore injected some retroactive continuity in an effort to avoid inconsistencies.

It would have been possible, but implausible, for all the named characters suddenly to change their minds about meeting up again. However, there were two unnamed characters mentioned en passant by the narrator. I pushed them centre-stage when said they had somewhere to meet over summer. This in turn persuaded the best friend of the narrator to change her mind and join them.

As such, the number of characters reduced to four, arguably a more manageable than 14. Introducing that new location then meant I was able to introduce other characters who weren’t necessarily required to have been in the previous installments.

The third part hasn’t made nearly as big a splash on the website as its two predecessors. I’ve nonetheless planned for a series of six or seven short stories because I really need to write this tale, almost regardless of the reaction.

I’m now considering releasing them as one collection, which will give me even more opportunity to make the continuity seamless rather than retrospective.

The Plot Summary and the Log Line

When submitting work to a publisher, the writer is often required to summarise the piece, especially if it’s a long-from work. This is one of the most difficult post-production activities, as it can involve removing tone and nuance from the piece, leaving just the key plot points.

Here are the two main types of summary that might be expected.

The plot summary

This type is most associated with novels. The publisher will ask for around 500 words to summarise the entire plot, even if that novel is 100,000 words long.

This means focussing on only the main characters and the key story points, however interesting the side plots might be. There is no sure-fire method of making the process simple, but one tip is to divide the number of words by the number of chapters and apportion the summary accordingly. To make it flow better, the ratio can then be changed once the summary is written.

Note that ‘entire plot’ means just that, and it should include details of how it ends, not a teaser.


Log line

This type of summary is most associated with screenplays.

It’s one or two sentences long, but never three, and acts as a teaser that gives the premise but not the ending. It’s also customary that characters are mentioned only by role, not by name.

There are some good examples at Masterclass.com, including one from Titanic:

Two star-crossed lovers fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.

Here, you can see the protagonists (the lovers), the setting (the ship) and the inciting incident (the sinking), but not the ending nor how the protagonists reach it.


Remember that a publisher might form their first impression of your project on a summary or a log line, so it’s worth giving it as much attention as the work itself.

Your Words Right Back at You

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend Ailsa on Instagram who is a professional actor. She was asking her peers for monologue resources, as she was having little success finding good ones either online or in books.

You might remember in October I made a script submission to the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow. This is in monologue form, and I’d already wanted to hear it read by an actor to check whether someone else would interpret my words as I’d intended. However, I wouldn’t have had time to do this before the submission date.

Nonetheless, I asked Ailsa whether she was interested in making an audio recording. After some discussion about what form it should take and her fees for doing this, she sent on the recordings a few days later.

Holy mackarel, I should have done this a long time ago. Ailsa had added pauses and shifts in tone of voice, all in-keeping with the character. By the final scene, I couldn’t believe the life that had been injected into my own words.

Probably the most illuminating part was how little would need to be rewritten. The corrections identified so far are all minor, and come to a total of less than half a page of A4.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been working on finishing another play, this time a dialogue. When it’s time to review this, I’m seriously considering hiring other actors to read it for me.

Blanket Coverage

Some years ago, I went to a dentist that showed The Life Channel in the waiting room.

Its programmes consisted largely of short films about the improving and maintaining of health, and it was rather easy to ignore it while listening for your name to be called out. As I was undergoing a lot of procedures at the time, I was there with regularity.

Then an advert began appearing in the breaks for a service called My Favourite Directories, which seemed much the same as the Yellow Pages. At first, one of its two variations would be broadcast once in a while, then in subsequent weeks, they would run over the entire break each time.

It felt as though the company was deaf to how the audience would react to this repetitive messaging. I vowed that if I ever needed a plumber or an accountant, the last place I would look is My Favourite Directories.

Yet you don’t have to go far to find writers who employ the same tactics, seemingly unaware of how it comes across.

I’m in a popular writers’ page where one particular member has posted almost every day like clockwork for the last month to promote her books. The text reads like marketing copy rather than an attempt to engage the other page users.

And that shows in the responses. Over the course of the month, hardly anyone has engaged meaningfully with these posts with written responses. It feels like we’re being talked at, not talked to, so these daily updates have effectively become background noise. One saving grace, however, is that this author has a good seven or eight books, so the marketing copy does change daily.

When I’m announcing my monthly open-mike, one of the groups it’s promoted in has a rule: each member can self-promote a maximum of once a week.

In practice, I usually update every fortnight, but I make a conscious effort to differentiate each post from the last. They all contain the same basic information such as the date, the time and the format, but I’ll sometimes start off with a joke or make reference to a big news story.

If humour isn’t your style, even switching the order of the paragraphs or refreshing some of the phrasing can work. It shows you’ve made an effort to engage with your audience and aren’t simply feeding them an advertising line.

Look at My Favourite Directories. They haven’t existed for some time now, and I like to imagine that’s because everyone boycotted them after their blanket coverage.

Packed Up and Sent Away

About a week before the deadline, I learnt that the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow and had an open call for stage play submissions of at least 50 minutes. I already had a piece that fitted the criteria and was in a nearly-finished state, but I hadn’t touched it for many months.

So I hurriedly began work, giving it a once-over for any obvious errors, then restructuring where necessary. My usual way of approaching this is to read the entire script out loud, as this highlights any flaws more clearly than simply reading it over. There were parts that I felt could be beefed up, events that could be clarified or simplified, and even some instances when a character’s former name had accidentally been retained.

As much as I wanted to send it off straight away, I left it for a day or two. Coming back to it after that period lets you more easily spot mistakes that slipped past the first time. Once I was satisfied that the script was as ship-shape as it could be within the timescale available, I sent it in.

This is the first piece of work I’ve submitted for a long time. It’s been such a while that I’ve cleared the rest of my submissions tracker on the assumption that if I haven’t heard back from the listed publishers by now, I never will. It’ll be a nine-month wait before I hear back about this play, during which time I can’t send it anywhere else.

I stopped submitting short stories and poems to allow me to work on longer-form pieces, but now I’ve been working on these longer ones, it’s time to start finding a home for them.

Lots of Words, Little Payoff

A long time ago on this blog, we explored what to look out for when submitting your work. I’d never had a particularly bad experience until recently.

But first, let me take you back 2½ years. I’d entered a short piece to be included in a charity anthology, along with a number of local writers. The book would then be sold to raise funds for the cause.

The process was long and slow. Months after my submission was accepted, I remember going to one meeting, which I found to be an unstructured and unproductive discussion about the form this book should take. As such, I didn’t attend another meeting, although I’d cut the committee a little slack because it was clear they were learning as they went along.

We then received sporadic updates about its progress, and just over a week ago, we heard confirmation that the book was finally ready. All we had to do was send our postal addresses to receive a contributor’s copy.

At this point, it transpired that the contributors would not receive complimentary or even reduced-price copies. This came as news to us as much as it did to the writer who had been liaising with the charity committee. We were instead invited to buy a copy for £19.99.

It’s considered bad form in the publishing world to charge contributors to see their own work in print. Some presses do operate like this, using a business model called vanity publishing, but that’s looked down upon in the industry, even by self-publishers. In this case, I’m satisfied it wasn’t the committee’s intention to act like a vanity publisher, but a case of not understanding the conventions of publishing.

None of the contributors want it to reflect badly on the charity or its purpose; indeed, that’s why we supported it with our words. Nonetheless, a number of us feel shortchanged. If we had been advised at the start we would be expected to buy a copy, we would have at least made an informed choice. Even for those who might choose to buy this volume, it’s currently only available in person and on a certain day of the week, which further restricts its availability.

The contributors have now opened discussions with the committee in the hope that a deal or a compromise can be reached.

November, But Not as We NaNo It

We are fast approaching the start of November, which means that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo) is nearly upon us. This is a worldwide challenge to draft a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days, and I run the Dundee & Angus region for Scotland.

NaNo headquarters in California took the decision not to endorse nor support any meet-ups in person until they say otherwise. This has had a profound effect on our group, who have been accustomed to meeting all year round for five years. Even the pub we use is currently closed until restrictions on selling alcohol indoors are eased.

What we have in our favour is a number of student-age members who are accustomed to interacting online. We already use Discord software, and we’ve been working this week on improving its features.

Traditionally, physical goodies are part of the experience; these usually include stickers, pens and erasers. This also introduces another hurdle of either asking folks to trust us with their postal address or meet up in accordance with local regulations. As such, we’ve replaced the pens and erasers with bookmarks so they fit more snugly into an envelope.

In short, this does not and will not feel like any other NaNo. In other years, I’d even associate the colder nights with the coming of the contest, but that simply hasn’t happened.

There are a couple of factors, however, that won’t change and that we’ll keep reminding our membership:

  • Everyone is welcome in our group regardless of nationality, LGBT identity, &c, provided they follow the published codes of conduct.
  • There is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.

A Tutor Like No Other

Throughout the ten years I’ve been writing, there has been one figure almost constant throughout: a man called Eddie Small.

I learnt of his death a few weeks ago, and his passing has left a gaping hole in the Dundee literary scene. He would always appear at poetry events to support writers or to read himself. One of his strengths was that he would chat and joke with anybody and everybody.

In this way, he would encourage people to improve themselves. He worked with a pal of mine who had a terrible fear of public speaking; so much so that she once ran offstage mid-reading. With his intervention and patience, she was eventually able to read her work in front of a theatre audience.

I, meanwhile, love the limelight. When an actor couldn’t perform in his play The Four Marys, about four local figures who shared a forename, he thought of me and offered me a small part.

I last met Eddie in January of this year, talking about his latest book To Bodies Gone, celebrating 130 years of Anatomy at the university.

Indeed, he was very open to talking about death and encouraged others to do the same. On one memorable occasion, he somehow managed to arrange for my classmates and me – English students, not medical ones – to visit the medical school mortuary. I recall it was rather life-affirming.

As his passing was so sudden, it’s been hard to take in. It’ll be a long time before I turn up at an event and don’t expect to hear him roping someone into one of his many projects.

Almost a Live Show

Regular readers will know that I run an open-mike evening called Hotchpotch, where members can come along either to read a poem or simply to listen to others. However, we haven’t been able to run in its classic form since March because of restrictions on live events.

So far, we’ve been using YouTube as a substitute, and posting members’ readings to our channel. However, we’re holding a one-off event called Hotchpotch Presents… next week.

For this, we’re moving to Zoom, and the most notable difference is that the line-up is advertised in advance, not comprised of those who turn up on the night. We have 11 performers ready to perform seven minutes each, and they’ll be introducing each other to keep the flow.

We have experience of this format before, having trialled it as a live show in April 2019 at the Rep theatre in Dundee. There was quite the vibe that night, and I do hope we’re able to channel for this second airing of Hotchpotch Presents… on Monday 19 October.