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.