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 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.

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.

Finishing What You Start

When I’m stuck for a blog post idea, I check my Drafts folder on WordPress to see whether I can resurrect a half-written idea. At the time of writing, however, there is little material in any of the drafts.

One of them covers the concept of life writing, which I’d already discussed last week. Another was placed there by WordPress about how to use their Guttenberg editor interface. A third entry simply contains the words ‘Jesus wept’, and I’m not certain what caused me to exclaim this.

While considering these entries, I began thinking of the prose and poetry I’ve started but not fully finished. Sure, I generally finish a first draft of what I write, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gone back to edit it. However, I do keep everything I write because sometimes it comes in useful.

A few years ago, I was reaching the end of a Masters degree in Writing Practice & Study. The course had worked its magic, encouraging me to move in different directions with my writing, which wasn’t a problem until it was time to compile the dissertation. With 80% of the mark resting on a creative portfolio, I was faced with the challenge of bringing together my disparate work into one unified piece.

I had a meeting with two tutors to discuss the matter, bringing along samples of my work to figure out how to present it. As we were coming to the end of the pile of samples, we looked at a short story written in diary form about a first-year student with a horrible flatmate. I’d written the story as a homework piece for a writing group, falling back on the diary form because I was so short of time.

One of the tutors suggested incorporating my pieces into the form of that story, presenting it as though someone else had written my work. This character was rather flighty anyway, so she could feasibly have written in different styles over a short space of time.

I went back to the draft of this writing homework, converted it into a script, and beefed out the story. It solved the problem nicely and helped me to bag an A-grade for that part of the dissertation.

I’ve since gone on to refine this into a one-hour dramatic monologue, which is now more or less finished.

Improvisation and Motivation

Over the weekend, I had my first experience of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). If you’re unfamiliar with this, here’s a brief introduction.

I enjoyed my experience because players are allowed to improvise parts of the storyline beyond how the Dungeon Master has described the scene. For example, my character had a vivid dream as part of the story, but I could interpret the images any way I wanted, and that interpretation would contribute to the direction of the story.

The experience reminded me of an exercise from drama class in high school. Each participant was given an outline of a setting, plus an individual motivation kept secret from the others until we revealed it through improv.

This produced natural-sounding dialogue, even from school pupils without an acting background. Similar methods are used by some reality TV shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex, to avoid the action sounding too scripted.

The same principle can be adapted for scripted drama. Aaron Sorkin takes the approach of working out what each character wants, then writing the scene accordingly. In this way, he’s produced The West Wing and The Social Network, among many other screenplays.

Over the coming months, I’ll be taking part in more D&D sessions. I think the key to making a more interesting campaign is to work out what exactly my character wants and bringing it to the surface when interacting with the other players.

I believe improv keeps me sharp, and roleplaying seems to be a great way to exercise that metaphorical muscle.

Giving the Right Direction

Whenever possible, I go to an event called Scrieve. Playwrights are invited to submit a 10-minute extract of their work, where it’s read out by volunteer actors.

Having recently revisited and edited my one-woman play Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream, I submitted scenes 1 and 3 for reading. I omitted scene 2 largely because of time constraints.

Some months ago, I’d submitted another extract from later in the play and I was pleased with the person who’d read it out, as it was in exactly the excitable manner I’d intended. I was fortunate to have the same person read it out in this instance. However, while scene 3 was satisfactory, scene 1 made the audience laugh – but it’s supposed to be more serious than the majority of the play.

Playwriting is not for the control freak. It’s a common rookie mistake for the writer to micromanage the actors. By convention, the writer supplies the dialogue and the bare minimum of stage direction, while the director has control over how the play looks and sounds to the audience. There were some great plays at Scrieve, but my script definitely allowed the characters the greatest freedom of movement.

So I’ve taken another look at the direction in scene 1. I can’t control the final outcome, but I can suggest how the dialogue is supposed to be delivered.

The misunderstanding probably arose with the phrase I’d used to describe the character at that point: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND CONFIDENT’. The lines were definitely delivered with confidence, but also with humour. This has now been amended to: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND SPEAKING IN A SERIOUS TONE’.

Unless I can rope in a willing volunteer, this will probably be the last time I’m able to hear my words spoken by someone else before I submit it to an upcoming event. Nonetheless, it proved invaluable for ironing out a small flaw that changed the nature of a whole scene.

Character reference.

As a writer, I often think I should denounce television and sell my set. I could easily live without watching the box again, and use the time to read stories and work on my own novels.

But on the other hand, I’ve now watched every episode of Fargo season one, and Inspector Montalbano and The Young Montalbano – collectively cited hereafter as Montalbano . In their individual ways, these programmes can teach a writer some valuable skills.

In Fargo, we have distinctive characters. Lorne Malvo, the controlled and self-assured lone wolf who often speaks in allegory. His demeanour directly contrasts with the nervous and uncertain Lester Nygaard who constantly stumbles over his speech. They’re being pursued by the two police chiefs in Bemidji and Duluth, who believe they’re superior both in rank and intellect.

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s therefore difficult to mistake one character for another. As such, each earns his or her place in the story. Incidentally, I found it impossible to unravel the formula behind the Fargo screenplay.

Montalbano also has well-drawn characters, but its formula is more obvious when you watch a number of episodes in succession. At the start, the inspector will probably be woken by a phone call; halfway through, a Mafia connection might be made; at the end, it’s likely the suspect will confess then commit suicide. There are a dozen additional common plot points.

This description makes the show sound formulaic, and it is, but formulae exist because audiences react well to them. The writer’s job is to work with the formula in such a way that the structure becomes nearly invisible. In the case of Montalbano it took a good few episodes to see the commonalities. I haven’t read the Andrea Camilleri source novels, but I expect they’re similar.

While we’re here, let’s take a moment to look at so-called reality shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex or The Hills. There is still a formula at work, but the writers approach it in a different way. It’s a technique that was shown to me by a drama teacher long before either of these shows were made.

Instead of a word-for-word script, the cast are told what the scene will be. Each actor is then given a card with his or her individual motivation that the others don’t know, and any information that needs to be dropped into the conversation. This produces dialogue that’s much closer to natural speech than a traditional script, especially if there’s an argument in the scene. The structure for the complete programme is still under the control of the writers.

From these TV programmes, we have masterclasses in structure and character. These are two considerations that have helped me redraft one of my novels that simply wasn’t working.

The first thing I did was to cull some characters. The protagonist worked with five people, and now works with three; his partner’s sister was only there to look at the protagonist disapprovingly, so she’s now been cut out.

Secondly, the structure simply wasn’t working, particularly towards the end. As it’s an adventure story, I looked up possible structures and found one called the Monomyth, a more detailed version of the three-act structure. By following this and using my own variations as the plot demanded, I now have a structure I’m happy with.

Second chance saloon.

In 1951, the acclaimed novel From Here to Eternity was published. Many readers were unaware that James Jones fought to keep in sexual content and profanity, but he was forced to give in to the demands of his publishers.

It was only in 2011 that the deleted content was restored by e-publisher Open Road, who also released his book To the End of the War for the first time. Unfortunately, it came too late for Jones as he died in 1977.

In the same month in 2011, Kate Bush was allowed to use text from Ulysses in an album, having originally been refused permission in 1989. A little-known Tennessee Williams play from 1983 was also given its premiere.

Perhaps it was just a golden year for second chances. But attitudes and standards are constantly reshaping, editors come and go, and even individuals change their minds. What was unacceptable or clichéd several decades ago might be in fashion right now.

Major delays are extremely common in the screenwriting industry, where ideas can knock around for several years waiting for the right producer and director to pick up the project, not to mention the protracted process of re-drafting the script – often dozens of times – plus the actual filming.

Phone Booth (film)
Phone Booth (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1960s, Larry Cohen first had an idea for a film set entirely inside a phone booth and he pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock. At the time, neither of them could think of a good reason to keep the character in the same place for an entire movie. When Cohen revisited the idea in the 1990s, he had the idea of using a sniper; the mobile phone had also been invented by then, and this is a major plot point. Within a month, he’d written the script for Phone Booth.

I’m aware that last week I discussed when to let go of work. But if you’ve had a manuscript languishing in a drawer or an unopened computer file from years ago, bring it out. Can you look over it with more experienced eyes? Have those who rejected it now moved on? Is the subject matter acceptable today, or perhaps even more pertinent than when it was written?

If you’ve answered yes to these, it might be worth another shot.

A minor word of warning, however. If Victor Nabokov had written Lolita today, it’s unlikely any publisher would have taken it on. And when an uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in that aforementioned golden year, many critics felt it inferior to the original.