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How to Retcon

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Dec. 12, 2020

Retconning has a bad reputation.

Usually because it's done in big IPs and franchises when writers change and decide to drastically alter the development of a plotline, and do it by changing established canon about the characters or the history of the setting. Usually it's sloppily done, dealt with in a quick scene or two, and then the world is considered ‘reset’ in the alignment the new writers/creators/showrunners want.

If done this way, the audience which has been following the story since the beginning and has thus invested their time, energy, and emotional engagement in the original settings and status quo, might (and often does) get alienated, angry, or even completely give up on the story.

But it doesn't need to be that way.

It is my conviction that there are extremely few things you cannot do in a story as an author or creator- if any.

All it takes is to apply yourself and work for it, just like everything in life.

To retcon a story is to set a train on a new set of railtracks, or change the train cars while the train is moving. It's hard to do without derailing everything and destroying the cargo AND the train.

So how DO you retcon a story in a manner that won't make your audience's blood boil or set all your hard work on fire?

In my experience and opinion, you …don't. And yet you do:

The material which is to be changed cannot be changed in a single scene. It has to be an arc: what must be respected is that the original status quo is the reality of all the characters as well as the audience. They will need to discover the truth, and evolve into this new reality that you wish to give them in an organic manner.

In real life there are things we believe to be true that turn out not to be, and to never have been true: we don't get the plague from miasma. It was from microbes in rats. Only it wasn't from microbes in rats, but it was from microbes in fleas that were on the rats.

If this were a story told linearly, it could either be a thrilling tale of twists and discoveries, or a poor retcon that changes the entire nature of the world.

How it is perceived from the audience lies entirely on how much work is put in the buildup leading the characters and the audience to realize that what once was considered true, never was true and something else is what has been true all along.

The characters react to this, need to work it through, or perhaps need to quickly adapt to the new information while struggling with the shock of realization- or the relief or joy, depending on the change- and the audience needs the time to work through it too.

Do you want a character to have come from no significant lineage but be The One? No problem.

Do you change your mind down the line, when that is firmly established, and decide you want the character to have a significant lineage after all? No problem again- all you need to do is start dropping hints that what was previously established is ‘not quite right’. Poke ‘plot holes’ in the established status quo, to undermine the audience's reliance on it as truth. And work to make them bigger and bigger, until the characters are forced to tear down the old status quo and usher in the new.

(And if you want to say a character lied about information you're now retconing, make sure to give them due motivation that is consistent with who they were at the time and who they are during the retconing arc)

Have you retconned anything in your story? If so, how did you do it?

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PaulEberhardt at 7:15AM, Dec. 12, 2020

I did retcon one or two things, but I won't tell you what they are or someone might suddenly notice. ;) In my experience the trick is (a) always to leave yourself some elbowroom for this kind of thing in the first place (i.e. hint at untold parts of your characters' backstory but reveal as little actual information about them as you can) and (b) never retcon more than one minor detail at one time. I think in webcomics, which usually are works in progress, this is especially important. Sooner or later you'll just be itching to make this or that little change in order to make your new cool idea work more smoothly. This said, I hate retcons if they're done too obviously, and the huge disadvantage of figuring out how to sneak retcons into your own stuff is that you eventually become very, very good at spotting this kind of thing in virtually anything you read or watch.

Kou the Mad at 3:14AM, Dec. 12, 2020

I'm literally just waiting for Filoni and Favreau to retcon the sequel trilogy, retcon it right out the window.

bravo1102 at 1:16AM, Dec. 12, 2020

Even reality gets the occasional retcon. There are always those "untold stories" and "the real truth about..." coming out.

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