I’ve mentioned the concept of Retroactive Continuity a few times in the past. It’s when something gets changed in a story’s or character’s past. The usual idea is to make the past fit better with a turn the story has has taken. It could be as simple as the writer came up with what they think is a better idea also. Since you can’t go back and change the whole story, particularly if it’s part of a published prequel, you have to get creative.
“RetCons” as they’re called for short, are very common in soap operas and comic books. Fiction writers of all types can benefit from learning to work with them though. A RetCon can be as simple as a flashback that includes new information that changes the dynamic of a character’s past, or relationship with another character. Suddenly, there’s a bit more origin for that heinous antagonist, and they used to be a trusted ally. That one’s been done so much it’s cliche to be honest. Easy example though.
Shondra Rhimes uses this gimmick so often in “How to Get Away With Murder” that the show is impossible to watch in my opinion. If she didn’t have a few previous hit shows, I doubt she would have gotten a pilot episode for this one. The lesson here is use RetCons and flashbacks sparingly and with forethought. If you’re constantly changing the story, readers or viewers will just think you don’t know how to plot a story properly.
Then there’s the world’s most famous RetCon; The “Dallas” plot twist to bring Bobby Ewing back from the dead after being gone a season. It was all just a dream. The show and network caught a good deal of flack for that one back in the day. Primarily because it erased an entire season of the show’s continuity, and that just felt too unbelievable there. “It was just a dream” can work for smaller events though. Heck, I’ve even used it very tongue in cheek to undo years of a character’s game history in City of Heroes and reduced it to dreams while in a coma for five months.
Nancy’s Trip to Dallas
Just keep in mind, it has to be a bit campy or very clever if you’re doing a Dallas level wipe of events.
On the soap opera side of things, there’s the evil twin, or the spy with plastic surgery to look like a character while said character is otherwise occupied (lost, imprisoned, etc…).
RetCons can be as simple as a character misspoke or outright lied (maybe they were forced to), all the way up to something as fantastic as DC Comics’ “Flashpoint” reset that unleashed the New 52 (titles) continuity on us. That one has become as infamous as the Dallas event, and even used on CW’s Flash show. There’s all kinds of possibilities in between also, such as incorrect or altered scientific test or lab results.
Here’s one example I’ve done very recently; readers will recall the drama my Champions character ‘Liberty Gold’ had with her old guild. I gave the character a fresh start by bringing in a clone of her that’s still at her younger 17 year old age. That trick works in comic books, sci-fi, and to a lesser extent fantasy if there are powerful enough mages in the world.
My personal rules for RetCons is keep them as plausible as your story’s reality allows, use them sparingly, and think about the long term implications for your story’s character and world. My biggest gripe with Marvel and DC is that they never think about the long term consequences of their stories anymore. Thus they paint themselves into a corner of never ending reboots. More on that and other things we can learn from comics tomorrow.
I’ve made a game out of watching TV and movies, and reading books, and trying to decide how I would have told the story. I figure out what I would have RetConned to get there also. So, I’m going to put out a little challenge here. Fun for me and maybe it’ll help inspire some creativity in readers as well. Toss me a scenario and what you’d want it changed to, and I’ll see if I can come up with a RetCon path to get you there. Doesn’t matter the genre, even erotica.