The Simple Secret to Fixing Ugly Story Problems

how to write: retroactive continuity

When you’re in the middle of writing, don’t stop. Except for coffee.

It happens to every writer: you’re writing along when suddenly you need to go back and change some fact or detail.

Because if you don’t fix it, the story won’t make sense. Should you stop writing at that moment to go fix it?

Nope. That could kill your momentum.

Here’s a better idea. It’s called a retcon, and comic book writers have been using it for decades.

Retcon is short for “retroactive continuity” and it means that you’re stating a new fact that changes what’s come before.

In other words, you’re changing the past.

This is a term I first encountered in the massively entertaining and informative book Writing for Comics with Peter David. (Mr. David, by the way, has an impressive list of comic writing credits, including Spider-Man, Wolverine, Supergirl, Hulk, Star Trek, and tons of others. He knows what he’s talking about.)

In comic books, writers are often dealing with decades of established story “facts” that occasionally come into conflict, and retcons are intended to resolve those conflicts.

The same concept is ridiculously useful in the process of writing anything, even a novel or screenplay.

Want to see an example of a retcon in action? Here I am discussing ideas for a mystery novel with my friend Pam:

PAM: It’s the middle of the night, and she realizes someone’s in her apartment. She turns on the lights. It’s her ex-boyfriend!

ME: Wait. I thought he died in that fiery plane crash in Chapter 3?

PAM: Retcon. He wasn’t actually killed in the crash, just horribly disfigured.

ME: OK. Got it. Go on.

PAM: So anyway, she turns on the lights and says to the ex-boyfriend…

You get the idea.

When you’re in the heat of writing, the last thing you want to do is drop everything and go back to change something. Putting a retcon in your notebook frees you from that burden.

It’s easy. Just describe what you need to change, and then keep pushing forward on your story until you finish.

After you reach THE END, you can go back over your retcon list and change everything to make it fit. Then like magic, all of your story logic lines up.

Try it yourself. The next time you notice something that you need to go back and change, don’t stop writing. Just put a retcon in your notes and keep on writing.

Who knows? By the time you finish the story, you might come up with an even better idea. In other words, you might retcon your retcon.

Stranger things have happened.

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