A way with worlds: 09 – Retcon as Continuity by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

You’re writing along, and you look back on some of your published stories, perhaps to review, perhaps for fun, perhaps to see glaring flaws (don’t we always see those). However, whatever your reason, then you note that which we all fear, the specter that haunts so many writers.

A continuity error.

Maybe its a spell working different than it does later in the tale, or a location wrong, or something that didn’t happen the way it should. No matter, its a violation of your continuity, and its been written and you can’t really take it out because its buried in the rest of the story and the world. Perhaps even your current works rely on that error.

If you’re a continuity/setting fanatic like me, it’s like having someone pour icewater over your heart. You violated your world, you messed up, you forgot, and probably you botched up future plots. It’s a terrible feeling of impotence, stupidity, and dread, a real cocktail of anguish.

So, in the words of a certain computerized book, Don’t Panic. Here’s how I cope, and how you can turn these errors around.

OK, DID YOU ACTUALLY MAKE A MISTAKE?
First of all, you may find your mistake wasn’t one. Review your continuity, review the story. You may have written something that you knew subconsciously and forgot consciously. Or it may not even be a mistake when reviewed.

You don’t want to panic, panic leads to uninformed actions, and those can make things worse. Taking a cleaver to your works to fix a mistake that may not be a mistake will only complicate matters.

CAN YOU EXPLAIN IT?
It may not be that bad. Maybe you can explain a continuity glitch by character error, being misinformed, bad or good luck, etc. In short, perhaps the error you found can be explained simply in a way that doesn’t require you to extensively reconsider continuity elements.

I myself once had a character comment on a city’s population, and realized later that her comment was wrong. It may never come up, but if it does, she’s simply wrong due to her being new there and misinterpreting the definition of the city’s boundaries. That’s my explanation, it fits, I’m covered, and I can even work it into a story where the character comments on her ignorance. This of course is not exactly a major continuity glitch, but serves as a good example.

CAN YOU FIX IT BY ALTERING SOMETHING:
This is the easiest method. Slightly alter continuity to make up for errors. You’re probably doing this a little bit every now and then anyway as you tweak and poke ideas into shape or solidify them. This is also an effective but unradical solution.

CAN YOU FIX IT BY ADDING SOMETHING:
Look over the error. Maybe your continuity isn’t damaged, but needs something a bit extra to explain it. Take a look at what is supposedly wrong, and ask what addition to your continuity can explain it. Perhaps you subconsciously added something that fits easy, or this can even become an extra story element.

Don’t go throwing in something new in a panic either. It can create more problems down the road when your additions, included under panic, create more continuity errors down the road. Besides, you can get a kind of “mission creep” where you keep adding and adding ideas to fix problems, some caused by new additions.

CAN YOU FIX IT BY SUBTRACTING SOMETHING:
OK, maybe you can’t fix your error by adding something – perhaps there’s a part of continuity that, when removed, fixes the problem and maintains continuity. After all, some parts are more necessary than others to your world.

Personally, I don’t like doing this, its a chance to create more problems, even moreso than adding elements to your continuity. A story universe can unravel quickly if you start yanking out threads of ideas, its just not as stable as the real thing.

RETCON AS CONTINUITY:
This is the Big Enchilada of correcting continuity mistakes. Its not for amateurs, and in some cases, not for professionals. This is correcting a mistake or mistakes (and big ones) by making them part of the story and the continuity. In short, the problems become part of the larger story and the larger continuity.

A classic example of this is DC Comics “Zero Hour,” where inconsistent parts of the DC Comics timeline became part of a plot about time collapsing. A flaw in the continuity got turned around into a plot and into a chance to correct errors. People may argue if it was a good idea or if it worked, but it was ambitious.

This is not something I recommend unless you’re very, very sure. I’ve seen ambitious undertakings like this, and its definitely not easy. However, it is an option, and it has the added advantage of turning a mistake into a whole new story idea and hopefully a firmer continuity.

However, I’ve never seen it done very well.

SUMMARY
A continuity error is not the end of the world. But be sure your solution isn’t either.

NEXT COLUMN:
THE FANFIC REBELLION!
(Isn’t exactly as impressive as it sounds)

Take a trip to my own alternate world, the Crossworld of Xai, at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/xai/

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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