Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Plot Problem? Fix It Fast with a Retcon

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton  

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author) 

Sooner or later, every story runs into a little hiccup. As you write, you'll discover that certain facts don't fit together anymore. Maybe a character needs to be changed or removed. Maybe you find a plot hole big enough to drive a Mack truck through.

Somewhere, in the inner workings of your story, something has gone awry. You need to fix it, or you'll have a big problem on your hands.

So what do you do? Put your story on hold, and go back to the beginning in a desperate attempt to make things right?

Bad idea. You might end up killing your writing momentum. Instead, you need to keep moving forward toward "The End."

Stopping in the middle and going back to fix things tends to have a cascading effect. Before you know what's happening, you'll find 20 more things to fix, and suddenly you'll feel overwhelmed. You could end up stuck. Nobody wants that.

So what do you do instead?

It's time you met a handy little trick called the retcon.

What Does Retcon Stand For?

Retcon is short for “retroactive continuity.”

Continuity simply refers to events that have already happened. Whenever you state a new fact that changes what has come before, it's a retcon.

Comic book writers do this all the time. In comic books, writers are often dealing with decades of established story “facts” that occasionally come into conflict. For example, a character who was previously an orphan now gets into a fight with family members. Where did the family come from? Retcon.

In other words, a retcon gives you the power to change the past. And then you just continue on from there.

Tired of Fixing Story Problems the Hard Way? Retcon It

Although comic book retcons usually happen after the story has already come out in print, you can also use the retcon technique during the writing process. It can save you a ton of time and effort.

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 get back to writing your story.

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 will line up.

How I Fixed My Story with a Retcon (and Got Published)

Here's a real-life example.

A few years ago, when I was first planning out my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, I kept coming up with new ideas that completely disrupted the storyline. A few times, I had to retcon entirely new characters (and even a car) into the story, resulting in conversations like this:
ME: That night, this evil-looking black muscle car pulls up to the curb, engine rumbling, and Greyson gets out. His eyes are glowing—

SUSAN: Wait, hold on. I thought Greyson had a motorcycle.

ME: Yeah, that's a retcon. Instead of a motorcycle, now he has a black muscle car. And it's possessed by an evil spirit. So it has a mind of its own.

SUSAN: You mean like Stephen King's Christine?

ME: Pretty much. And its name is Hellbringer.

SUSAN: OK. Retcon. Got it.

ME: So anyway, Greyson gets out of Hellbringer, and his eyes are glowing red as he looks around, and then suddenly . . .
You get the idea. A retcon allows you to make any necessary story changes—without actually having to go back and do the work of making changes.

Of course, you will have to go back and change things eventually. But in the meantime, you can keep moving forward until you finish your book. That helps you write faster, and makes your story stronger.

Ultimately, that makes your book more likely to get published.

Use Your Super Powers to Retcon Your Story

The next time you find a story problem that needs to be fixed, keep this trick in mind. Resist the urge to go back and change anything major. Instead, do this:

1. Write a giant "RETCON" in the manuscript or in the margin.

2. Describe the necessary changes in your notebook.

3. Keep writing. Pretend the changes have already been made.

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. It could happen.

By the way, if you're headed to the Denver Comic Con this year, come hear me speak and sign the latest books in the Dru Jasper series.

What did you think of this writing tip? Leave me a comment below, or contact me at www.laurencemacnaughton.com

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. Laurence, I have recently learned how to allow myself to do the RETCON. I highlight the passage or scene so it'll stand out for me and go merrily on my way with the story. Often I don't even know the particulars on how I need to fix it. Now, because of your post, I have a name for this task.

  2. Thanks Glynis! Here's a bonus trick: when you notice something that you need to change, you can actually type the word RETCON in your manuscript. Then it's easy to find that spot later using the search function, so you can fix it.

    Hope that helps. Have fun writing!

  3. Oh, what a great idea! I've just added a "Retcon" collection to my current Scrivener project, and I have a feeling I'm going to be using this trick a lot in the future, too.

    1. Good idea, Shiva! Scrivener makes it so much easier to make retcon changes to your story.

      By the way, the makers of Scrivener also make another product called Scapple. I absolutely LOVE it for brainstorming and outlining. If you've never checked it out, give it a shot. I gush all about it here: https://laurencemacnaughton.com/2015/12/01/the-easiest-way-to-organize-your-thoughts/

    2. You know, I think I might just have to declare you my new hero. I've actually had Scapple for some time, and although I thought it had a lot of potential, I still hadn't thought of a good way to incorporate the program into my own writing process. To be fair to the lovely folks and Literature and Latte, though, I also haven't tried to plot a new book from scratch since I downloaded the program. But now that I've read your post, I'm thinking I may just have to give Scapple another try, but on a smaller scale: to help me sort out a scene that's been giving me trouble. So, thanks again!

  4. I've done this before, but didn't have a name for it. Now I will always remember making a retcon.

  5. Love this! Gonna share at Jean's Writing! Thanks can't wait to put this to good use.

    1. Thanks Jean! Yes, please spread the word. The more writers help each other out, the more great stories we can write. Have fun retconning!

  6. My main character's late husband was said to be a retired real estate broker. His apprentice helped the wife during a difficult move after he died.

    Fast forward with that same wife helping a new friend solve a mystery. She told the friend of her late husband with that same mystery while he served as a career military veteran who traveled the world until he retired.

    But the friend said he heard that her husband was a realtor. See a discrepancy here? My new word "retcon" (or as I called it, brainfade). My solution: Yes, he was a realtor, but that was his 2nd career. After retiring from the military, he went to school to go for his 2nd career choice.

    Other goof-ups, I had to do some soul-searching, then either change the new path of things, or go back & change it. It's great to know I'm not the only one to experience this. But it's also a great way to improve a story.


  7. It sounds interesting, but I am confused about this too. :)