[LNH] From The Files of Doctor Stomper #6: Retcons Revisited

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at haven.eyrie.org
Mon Dec 26 15:46:28 PST 2005

                 From the Files of Doctor Stomper #6
                         Retcons Revisited
                  copyright 2005 by Dave Van Domelen


          Recent research has shown that the previously accepted
     division of retcons into benign and malignant is insufficient
     for proper treatment of storyline damage.  A new taxonomy is
     proposed to rectify this lack.


     Ten years ago, the state of research into retcons (1) classified them
into two categories: benign retcons that did not alter existing continuity,
and malignant (2) retcons that did.  It was pointed out that either sort can
metastasize and become cancerous, but that malignant retcons were more likely
to do so.
     Since then, the effects of retcons on storylines both large and small
have continued to be the cause of much heartbreak, confusion or annoyance in
lab animals (3).  From this it has been deduced that Readers in the wild
still continue to suffer harm from cancerous retcons.  
     Clearly, the best solution to this problem is to rename it, leading to a
new taxonomy in three dimensions.

The Dimensions of Retroactive Continuity:

     There are three dimensions that can adequately describe any retcon:
Changes, Cheating and Interference. (4) These can be treated as orthogonal
variables for most purposes, but they do all correlate positively with an
underlying factor: how much of a lazy bastard the Writer is.
     All three variables can be described on a scale of 0 to 1.  The average
of the three variables is a rough predictor of how likely (as a fraction of
100%) the retcon is to metastasize and turn cancerous.


     Any retcon can be measured by the extremity of the changes it makes to
established storylines, and this takes the place of the old benign/malignant
     At one extreme is the retroactive continuity that merely fills in gaps
in the storyline.  For instance, if a character's activities between the ages
of 12 and 30 are undocumented, a Writer can employ retroactive continuity to
document some of those years without affecting what is already known about
the character.
     At the other extreme is the retcon that directly contradicts previously
established material.  These contradictory retcons, or conretcons, are
sometimes helpful, erasing patently stupid stories.  But they are generally a
sign of a lazy Writer who can't be bothered to know the story of the
character being written.  
     A Changes of 0 simply fills in backstory, without contradicting anything
previously revealed.  A Change score of 1 represents the "EVERYTHING YOU KNOW
IS WRONG!" syndrome, in which the entire prior backstory is explained away as
a dream, a hoax, an imaginary story, or some other plot device.


     Sometimes a retcon simply adds depth, or at least fits into a plot
smoothly and organically.  Other times, however, it's obvious that the Writer
has painted himself into a corner and is using the retcon to find a way out.
     A Cheating score of 0 is assigned to a retcon that was actually planned
from the very beginning.  The Writer knew about it from day one, and brought
it out in a manner that was not, at the time, a major plot point.  Often
considered false retcons, because the story element was there all the time.
     Low Cheating scores around 0.1 or 0.2 are assigned to retcons that were
not planned from the start, but fit in smoothly and seem to make sense.  They
may be important to the plot later, but the Writer can at least claim to have
planned it all along with some chance of being believed.
     Higher Cheating scores tend to look like plot devices.  A character
exhibits skills or abilities never used before, with a retcon justifying them
("Oh, did I forget to mention I spent a few years in med school before
dropping out to join the racing circuit?").  Still, there is some attempt to
introduce these retcons before they're absolutely necessary, so they come
across as clumsy foreshadowing.
     Finally, retcons of Cheating = 1 smack of desperation.  The character
has always been rich, she was just slumming, but now pulls out a checkbook to
cover the financial crisis.  Or he could always fly, but a trauma had made
him forget until just now when he falls off a roof.  One need only look to
the old Saturday Matinee Serials for numerous examples of high-Cheating
     There is also a special sort of cheating that some Writers indulge in
with their retcons: coyness.  This occurs when the characters are aware of
some new piece of backstory, and allude to it in the story, but the Reader is
not able to determine what it is.  Thus, the Reader has no way to figure out
what's going on, freeing the Writer up to change details at the last minute.
It has been proposed that Coyness form a fourth dimension on its own, in
which case a Coyness score of 1 would represent characters constantly
referring to past events that have never been shown, and never stating things
clearly enough for anyone to figure them out.  


     This dimension of retcons is not always obvious, as it only becomes
apparent when multiple Writers attempt to work with the same pool of
characters.  In the event of a single-Writer story, ignore this dimension and
simply average the other two to predict the chance of a cancerous retcon.
     Interference measures how likely it is for another Writer's long-term
plans to be damaged by a new revelation.  This is distinct from plot damage
caused by current events, it should be noted.  Only retcon-related damage is
considered in this dimension.
     At an Interference of 0, the retroactive continuity has no negative
effect on any shared-world plans.  It may even have a positive effect,
providing plot hooks for other Writers to use.
     At an Interference of 1, however, the fundamental nature of the
character or situation has been declared to have always been substantially
different, and this derails plans other Writers may have had.  For instance,
revealing that an alien character is actually a human mutant who had false
memories implanted ten years ago, thus scrapping someone else's plans to have
the character go home to their native world...which no longer ever existed.
Or saying that a normally heroic group performed some particularly heinous
act years ago, thus throwing all their subsequent heroism into doubt and
making it impossible to write a story in which any of them can be considered


     Sometimes a retcon can be made in isolation, just changing one or two
details without having any larger impact.  The lower its scores in Changes,
Cheating and Interference, the more likely it can remain this way.  But large
Changes often have a ripple effect, forcing other retcons elsewhere.  Extreme
Cheating is often a sign that the plot itself is on the verge of collapse.
And a high amount of Interference means that other Writers will have to alter
their plans, which often requires additional retcons.
     Once a retcon has metastasized and spread to other parts of the story,
the results are often fatal to Reader interest.  All dimensions of the retcon
will grow steadily, until a state is reached in which no one knows anything
and no plot can be trusted to resolve in a sensible manner.  At that point,
the story may limp along for years, but it will always carry the baggage of
an uncertain past.  A reboot is often the only way to repair matters, and it
is often fatal in and of itself.


     Now that we can better describe the problem of retcons, we are almost
certainly well on our way to solving it once and for all, leading to a new
world in which writers never retcon excessively.  We believe that this should
be accomplished in no more than 52 weeks from the time of publication. (5)


(1) http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~dvandom/LNH/Files2

(2) The earlier paper called them "malign" instead of "malignant".  We blame
     the graduate student responsible for proofreading for this error.

(3) See, for instance, Identity Crisis, which was proven to cause 
     laboratory lemurs to spontaneously combust.

(4) Attempts to find a "ch" word for the final variable consumed the life
     energies of five graduate students before it was decided to give up
     on the alliteration.

(5) Margin of error plus or minus 198.

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