Why Do Readers Hate Retcons?
Have you ever heard of the word retcon? If you’ve ever had a conversation with a nerd, you probably have. And when they spoke the word aloud, they probably uttered it with a sneer. But did they ever really explain what the hell a retcon was, or why the very thought of one makes them wrinkle their nose like they’ve just stepped in a pile of skunk’s shit?
What the Fuck is a Retcon Anyway?
The word retcon is a portmanteau—the fancy person’s word for a mash-up—of the words ‘retroactive’ and ‘continuity.’ Grammarist explains it pretty succinctly, saying that a retcon “is a literary device in which new information is introduced that puts a new meaning on previous events in the story.”
When What’s-Her-Butt wakes up at the end of season 9 of Dallas and sees the butt of Isn’t-He-Dead in the shower, and then she’s like “Aren’t you dead?” and he’s like “It was all a dream”—that, right there, is a retcon.
“Yeah,” I hear you asking, “but…”
Why Do Readers Hate Them?
Well, let’s begin by admitting that #NotAllReaders hate retcons. I’m a reader, and I love them. But that’s because I’m also a writer. And I understand, as a writer, that sometimes you fuck up the first time around. Or you forget to explain something that needs explaining. Because I’m a writer, I understand that writers are human. Writers, like non-writing human beings, make mistakes. They change their minds. And, also, they’re often sneaky devils. Writers, like all human beings, are capable of fibbing. Not all readers understand that.
Not all readers understand that writers are people, too.
Consider this passage from TV Tropes' article on retcons:
As the number of twists and misdirections in a story becomes higher, it becomes more difficult to tell whether an event actually is a retcon (which implies that the writers changed their minds), or a misdirection (which implies that the writers intended the "retconned" version all along, and had been deliberately misleading the audience before). In some cases, it is impossible to tell, short of reading the author's mind (even then, it might not helped, as it's entirely possible for an author to be on the fence about what they're planning to do).
Not All Retcons Are Created Equal
Now, to be fair, the word retcon is kind of an umbrella term. And some readers are fine with some retcons while hating others. Why is that?
Well, let’s go back to the TV Tropes article again. And let’s pay careful attention to some of the terms they use:
Often, [retcons are] used to serve a new plot by changing its context; however, it's also done when the creators are caught writing a story that violates continuity and isn't very plausible.
…See also Ass Pull, which is something that was not properly set up before it is sprung on the audience, and Cliffhanger Copout, in which a perilous situation is retroactively changed to allow the characters to escape. …Some, but not all retcons are Ass Pulls, and a good retcon can actually improve the current narrative. A good way to get away with a retcon is to reveal new implications or motivations for events that have already been established.
The problem with the word retcon, like the term “ass pull,” is that it doesn’t sound at all pleasant. The first sound in the word retcon, the ret, sounds an awful lot like the word “retch.” To retcon something then—it sounds like the writer is throwing it up, like they’re vomiting this new information into existence.
Which, to be fair, they sometimes are. But…
Don’t Call it a Retcon
To borrow a few lines of verse from the warrior-poet James Todd Smith and adapt them just a smidge, “don’t call it a retcon / it’s been here for years. / Writers remixing their spheres / feeding off readers’ tears.”
When readers use the word retcon like it’s a cuss word, I think it’s more about the age we’re living in than about the work itself. Writers, particularly writers of science fiction, fantasy, and serialized stories like comic books and TV series—they’ve been doing this shit forever. But, they’ve been doing it in the work itself. As we say in my creative writing classrooms, they put it on the page.
However! With access to authors via social media, one particular kind of retcon has become particularly prominent. And, in my opinion, particularly poisonous. It’s what Standout Books calls ‘Word of God’ retconning:
‘Word of God’ retconning is an unusual choice in which an author states something which is retroactively true but which may never appear in print. J.K. Rowling, for example, revealed that the character Albus Dumbledore was gay outside of the books in which he appears.
This, of course, is the least of The Crimes of Rowling-wald (at least in the minds of many readers). But it speaks directly to the problem of writers and readers connecting via social media.
Whether the things Rowling tweets in response to readers questions are genuine “ass pulls” or something she intended all along, the fact that her Twitter stream now has to be considered part of the larger Harry Potter story (or canon, as we fancy-pantses call it) is unfortunate. Twitter is not a place for storytelling. Given the tone over there over the last couple of years, I’m not sure it’s a place for anything anymore. Or anyone.
I stand firmly on the side of “if that’s what you intended, put it in a story.” Even if it’s a new story. I’m cool with that, as I’ve said above. And Jo, if you happen to be reading this, you’ve got a whole website for doing just that. It’s called Pottermore and it’s pretty awesome. If Dumbledore strokes his “elder wand” it to a moving picture of Grindlewald, then tell us a story about it. Don’t just tweet it and leave it at that.
Me, I’m doing my “retconning” right alongside the rest of my worldbuilding, which you can find on my World Anvil site and in my latest and greatest novels and collections of short fiction.
But what about you? What kinds of retcons do you love? And what kinds do you hate with the fire of a thousand suns?