retcon storytelling

The Difference between Revisiting, Reinterpreting, Retconning, and Retroactively Ruining Stories

What does it mean to tell a story? Why does spinning a yarn matter, and what kind of effect does it have on both the tale-spinner and the audience? And, of most concern to this article, what happens when a storyteller decides that some tales do not meet a particular need in their current form? This last question invites an examination primarily of means in a creative act; that is, how does an author go about changing or altering something he has already published or released to others? Implicit in such literary activity, however, is also a moral component worth consideration on a case-by-case basis.

To tell a story is to make a connection with one’s audience for the purpose of communicating something. This is a simple statement prima facie, but it ought not be taken lightly because its implications are far-reaching. There is naturally the content of a story to consider, and the ends or motivation of the storyteller. But another, often overlooked element of narrative is the fact that stories stay with people. Tales are not merely words arranged in a specific grammatical order flowing through a tide of dramatic structure; rather, a story is a mosaic, outlined and arranged in an indelible pattern and instilled within a human life, evoking responses on every level possible for years to come. The body (somacorpus) recognizes thrilling tension with a quickening heart and sweaty palms, as though the campfire ghost and its attendant peril were present in reality; the mind (nousmens) wrestles with a critical riddle and marvels at the mystery of an ancient language brought to life on a hidden stone door; the spirit (thumosspiritus) heaves and thrills with cathartic release in wandering and homecoming, in rejection and acceptance; and the soul (psycheanima) quails, quivers, and yearns with glimpses and reflections of divine grace. These most potent experiences, when crafted with artisanal skill, draw us back time and again to the voices of our parents at our childhood bedside, to the worn pages of a beloved book, and to the lively film screens of theaters and living rooms.

Storytelling is Never a One-Way Street

It might be said that, given the wonder and magnitude of this exchange of time for tale, storytelling is never a one-way street, for both the storyteller and the audience participate in the whole experience together. An author—an artist, even—ends up sharing his work not only in the sense that he offers it up to public scrutiny, but also in the manner that an ever-learning teacher shares a lesson with inquisitive students in the classroom. This participation creates something which now belongs to both parties beyond the bare skeleton of narrative stretched between them, for while one party actively leads the other, both walk the same path in the process. If the plot is a trellis, then both the actual telling and the reception of the story are together a rose bush climbing to glory and splendor, beheld by and enchanting both the gardener and the garden party; the trellis supports and guides the bush, which itself both adorns its frame and is the purpose of the frame’s existence.

What then can be said of a return to a particular story not hand-in-hand with the audience, but by the storyteller alone? That is, of a form of rewriting or authorial fiat operating behind the scenes? And not merely for the purpose of better recording or repeating what came before, but instead with a mind for pruning and alteration? This course of action also ought not be taken lightly, for “You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince) —or created, concerning either the story itself or the broader experience arising from sharing it. Having entered into a relationship with his audience, an author must be aware that his word and deed within the realm of storytelling have an impact upon others, and also upon another thing less tangible. He is participating in something outside himself—a beast (mostly of his own making) which he has released into the world, for better or for worse. And for better or for worse, there may come a time when the author decides that something in his work bears a second, critical look. Perhaps a thoughtful examination is called for. Mayhap even a series of edits…or something yet more drastic.

At such a point, there are two paths open to an author, with two distinctive directions in each: first, an exploration of what came before through either enlargement or embellishment; second, an amendment of error or of ethos. These four avenues offer something in the way of opportunity for enrichment, but they likewise carry the potential for results more destructive than enjoyable or edifying.

Revisiting through Expansion

To revisit through enlargement is perhaps the most straightforward means of returning to a story and its world. The clearest examples of this would be the sequel, in which events continue after their first conclusion, and the prequel, which presents events taking place prior to the first tale. The most extreme illustration of enlargement might be the establishment of a franchise—for instance, the Star Wars and Star Trek Expanded Universes, which each contain quite literally hundreds of books, comic books, and video games inspired by the original Star Wars movies and Star Trek television shows. Here the audience finds that the first story expands beyond its original scope, typically placing its protagonists in new locations, meeting new characters, and having new adventures. The old content is kept as it was, and (typically) the audience will be able to reconcile or accept the differences in circumstances through continuity: that is, the trait of being part of an overall whole with minimal contradiction and discrepancy accepted between its individual episodes.

Embellishment, on the other hand, is a more flexible approach to storytelling which might otherwise be called reinterpretation in this context. Instead of merely altering circumstances such as time and place while leaving the original material untouched, the primary changes of embellishment are made in perspective and expression. One might find this very mildly expressed in a “side-story,” which often takes place alongside its original inspiration. Here there is potential for crossover with re-visitation through enlargement, as seen in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow. Taking place at the same time as his acclaimed Ender’s Game, Card’s Shadow often describes the same events depicted in Ender’s Game, but it does so through the eyes of another character who often discovers deeper reasons and complications driving and following these events. As a result, rereading Ender’s Game afterward causes the audience to recall that Ender’s understanding of his world is not the final or comprehensive word to be followed.

Yet embellishment or reinterpretation might take a more liberal approach by setting aside the original tale entirely, instead taking recognizable elements and using them in a different way. This is in truth an ancient practice, dating back at least to the times of Roman appropriation of Greek plays, mythology, and literature (and almost certainly much further). It is, for example, from Homer’s Iliad and its depiction of the Trojan War that Virgil’s Aeneid draws so much of its literary inspiration and poetic-historical basis. But it is also within and not simply between cultures that one finds reinterpretation abounding, as much of modern American literature and culture will demonstrate; it might even be observed that there are cycles of popular creativity which alternate between “original” concepts and a more derivative return to the tales of yesterday. A general expression of the latter can be seen in the “reboot,” where a franchise’s characters, setting, and distinctive qualities are published in a fresh format, with new actors and plots, and/or conveying a different tone. In more radical instances of reinterpretation, not only might the outlook of a particular and well-known character (and thus the perspective of the audience) be changed, but even his portrayal. Whereas in one case the villain was once simply the villain—lurking in his lair, desiring evil for its own sake, and serving as a narrative foil for the more relatable hero—perhaps now he is presented as a troubled man with a past which has driven him to bad actions. Or he could even be merely misunderstood by the ignorant masses, and not bad at all. Disney’s recent Maleficent is a notable example, in that the titular character, once regarded as the epitome of Disney villains, falls from such a lofty rank to that of an embittered antihero, spurned and betrayed by a human king she once loved.

Amending through Retroactive Continuity

In contrast to enlargement and embellishment, the act of amending an error by imposing “retroactive continuity” (or “retconning”) is generally a more specific endeavor than crafting an entirely new story for its own sake. Instead, the storyteller might publish a new version of his previous work in order specifically to fix a mistake present in the original; perhaps one passage in his book describes a character’s scar as appearing on the right side of his face, while another says it is on his left side, and for the purposes of the plot this must be remedied. Alternatively, he might make an explanatory reference in a later work, constructing a plausible explanation for why a situation appeared as it did at first glance. On the other hand, perhaps his work, published in 2000 and set in 2012, has a scene taking place in the World Trade Center; if the author wishes very badly to reconcile his work with reality or to avoid uncomfortable associations, he might move the scene to another location in the second edition. In a famous example of retconning, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, but overwhelming audience demand for London’s Greatest Detective prompted him to grudgingly explain in his later The Adventure of the Empty House that Holmes had faked his death. There are a number of ways a mistake or an obsolete detail might be “fixed.”

An amendment of ethos is similar to that of error, in that it might be limited to a relatively small adjustment to a particular work; yet it shares much in common with reinterpretation or embellishment, and for this reason its implications are much broader. Here, the author has realized or determined that his work does not communicate what he wishes—specifically, it should now convey not that which he had intended in the past, at the time of its original publication, but instead what he currently wishes it had said or would say in the present. As with most human motivations, there are myriad reasons an author might wish to bring about such a change (some being better than others). It might well be that his earlier work conveyed a particular intellectual or moral message that he now not only disagrees with, but believes is actively detrimental to his audience. A religious conversion, personal experience of a traumatic event, or any number of other significant life events forming his worldview could prompt this desire for creative ex post facto editing. Such motivations might be as weighty as those listed previously, or as trivial as simply changing one’s mind on a matter of taste. When it comes to carrying out this post-release edit, a light touch may limit itself to an explanatory preface in subsequent editions, explaining that the author no longer holds to what his work implies; but a more active hand may attempt to scrub away the past and instead paint a different picture in its place, as though it had always been that way.

Among the most notorious and questionable instances of the latter is found in Star Wars Episode IV, in which George Lucas later introduced (in his “Special Edition” re-releases) a controversial change popularly and derisively referred to by the more accurate response “Han Shot First.” In an early scene in the original movie, when confronted by an armed and hostile bounty hunter named Greedo, Han Solo shoots his opponent from underneath the table in a case (clear to the audience) of self-defense and roguish cunning. This seminal moment of character expression, however, did not sit well with Lucas in later years, as he recently described the scene as appealing to people who “wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer…to think that he actually just gunned him [Greedo] down.” Some years after the movie’s release, Lucas employed video editing to alter the scenario several times in different re-releases: namely, by awkwardly making it appear that Han and Greedo had shot at each other simultaneously, or that Greedo had shot first (with the bounty hunter missing at point blank range in each revision). In fact, after making the change, Lucas went so far as to claim that Han had never shot first, and that this impression had come from poor effects and camera work in the original movie. Such a bald attempt at alteration underscores the possible perils of amending tales in this fashion, as seen in the widespread contempt of Star Wars fans for this change in ethos accomplished by sleight of hand and without honest acknowledgement. Another disappointing example of this editing tactic is found in J.K. Rowling’s fiat pronouncement in an interview concerning Albus Dumbledore’s sexual orientation in the Harry Potter universe—a declaration unsupported within her books, but imposing a different lens through which she intends them to be read.

It might be observed that, when a storyteller wishes to affect such radical change (either in events or in an audience’s outlook on past events) by pretending that they never happened, that they happened a different way, or that something relevant has actually happened in the background which no audience could reasonably expect given what the story itself reveals, the result is often an amendment of ethos.

But Ought He?

Thus far we have seen four ways in which a storyteller might return to his story independently of his audience through some form of authorial fiat. For the most part, these approaches contribute either to separate additions or to targeted ex post facto changes in the story’s content. Having considered the means, however, it is necessary to examine both the ends and implications of this process: not only why does an author walk this path, but ought he? Two simple and (for the purposes of this article) satisfactory explanations for the question of why are, first, love of the story; and second, the need or desire for profit from the story. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien cared deeply about the world of Arda and Middle-earth, and considered his work in that fictional realm sufficient for its own sake; crafting and expanding tales and elements from it was reward enough, and he was happy to share the results with others. To illustrate the second point, in the case of serial novels or films it is likely that the writer makes his living through his writing; in order to pay the bills, care for his family, and go about his life, he must produce content in his vocation, and when the public finds some of his work particularly engaging and worthwhile, it is reasonable for him to milk the cash cow he’s raised by the sweat of his own brow. (Let it be noted also that the need or desire for profit does not rule out the possibility of an author also or foremost enjoying what he produces for others.)

Yet, having examined the means, we are left with the question of whether a storyteller ought to exercise these forms of authorial fiat in one way or another. Certainly the legal right to do so rests with him (barring complications), but this fact alone does not determine whether doing so would be a good and worthy thing. In the case of additions through enlargement and embellishment, the audience often simply finds a decline in quality of content released over an extended period of time, whether on account of unnecessary repetition or the over-exercise of fatigued concepts. Similarly, continually adding to a particular story through this kind of expansion may eventually reach a point of bloat, where the original work’s themes, message, tone, aesthetic, and/or characters are no longer relevant to or consistent with its latest iteration. So far down this road, recursive and disappointing installments may actually tarnish what came before through association with recycled echoes and imitations. Ironically, a strong reboot might resurrect and refresh the original, but this is the exception rather than the norm. In revisiting and reinterpreting one’s work (or another’s, when authorship is passed), it should then be apparent that there are risks worth careful consideration when choosing whether to expand the scope of a story beyond its originally intended form—risks of both financial and authorial integrity.

Retconning and amendment, in their own way, might be merely mundane fixes or instead far-reaching brushstrokes which level mountains and raise up valleys with but a few words or scenes. Here, a relatively small change can result in a disproportionately large shift in a tale’s component parts, and thus its sum—particularly in the mind of an attentive and devoted audience. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that a story is in fact more than the sum of its parts, and so any alteration of the above nature could have unintended consequences for the story and for those who participate in it.

Great Opportunities … and Hazards

In all, there are both great opportunities and hazards down the road of revisiting old stories with a mind for change. Some successful cases of this can be seen, for the most part, in the numerous Star Trek series (enlargement); in 2004’s Battlestar Galactica reboot (embellishment); in Sherlock Holmes’s continued adventures through retconning (amendment of error); and in Charles Dickens’ revised ending to Great Expectations, which did not close the door on Pip and Estella’s relationship (amendment of ethos). If these and other quality examples share a trait in common, it might be a respect for and awareness of the original source, added to a desire to offer something new and meaningful in a familiar setting or manner. This appreciation and continuity of spirit, then, provides a firm foundation built on the past, which best allows for an appropriately fresh and worthy future.

If it is true that stories have meaning, and likewise have an appreciable (in some cases, even critical) impact upon their audience, then there is certainly a moral component to their telling. Trivial tampering, meddling, and fiddling becomes not just a rote editorial process, but is instead a discernible act of reaching into people’s lives, tugging on tapestry threads which lead to places that the author can only dream of. Such an endeavor, when undertaken, should be conducted with diligence and care: diligence for maintaining both awareness and respect for what has come before, and care for the lives that these stories touch.


Author: Aaron Kilgore

Aaron Kilgore graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Classical Studies, and from the University of Michigan with a Master's degree in Library and Information Science. He currently works as a librarian, acquiring and preserving the intellectual fruits of civilization. His interests revolve primarily around storytelling, fiction, and language.

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