Foreshadowing versus Retconning

As I enter the sixth year of writing my fantasy series, The Redemption of Erâth, I’m starting to see the difficulties presented in having an outline for seven novels from the beginning, without having a clear idea of exactly what’s going to happen in each one. Events that seemed of the utmost importance from the first book have failed to have any impact on the following two, and I’m left wondering if I ignore those events, find a way to work them back into the story, or come up with a reason why they seemed important at the time, but no longer do.

I’ll give you an example. In the first book, much is made of a mystical sword, once owned by a demon lord from ages past. It’s never made clear what the importance of the sword is, but I had some vague idea at the time that it would become the salvation of the main character to find this sword. By the third book, the sword has become a mutable and frankly indistinct weapon, and it isn’t clear whether it’s even important to find anymore.

This leads to a conflict where, in trying to foreshadow one thing, I’m probably going to have to retcon something instead. These two processes are similar in their results, but have their own difficulties and approaches. Foreshadowing requires knowing in advance the outcome of something yet to be seen or read—which requires meticulous planning—while retconning (retroactive continuity) can be even trickier, as it requires connecting dots into a recognizable shape, despite the dots not being related to each other in the first place.

One of my favorite examples of foreshadowing is in the animated TV series Futurama. In it, a character named Nibbler is discovered to have been responsible for the main character’s fate of being cryogenically frozen for a thousand years. This revelation comes late in the series, with a re-worked version of the pivotal scene. But if one goes back to the very first episode, there is an unaccountable shadow visible—almost exactly the silhouette of the character Nibbler. Thus what appears at first to be a retcon is in fact foreshadowing from the very first episode!

One of the most famous examples of retconning, however, is found in Star Wars. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi states that Darth Vader murdered Anakin Skywalker. Later, in The Empire Strikes Back, he decides to make Darth Vader be Anakin Skywalker. This requires some explanation, so finally in The Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan’s ghost explains that he had told Luke the truth “from a certain point of view”.

Some might argue that foreshadowing is the hallmark of a very serious writer—they clearly have a detailed plan for their work. The truth of the matter may be more benign; a lot of foreshadowing might realistically happen entirely by mistake, or by a clever retcon later in the story. Retcons are often seen as lazy—a quick and easy way to make things sensible without having to worry about it in advance.

I can attest that, despite the most detailed outline and storyboard, the act of writing by definition is fluid and changeable, and things will come out in the moment that weren’t expected, and change the whole story. A character that was supposed to live might die; they might go a different way, or say a different thing. This comes from the very nature of outlining: by definition it isn’t the final story, and coming up with inventive stuff to fill in the blanks naturally leads to changes in the storyline.

Personally I find retconning more fun; it gives me a chance to be extremely inventive, and come up with a reason why a certain event occurred, even if it doesn’t seem to tie in with the logic of the story itself. Foreshadowing, however, is a lot harder, and is therefore something I rarely do deliberately—usually my best foreshadows are complete accidents.

What do you think? Can you tell the difference between a foreshadowing and a retcon? And which do you think is a better example of clever writing?

I’ll be taking a brief respite from editing … to work on more writing.

As you might be aware, I recently wrapped up writing the first draft of my third book, The Redemption of Erâth: Ancients & Death. I had made a start at re-reading and editing it, but there came a point a few chapters in where I realized I really wasn’t in a place to edit it yet—it’s too close to the writing phase, and I’m not sure I can do it the justice it deserves.

I have sent a few copies out to beta-readers, so I’m hoping over the next few weeks that I’ll be getting some workable feedback on the draft, and that’s when I’ll probably start diving in earnest into making the third book the best it possibly can be.

So what does that mean for the meantime? Am I going to relax, sit still, and twiddle my thumbs?

Well, yes … but not just that. Some of you may be aware that I have a side project, a contemporary fiction novel called (for the moment) A Gothic Symphony. I’ve been neglecting this work for far too long, and writing it provides a welcome respite from the world-building and language of my fantasy series. I’ve actually been working on A Gothic Symphony for over ten years, and I’m still only partway through a first draft. However, it’s going well at the moment, and I’m hoping to be able to make some significant progress throughout the next month or so. I don’t necessarily expect to finish it any time soon, but every word down is one closer to the goal.

So that’s where my work is taking me at the moment, and it should do well to keep me busy. I won’t be sharing any of it on here, as I wouldn’t publish it under ‘Satis’ (it’s not even remotely related to the fantasy that Satis is now associated with), but wish me luck, because it’s a deeply personal story that I absolutely will finish and publish one day.

Music I Love: “Crimson”, Sentenced (2000)

I first wrote about this album five years ago here, but I’ve been going through a brief resurgence of depression over the past few days, and there is no album that better summarizes those feelings for me than Crimson, by Finnish goth metal band Sentenced.

Sentenced’s career (now a decade over) started as a fairly traditional death metal band, before growing their singer’s melody from a guttural growl, and for many people their breakthrough album was Amok, released in 1995. Their lyrics have been filled with loathing and depression from the outset, but for me their peak was with 2000’s Crimson. The previous two albums, Down and Frozen have some gems, such as The Suicider, but for me Crimson was the first time that Sentenced truly abandoned their death metal roots entirely for a more pop-goth metal sound, never heard better than on their (Finnish) chart-topping Killing Me Killing You.

This album resonated deeply for me in my youth, for the lyrics seemed to perfectly encompass the bleak despair and misery that I lived through every day:

And yet in some twisted way
I enjoy my misery
And in some strange way
I have grown together with my agony

Home in Despair, Crimson (2000)

Now, seventeen years later, it brings back powerful memories of darkness and despair, and has ever been the soundtrack to depression throughout my ever-changing mental illnesses. Sentenced deliberately broke up in 2005 after releasing their final album, The Funeral Album, and although both it and 2002’s The Cold White Light were phenomenal monuments of bleak despair, nothing will ever top Crimson for its utter, devastating depression.