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?

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