Hello! How are you? I was wondering: what exactly is the difference between a “plot twist” and a “retcon”? I don’t really understand it even after looking it up.


Hey Atlas, great to hear from you again! 

In concept, the difference between a plot twist and a retcon is fairly simple. A plot twist is when something surprising happens in the story, whereas a retcon, or “retroactive continuity,” is when some element of the story is changed to be different than it was before. 

For example: when Saruman is revealed as evil in Lord of the Rings, that’s a plot twist. Not the most shocking one of all time, but a twist nonetheless. It’s not a retcon because it wasn’t impossible for Saruman to be evil before; he just didn’t appear to be evil. 

In contrast, the Klingons looking completely different between Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation is a retcon. They looked one way before, and then they looked a different way because the newer show’s budget was high enough for better makeup. 

Of course, it’s not always that clear-cut. Continuity is complicated, and people will often argue back and forth forever about whether certain reveals are retcons or not. Vader’s “I am your father” line in Empire Strikes Back is generally considered to be just a plot twist, but some people insist it’s a retcon since Lucas didn’t originally intend for Vader to be Luke’s father, and there’s little to indicate he is in A New Hope. I don’t subscribe to that view, but you can see how some people might. 

The question can also change over time. As of Enterprise, Star Trek now has an explanation for why the Original Series Klingons don’t have the elaborate makeup used in other series: they were all infected with a weird virus to make them look human! So the change in appearance is technically explained now, but most people still consider it a retcon because that’s what it was at the time. 

This debate can get especially heated because “retcon” has a pejorative connotation. And it’s true that retcons are often annoying. They can be a sign of contrived storytelling, and they often change aspects of a story that fans liked. But sometimes retcons are good, such as the aforementioned Klingon appearance change. Aliens just have a higher novelty value when they don’t look exactly like humans! 

Retcons can also be the most efficient way to fix some problem a story has. In another Star Trek example, there’s an episode where Captain Kirk explains that women aren’t allowed to be captains in Starfleet. This is obviously antithetical to Star Trek’s optimistic message, and later writers did well by simply ignoring it. Trying to explain Kirk’s line away would have been more trouble than it was worth. 

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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