Serialised fiction and internal 'canon'

Is it cheating to go back and change earlier chapters?

I’ve had one rule while writing my three serialised novels, which can be found over on Wattpad: once a chapter was written, it was ‘official’ and could not be altered. This meant that if I accidentally blundered into a plot hole or narrative dead end, or had a character that turned out to be superfluous, I had to roll with it and find a solution within the text going forward. I wasn’t allowed to go back and edit the earlier chapters to apply a post-hoc fix.

To do otherwise felt like it would cheat the readers, most of whom would not be aware of the edit and would continue on in blissful ignorance. Committing to the story as laid down, week-by-week, is part of the fun and the challenge of serialised writing.

(none of this applies when the manuscript is taken and re-published elsewhere, for example as an ebook. This usually involves a full end-to-end edit and can end up very different from the initial serialised run)

Sticking to this rule is needed for most serials, I think, as it represents something of a pact with the reader: thanks for reading, I promise not to cheat. That said, a couple of tangential recent examples have made me wonder whether there might be room for deliberately malleable projects that have uncertainty and change built in.

Quietly updating streamed TV

A couple of weeks back rumours swirled that Disney+ had updated the final scene of their serialised show Wandavision. Already a show with mystery and wackiness aplenty, the suspicions were that the setting of the final scene - a log cabin in the woods - had been altered, with trees moved around and a tantalising, shimmering shape descending from the mountains. “It’s Doctor Strange!” exclaimed a chorus of excited Marvel fans.

Whether it was a visual effects error, a versioning mix-up or a deliberate updating (potentially to bring the appearance of the setting in line with the upcoming Doctor Strange movie sequel), it absolutely captured viewers’ attention and sparked a thousand excited theories. Rather than feeling that it was a sneaky, underhand move, the subtle tweaking of the scene was considered to be an intriguing final twist in a show that was built on unexpected reveals.

All of which got me wondering: what if this was taken further? To take a show like Wandavision, a show which was highly meta and spent as much time deconstructing the history of the sitcom as it did with superhero hijinks, to play with the internal ‘canon’ of the show in real time, messing with viewers’ memories of prior episodes, would be an unsettling and daring extra rug pull.

It would also encourage additional viewings, to identify and analyse the changes as the show mutated over time. This is something that could be achieved easily on platforms like Wattpad. Discoverability is an issue, still - without an intensely engaged audience, sneaky changes to existing chapters probably won’t be noticed, which might rather defeat the point. Announcing them more overtly would seem to miss the point. Perhaps it would be less about the story shifting beneath the feet of specific readers, and more about delivering an evolving experience to subsequent readers, or people who are re-reading?

Talking of re-reading…

I’ve been replaying the Mass Effect games since their recent remaster. I hadn’t played the first game since its original release back in 2007. There’s a critical point halfway through when you have to choose between two members of your team, to decide who lives and who dies. That decision ripples out through the rest of the game and the sequels, with the decision remaining in place. One character is wiped from the story entirely.

On my replay, I’ve deliberately chosen differently to my decision back in 2007. It’s a sharp tangent in the story and the experience of playing the game, like a tangent universe breaking off from the original. My memory plays tricks on me, confused by the survival of a character whom I barely remember from that first play.

Which got me thinking about serial fiction (because this is how my brain always works). Is there space for a blend of serial fiction and interactive fiction? I’m not talking about a total commitment to IF, as there are plenty of studios and writers already going all-in on amazing interactive experiences (see: Inkle Studios). But key branching points in an otherwise linearly-told story could be fascinating.

For example, imagine an online serial (eg on Wattpad) with a pivotal scene a third of the way in. A big decision the protagonist makes which will influence the rest of the story. What if that decision is partly handed over to the reader? To take the Mass Effect example, what if the reader is allowed to choose who lives and who dies, in that specific moment? The story doesn’t need to provide any other reader decisions - it’s not a game, or a '‘Choose your own adventure’ - but having a single, pivotal branching moment could be pretty interesting.

The consequence would be a writer having to then write two versions of the same story, branching off from that decision. That’s a lot of work. But it could significantly deepen reader investment, if they feel they’ve had a hand in what is unfolding - even if it’s only that one decision. In romance novels there’s often conflict created by the protagonist having to choose between two potential partners, with audiences rooting for one or the other: leaving that decision to the reader could be compelling stuff.

This may well be something that has already been done - let me know if you’re aware of examples!

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