Six impossible things

Series backstory, part 1

Every so often I get an email request from one of the readers of this blog, asking me to address a particular writing question. This week’s inquiry boils down to “When you’re writing a series, and you’re on book three (or five or nineteen), how much backstory do you put in and where and how do you include it?”

This one seems to give a lot of people fits, because there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there. And the reason there’s a lot of conflicting advice is, in part, because what you do with series backstory depends on what sort of series you are writing.

There are two basic kinds of series: 1) the sort that’s really a multi-volume novel, where plots and subplots carry over from one book to the next, and 2) the sort that’s a collection of different stories about the same set of people, with each book being a relatively independent adventure. A lot of the confusion about series backstory derives from mixing up the two types, because they have very different backstory requirements.

When you’re writing the first type of series, each book after the first one necessarily starts in medias res, because you’re really only telling one story that’s been broken up into parts. New readers coming in at book 2 or 3 will very likely be hopelessly confused if they don’t get some sort of summary of events to-date, and even fans of the series from way back may need a few reminders of what’s been going on, because it’s normal for the books to come out a year or more apart. Ideally, one wants this reminder as early in the book as possible, to minimize reader confusion and settle the story back into place.

The difficulty here is one of pacing. One doesn’t really want Chapter One of a book to be slow, no matter how many complex plots and subplots one needs to remind the reader of. One especially doesn’t want a too-detailed reminder of plots and subplots that will annoy people who come to the series after all the books are out and they can gulp them down one after another over a long weekend or vacation.

There are three basic methods for getting the necessary updates in anyway: one can treat the story as a more normal in medias res opening; one can set up the reminder in the previous book; or one can begin with a what-has-gone-before prologue, which readers can skip if they’ve recently read earlier books (or if they’re on their eighth re-read and know the plot by heart already).

The first method, writing as if the story is a stand-alone that just happens to start in the middle of the action, tends to work very well for a lot of stories. The writer doesn’t have to dump a huge mass of information into Chapter One; everything comes along just as the reader actually needs to know it, which for certain facts may not be until Chapter Ten. That means one can avoid a potential slow opening and get on with the story. Readers who dislike in medias res openings won’t care for it if they get hold of it first, but that’s why the publisher should put “Book 2 of…” in some clear and obvious spot on the cover.

The second method, setting up the summary in advance, requires careful planning, because the set-up usually goes at the end of the previous book – someone promises to write and explain, or demands a report, or talks about the upcoming conference, or mentions a new character who’ll need to be brought up to speed on what’s going on. The next book opens with writing the letter or the report or with the conference or the arrival of the new character, so the overall story flows along seamlessly.

When handled clumsily, this looks like the device it is – a compromise between working things in in bits and doing a prologue – and it’s not something you’d want to use book after book in a long-running series, because it gets really obvious if you do it more than once even if you’re clever. It can, however, work well if one is fairly far into a longer multi-volume novel with a complicated plot that even readers who have all the books ready to hand may be glad to see laid out clearly.

The third method, the what-has-gone-before prologue, is pretty self-explanatory; the main thing to remember here is not to get too attached to it, because people will undoubtedly skip it when they re-read it. It’s a practical solution if one has a convoluted plot, lots of subplots, and lots of characters, all of which the reader needs to be up to speed on before the opening scene.

The biggest problem most writers seem to have with all of these methods is a tendency to put in far more information than the reader actually needs to know in order to pick up where the story left off. (There are, as always, a rare few who put in too little information and end up making the reader’s potential confusion worse than ever, but as I said, they’re rare, and a good editor, beta reader, or crit group will call them on it.)

On the other hand, a multi-volume novel is still one story; it’s published in multiple books for reasons of production, or to give the reader a break (a million-plus words is somehow a lot more intimidating in a single volume than it is broken up into five or six more normal-looking books, even though nothing else about it changes). Deciding that one is not going to make any concessions to the publishing process (i.e., completely ignoring all of the above and putting in no what-has-gone-before stuff, nothing to remind a reader of what happened two books and three real-life years ago) is not a totally unreasonable position to take. One simply has to be very, very sure that one’s story is strong enough to hold up without extra artificial linkages between the parts, and willing to argue with or ignore all the editors, beta readers, etc. who tell you that you have to have something to fill in the reader on what has gone before.

As this is getting rather long, I’m going to stop here and do part 2, on handling the collection-of-stand-alones type series, on Sunday.

  1. I’ve never really seen this addressed this way before, but it’s very helpful. I tend to write more of the collection-of-stand-alones types, so I’ll be interested to see what you say there!

  2. Be sure to include information in Part 2 about what you said in Part 1, to catch people up!

    Um. Sorry. Had to.

  3. Thank you, both for the post and for condensing my rather wordy question! Mine seems to be the “multi- volume novel” sort, but I look forward to part 2 anyway.

  4. and how do you handle it when the first 3 books of your series are no longer on the store shelves when part 6 comes out?

    For an example of the single story recap, read Wagner’s Ring Cycle (you don’t have to listen to it) , then remember that he started with part 4 and went backwards. I will not say if it works or not.

  5. I recall Bertie Wooster pondering this very question – alas, I don’t recall in which book/s it was exactly… However, it was amusing. 🙂 I do think he did seem to hit upon the happy medium, though – of telling enough without telling too much – in his own bumbling way…

  6. Excellent advice! Have you passed it on to your publisher? While the cover of The Far West is gorgeous, there’s a notable lack of “‘Book 3 of…’ in some clear and obvious spot”. Good thing I knew what to look for!

  7. LRK, that’s what I remembered, too. Then, in his very amusing voice, he gave us a quick backfill, explaining to the readers of the last book that he had to take those who had never read it into consideration.

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