Six impossible things

Series backstory, part 2

Last time, I talked about ways to get series backstory (the stuff that has happened in the previous books of a series) into the sort of series that’s really a three- or five- or seven-volume novel split into parts. Today I’m talking about the backstory for the other sort of series, the kind that’s a collection of stand-alone novels, usually (but not always) about the same set of characters having different adventures or problems. Most detective series are good examples of this kind of thing.

As I said before, there are a lot of really good reasons for a multi-volume-novel type series to need a bit of review or reminder in the first couple of chapters (ideally in Chapter One, but you can’t always swing that).

None of those reasons apply to the stand-alone type series.

If what you’re writing is a collection of stand-alone novels, then each one ought to stand alone. That means that the writer doesn’t put in lots of extraneous-but-interesting information to get new readers up to speed, any more than the writer of a non-series stand-alone novel puts in a huge infodump recalling the protagonist’s life history to that point in his/her life. Everything that happened before Page 1 of the current novel is history, and the fact that some of your readers already know it doesn’t mean you have to treat it any differently from the background/backstory you made up prior to Book 1.

Yes, knowing the background and relationships that have developed over the past nine or ninety books ought to make the reader’s experience of the current book richer, but new readers don’t need to know all that in order to enjoy the current book. Book seventeen will be a different experience for people who come to it with sixteen books worth of backstory than it will for readers who haven’t read anything else in the series, but different does not mean bad or boring or unenjoyable. And it certainly does not mean incomprehensible – in fact, the amount of background a new reader requires in order to understand what’s going on is usually a lot less than the writer fears.

(This is, in fact, one of the potential advantages of writing a collection-type series. If the first two books of a five-volume novel are out of print when the last book hits the shelves for the first time, it’s a major problem. Very few readers want to read only the last half or the last third of a novel. If the first twelve books of a nineteen-book set of detective novels are OOP, it’s an annoyance for new readers who grab the latest one, love it, and want to go back and fill in, but it’s not the same kind of catastrophe.)

So, what goes into the book is however much background, backstory, or history needs to be there for that story, whether we’re talking about politics, the history of ancient China, the protagonist’s confused relationship with his/her childhood sweetheart, or the slowly growing friendship between the sidekick and the alien from Rigel VII. And rather than dumping it all in Ch. 1, you put the information in when the reader needs to know it – some in the first chapter, some in the third, some in the tenth…wherever it makes sense.

Note that “the amount of backstory that needs to be there” a) is nearly always less than the writer and faithful readers think; b) is not going to be the same for every novel in the series; c) is not related to where in the series a novel falls (Book 19, in which the heroine has been kidnapped by pirates and spends the entire novel dealing with them, may need very little of the background that’s been established in the 18 prior books, while Book 7, in which she’s dealing with a complicated plot to assassinate her best friend’s father-in-law [who’s also Chief Justice of the Interstellar Tribunal] may need to refer to nearly everything in the previous six books, one way or another); d) can vary if there’s a two- or three-book story arc mid-series, and e) often varies depending on stylistic and thematic considerations. In other words, like “it works,” how much backstory one needs is a judgment call.

Most writers have a fairly good handle on this when it comes to their characters’ history. You don’t see detective novels that start with a run-down of every murder the detective has solved in the past six books. What seems to trip people up most frequently are the character relationships. I’ve seen more than one great stand-alone series bog down around book six with what I call “check-in syndrome” – the writer spends more and more time at the front end of the book “checking in” on all the recurring characters the readers love, even if those characters have no particular part in the current story. Then the book either bloats up to twice the length it needs to be, or else the actual plot is crammed into the remaining few chapters, greatly to the detriment of the story.

What all this boils down to is that in a collection-type series, I’d recommend erring on the side of too little backstory rather than too much, unless you already know that you under-explain or unless you have solid stylistic or thematic reasons for running on and on about what’s already happened (for example, a garrulous first-person narrator…)

6 Comments
  1. The series I’m writing falls sort of in-between your two varieties. It’s more of a collection of stories set in a shared world, which is a fairly common romance genre series idea.

    The problem I’ve had is that I’ve given my characters some improbable and interconnected abilities and when they pop up in later books, I have to figure out how much knowledge on the reader’s part I can take for granted. So, for example, in Book 1, one of minor characters, a ghost, learns how to communicate via cell phone. It takes him a lot of work, he destroys a lot of electronics, there’s a whole thing about absorption of energy from the environment and how ghosts use and deal with energy, blah-blah-blah. In Book 2, he’s the star of the show, but he’s also a ghost with a very improbable ability to communicate via text message. Trying to balance explanation of that type of back-story without info-dumping was hard–I think I went through 14 revisions of that section of Ch1.

    Reading this reminded me though that, as a reader, my willingness to suspend disbelief is much, much higher when I’m reading a later book in a series without having read the earlier books. When I figure that probably there’d be an explanation if I went back and read the first books, I’m much more tolerant. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a useful breakthrough for the first chapters of Book 3 that I’ve been struggling with for months, so thank you!

  2. I have trouble knowing how much of my setting I need to re-explain in stand-alone stories set within my North-lands. It’s all so familiar to me, that I tend to under-explain. But then I seem to under-explain in general. My beta readers always ask me to *add* things, never to remove passages. I think I get it right in the revisions (the beta readers are happy), but I can’t do it without feedback. I don’t have enough perspective!

  3. Check-in syndrome- I’ve seen many a novel fall prey to this! It’s so annoying if that character doesn’t really play a part, but of course, the author loves that character and wants to give them some “screen-time”.

  4. “If what you’re writing is a collection of stand-alone novels, then each one ought to stand alone.”

    Yes, but.

    Despite being standalone, often, there is development through the novels, and so I would prefer to read them in order.

    On of my frustrations as a reader is finding out about a series that looks promising and not being able to easily tell the order.

    Alphabetical does not cut it. “Eighth, fifth, first, fourth, ninth, second, seventh, sixth, tenth, third” is not the order I want to see the titles in.

    Authors, please tell your publishers.

  5. It’s kind of like the difference between a TV show and a mini-series, isn’t it? Once in awhile on a TV show you’ll have a `last time you remember’ before the theme song, but mostly the producers just assume you’ll catch on as you go along.

  6. I have a question that doesn’t have to do with this topic, but I couldn’t find anywhere else to ask it.

    Deadlines. Do they interfere with the creative process, or enrich it? Are they a good thing, or a bad thing? I know I can’t avoid them all the time, but are there ways to overcome the problems that arise with deadlines?

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