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Writing the Series Novel: My Series has Back(story) Problems

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Probably the biggest question when it comes to writing series is: just how much backstory do you include in subsequent novels?

Again, a piece of advice from one of my grad-school seminars: when trying to figure out how much backstory to include in a series novel, pretend like you never wrote the first book. According to the person leading this workshop, it doesn’t matter if it’s a spinoff, serial, or sequel, a series novel should never contain more backstory than a stand-alone novel.

This made perfect sense to me when I heard it three or four years ago. But that was before I started writing the Ransome Trilogy, a sequel-series. Now that I’m faced with writing the second book in the series (or will be as soon as I get the second book in the Bonneterre Brides series written—or at least under control), I have to wonder if I’ll be able to just pick up and continue the story as if just continuing the first novel, or if when things happen in the second novel that are precipitated by stuff that happens in the first, I’ll need to include a little explanation of why it’s important or of what happened before that leads the character(s) to make a certain decision.

When I first tried reading The DaVinci code many years ago, aside from being frustrated at the poor level of craft in the writing, I became more and more frustrated by the character’s internal dialogue making a continual reference to some event that happened before this book opened. I remember at one point thinking, If this event is so important, why not show it in this book instead of just referring to it as backstory? Well, after I tossed the book aside (around chapter seven or eight), I found out that it’s actually a sequel to Angels & Demons, and the event happened in that book. Did that make me want to read the previous book in the series? No. But that’s more because of the writing and my lack of interest in the second story than anything else. So I don’t know if that incident had any bearing on what happened in The DaVinci Code or not. All I know is that it didn’t work as backstory—because the event was never explained; it was just referenced.

Around the same time, I picked up the second book in a new historical trilogy by an author whose previous historical trilogies I’d enjoyed. I did approach it with a little trepidation, because I hadn’t been happy with the way the first book ended—though it was multiple POV, the entire setup of the first novel pointed toward the girl getting together with the main male POV character. However right at the end, she makes a sudden and surprising choice to marry someone else—a much more minor character whom we as readers were led to believe was the wrong choice for the heroine. So, as I mentioned, I was already a little leery of reading the second book. But when I did finally pick it up to read, I ended up putting it away about a third of the way through—because the first third of the book was mostly devoted to the male POV character (the one not chosen by the heroine in the first book) rehashing mentally everything that happened in the first book, which was supposed to have been five or ten years before. In other words, the first third of the book was all backstory—and it seemed like it was the author’s way of trying to justify the choice she had her heroine make at the end of the first book.

So here are two examples of series—one in which I’d read the first book, the other in which I hadn’t—where backstory didn’t work for me as a reader. Either it was referenced but not explained as being important, or it was rehashed to the point that the story of the second novel couldn’t get its legs under it and take off.

As with everything in writing, there must be a balance—and that’s where that piece of advice I mentioned above comes in.

When we’re reading a stand-alone novel, we as readers know that there’s been stuff that happened to the characters before the story started that will impact what they do and say within the structure of the novel we’re reading. That’s how we need to approach writing subsequent books in series. Yes, this time we have actually written what comes before. However, we cannot guarantee that anyone will have read that. So we need to treat it the way we treat all of the stuff we wouldn’t include in a stand-alone.

With sequel series, this is much harder done than in the others—especially when it’s a series like Lord of the Rings, where what happens in subsequent books is predicated by what happened in previous books. But as mentioned before, there will always be some series that must be read in order and in full to really be able to understand what’s going on. These are a harder sell for writers; if the first book doesn’t do well, that pretty much guarantees the subsequent novels won’t do well. However, if a sequel series is written so that each could be read apart from the others—while making the reader want to know what happened before and what’s going to happen next—then it’s going to be much more attractive to editors. Because, if the second novel in the trilogy takes off in a big way, it’s much more likely that sales of the first book will increase, and it will create increased demand for the third book. And The DaVinci Code is a prime example of how series books can become popular out of order.

For Discussion:
What does “pretend like you never wrote the first book” mean to you? What are some examples of series books you’ve read that do a good job at weaving the stories together with backstory? What are some that didn’t work quite so well?

  1. Wednesday, June 25, 2008 9:38 am

    My husband is a big fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I’ve read the first three (of 12 or so), and found myself so bogged down in the repeat information from previous books, that I stopped reading the series.

    Don’t you find the overload of backstory more common in fantasy/sci-fi than in other genres?


  2. Wednesday, June 25, 2008 9:38 am

    Pretend like you never wrote the first book means that you have to relay enough information that a reader starting the series out of order won’t be frustrated. I find that to be especially important with books that haven’t sold big enough for stores to carry the previous books in the series, which happens a lot in my town. Frustrating the reader is never a good idea 🙂


  3. Wednesday, June 25, 2008 10:14 am

    I agree with Georgiana (don’t go gettin a big head now!! hehe!)

    A sequel won’t give away all the secrets of the first book, and it won’t be confusing if the person hasn’t read the first one either. I think some authors have the whole “gotta catch them up on the story” mentality, and I know that is hard. Most times I see this in series, there is a paragraph or two that basically gives a synopsis of the first story. That 1.) makes me not want to go back and buy the first book and 2.) bores me!

    I am a newbie writer for the most part, and am on my second book in a series sequel whatever you call it. The main charactor was a minor charactor, so you know her if you were read the first book. I tried to make it so it would stand either way. If you started with book 2, you would be going ‘ohhhhh’ about the story, if you read book one, your reaction is more, “Ah HA!” The only mention I have so far regarding the previous book was that her best friend met her mate online. I did not go into the fact that her bestfriend had been fearful of her own shadow, had been the person most UNlikely to meet a guy online, had a guy stalking her and thought that her now mate was the stalker, and then was eventually attacked by said stalker (who happened to be a guy that her mom had tried to hook her up with) and of course, Jack, the Hero, came and saved the day.

    They have to read book one to find out all that jazz!

    I don’t have specific examples of this done well and this done wrong. It is easier I think to do it ‘right’ when you have unrelated characters in your books, but it is also fun to get a snippet of a character in a first book, and then get to find out their story later.


  4. Wednesday, June 25, 2008 12:09 pm

    I agree that a good sequel doesn’t give away all the secrets of the first book. I started reading Damsel Under Stress by Shanna Swendson, the third book in a series of four (possibly to grow to five), but I’m taking the books in the order I can get them from the library. So far I’ve read the third book and the second (Once Upon Stilettos—did I mention that I loved the books?)

    As urban fantasy, there’s a certain amount of foundation that has to be laid in all the books to “make sense” and make it so they stand alone (magic is real, the MC is “an immune,” meaning she can see through spells, she works at a magical corporation), but so far the author has woven in the information with events in the plot (the present) within the first few pages to catch people up without boring people already familiar with the premise.

    Then again, I’m one of those people who doesn’t mind knowing how a story ends, so reading a series out of order.


  5. Wednesday, June 25, 2008 12:10 pm

    Erm… isn’t a problem for me.

    But apparently writing the paragraphs of a comment out of order is.


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