Friday, April 4, 2014

How Much is Too Much?

When Recapping for Readers

Often you start the second, third, or even thirteenth book in a series only to have the author spend several paragraphs (or sometimes pages) catching you up on everything that’s been happening since the first book.  Whether or not I’ve read those previous books, I usually find that annoying.  (Though occasionally this is done so well and in such an entertaining manner, I actually enjoy it.)

I suppose it’s easy to understand the purpose of these recaps.  The writer (or possibly the publisher) doesn’t want the reader to feel left behind if they pick up a book in the middle of a series.  And even for those who’ve read the earlier stories, it may have been a while, and it may be thought they need a reminder.  I think it’s unnecessary.

It’s not always done.  I know I’ve picked up many a book in the middle of a series where I was just dropped into whatever ongoing relationships or plots were developing.  And enjoyed the book all the more for not being spoon-fed that backstory at the beginning of the book.

Because that’s what it is – backstory.  In a standalone book or the first of a series, there’s usually plenty of history behind the characters and whatever plot happened before page one.  And no one thinks it’s a good idea to spend time early on explaining that history to the reader.  Just get on with the story.

Why then should a later book in a series need to dump that load of exposition on the reader?

This isn’t to say a writer shouldn’t provide what readers need to understand and appreciate the story.  But rather than jamming in explanations in at the start, I think these things should be treated just the same as any other backstory.  Which means gently layering in important information in a way that’s natural to the current story you’re telling.

Characters can (and should) reference past events without explaining every detail.  This allows the reader to collect pieces of past stories and put them together for themselves, which for me is part of the fun of reading a book.  Rather than have everything spelled out, a story should stimulate the imagination of the reader – not head it off at the pass.

Not that it’s easy to get this balance right.  As I finished Slowpocalypse book 2 and now write Watchbearers book 2, this is something I’ve been working on – trying to tell a new story that relies on what went before but stands on its own.  I wonder how well I’m doing.

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