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I am writing a short children's novel and I want to expand this into a series made of several short novels. I intend to write the whole series at once so that the internal universe is consistent and so that I can add an arch across the books. This arch though is not the focus of the story and I hope that readers will be able to pick up any of the books and start reading it without needing to read through the in order.

  • What is a good technique for placing basic information about the characters and setting so that readers who started in the middle of the series are not lost and readers who started at the beginning do not feel bored seeing the same information again?
  • Is there any series that has used this technique well?
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3 Answers 3

If you want to have a series of books which tell an ongoing story, but you want readers to be able to drop in midway, you will of necessity need to recap something in the beginning. How you do it depends on your skill and comfort level.

In the Harry Potter books, it was basically just narration in the opening chapter. This does run the risk of being boring, but it's all in the execution.

In the Belgariad and Mallorean series from David and Leigh Eddings, each book had a prologue of some kind. Sometimes it was a recap, sometimes it told a different part of the mythological backstory.

Anne McCaffrey used a recap prologue for her original dragon trilogy; I don't recall if she did it for the Dragonsinger set.

The first book in CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series was admittedly so challenging that she just outright explained what happened in book 1 in a prologue to book 2. (The rest of the series was less impenetrable and didn't need much recapping.)

A recapping prologue can be skipped by people who know what's going on, but brings new ones up to speed.

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From a story standpoint, you have, more or less, two choices: Recount what's come before the current book, or embed critical information in the narrative itself. The more realistic it is for characters to talk about past events, the less need there'll be for a summary of events at the beginning of the book. But if you want the book to seem like a grand retelling of important historical events, placing the reader in time might suit your story very well.

Summaries:

By including a summary of previous books before the story starts, the reader will be firmly oriented before starting the current book. However, this also makes it obvious that the book is part of a series, and makes it appear to be less self-contained.

This sort of structure is useful in a series meant to evoke a feel of a chronicle of real events, or to create a sense of being part of a larger picture.

Example: Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

Self-contained books:

Embedding critical information in the book itself can be difficult to do well without seeming clumsy. It will make the manuscript slightly longer. It can make the book more accesible, in that one doesn't have to pick up previous books to read it. Common ways of doing this include having the characters talk about recent events, but this can easily become clumsy.

While the risk of losing readers in the plot is real, this can be mitigated by keeping the plot of the current book reasonably independent or at least interesting whether or not one understands the background.

Example: Dan Simmons' Hyperion books, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes

Other issues:

Of course, there are cases in-between these two extremes. For example, Asimov's Foundation books include summaries of the book in broad strokes, then rely on either contextual clues or characters recounting events in-story. This sort of thing is more believable in a context like this - sections take place years or even generations apart. Family sagas, and historical fiction can do this, as can fiction in other arenas where recounting events is common.

And let's not forget the strategy of using a narrator. While this has fallen out of fashion along with the cinematic voiceover, it's still a valid technique - even if it tends to be cheesy and obvious.

Which one of these strategies you use will be determined by personal preference and hoe complicated and interdependent your books are. For example, if the books have independent stories and the plots are fairly simple, making them stand on their own will be less complicated.

Another question to ask yourself: How large is your cast of characters? The larger it is, the more time you'll spend on character introductions in each book. Including a list of characters can be a way around this. If it's fun to read, and the descriptions are brief, it can even add to the book. However, it will add to the "series" feel if you include one.

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My personal preference is when it is embedded into the story. I agree there's a large and easy danger to making it clumsy, but done well, I think it makes the book much better than if you chose a summary and did the summary well. –  markovchain Mar 19 '13 at 4:34
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That's my personal preference as well, and a big reason why I don't read a lot of fantasy. But there are no hard and fast rules, and it always, always depends on the story. –  Neil Fein Mar 19 '13 at 4:35
    
The cinematic narrator is a good technique, though underused. Rather than invent contrived dialogue to get the backs tory in, I prefer it when the author just tells me, in a sentence or two, what happened X years ago, and why it is affecting today. For an example, the Skullduggery series does this well. –  Shantnu Tiwari Mar 19 '13 at 10:55

You have two basic choices:

(1) Begin each book with a narrative synopsis of previous books or whatever background is required. Like have an intro titled, "The story so far" or some such, and then summarize the previous books. Advantages of this is that it is straight-forward and clear to the reader, and someone who has read and remembers the previous books can skim it or skip it completely. Many writers don't like to do this, though, because they consider it awkward. Also, it highlights to the reader that they are starting in the middle of the series. Some readers may decide to go back and get the earlier books, but others may say, Oh, forget it, I've missed half the story.

(2) Include such background early in the story as conversations between the characters or other exposition. When done well and subtly, the reader may not even realize what you're doing, it just all flows together. When done poorly, it can be really, really lame. I've read plenty of books where a character says, "As you know, Bob, last year you and I went to the Amazon searching for treasure. That went very badly when our guide, Jorge, abandoned us ..." Etc. The reader can only wonder why a character would give his friend a long explanation of things he already knows, telling him about things that he did, etc. But if you're good at it, you can work it in smoothly. Maybe, "Wow, this is even more exciting than that trip to the Amazon last year! Do you remember when Jorge abandoned us? Maybe this time we'll get a better guide ..." Also bear in mind that it's not necessary to tell the reader everything that happened in a previous book, but only as much as they need to make sense of the current story.

I see Neil Fein mentioned Asimov's Foundation series. I was thinking of that one myself. It was originally printed as a series of short stories in a magazine, so he couldn't assume that the reader had read all the past issues. In my opinion, Asimov did a great job of sneaking descriptions of the background into each story in fairly subtle ways. Characters make brief references to past events in ways that sound natural. In one case he has a high-school girl talk about the paper she's writing for history class as a way to bring in a bunch of background material. I didn't even notice what he was doing when I first read the books. (Though I must admit that when I told my brother that he should read these great books, he hated them, saying he got sick of all the recaps, so apparently he noticed.)

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