To Book or not to Book?
November 7, 2008 12:13 PM   Subscribe

How much of book one do I have to explain in book two, if book two is part of a series I'm writing?

Last year I started writing an epic novel and got through part one and eighty thousand words. Then I got busy and put the writing down expecting to pick up part two any day, but I haven't.

To get motivated again I signed up for NaNoWriMo. The problem is I can't use any previous writing in NaNoWriMo. I have to start part two like it's book two even though eventually they will be part of the same novel.

How much of book one do I have to explain? It's a complicated plot, but my preference is not to explain it all. Will this approach hurt the writing?
posted by Xurando to Writing & Language (8 answers total)
When I'm reading books that are part of a series, it is often veeery handy to have at least some significant reminders of the important bits of the last book, especially if they're details that become more significant in the current book. This doesn't mean fill an entire chapter with summary, or anything, but there are certainly some subtler ways to remind a reader who may not have read Part I in a year or two of the significant bits. Especially if the plot is complicated, as a reader I'd feel very very disadvantaged without knowing pretty exactly what's going on from Part I. If there's no help in Part II, that might mean needing to go back and re-read Part I entirely, and that could be offputting to some.
posted by Rallon at 12:25 PM on November 7, 2008

Well, I'm going for the other side of this. Put as little as you can in, just what you need for the story. And put it in bit by bit -- if you do have a short chapter's worth of background, make it go through the first four or so chapters, like it's part of the story. Avoid avoid the infodump. I cannot think of anyone who is particularly good at it (detective stories tend to be reasonably good, but then they only need to remind you of character development usually, not the last murderer's name), but both the first four Harry Potter and the first four Harry Dresden books are quite bad at it, giving useless information, or putting it in too abruptly and all at once.

Alternative possibility: write a separate chapter that just sums up what has happened, and call it something that shows it's neither chapter 1 nor an introduction.
posted by jeather at 12:33 PM on November 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ideally, each book should stand on its own.

Storytelling is more important than the story itself. So, priority one is to have a story that stands alone with interesting characters, a problem or a quest and a satisfying resolution.
Knowing the previous (or next book) should only enrich your reading experience, not replace it.
I have discovered several authors with a book in the middle of a series. If it's good, I'll look for the previous ones.
If the plot needs that a character remembers something from the previous book, let the character remember it (not verbatim: edited, distorted, like any memory).
posted by bru at 1:06 PM on November 7, 2008

Depends on how you look at your writing - is this part of a long storyline, each book a segment of the whole? Or are you telling a series of stories?

For marketability (and to ease new readers in), I'd agree with bru - each is it's own entity. But if you have a lofty goal, the segments may seem a bit lost without the whole.

Of course, each segment can seem complete, but when read together, they can create a more complete world. How did the first book end? Was it a cliff-hanger, leaving the resolution for this book (or a future book)?
posted by filthy light thief at 1:14 PM on November 7, 2008

Alternative possibility: write a separate chapter that just sums up what has happened, and call it something that shows it's neither chapter 1 nor an introduction.

Different forms of this idea can be really successful. Tell what's necessary in the form of an email from one character to another, or a newspaper that someone flips through on the train on the way to the next pivotal event.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:35 PM on November 7, 2008

Part of the trick of being a good writer is learning how to nest exposition SEEMLESSLY inside plot-points, dialogue and description. If it EVER seems like obvious exposition, that's a problem.

Aside from that rule, the only other rule is that you need to give the reader the info he needs to be able to follow the story. If the idea is that he'll be reading volume one and two back-to-back, you obviously need fewer reminders than if you think he's going to read them five years apart.

But however much you need, don't let the reader know it's exposition. Learning how to hide exposition is basically as complex as learning how to write. So I can't explain all the "rules" to you here.

However, here's an example: lets say it's vital that in book two, the reader remembers Jane's birthday party from book one.

don't write ...

It had been a year since Jane's birthday party at which a clown went insane and killed Jane's mother's small dog.

... because as someone who just read book one, it will be obvious to me that you're clumsily trying to remind me of a key plot point. That will jar me out of the mood of your story.

Instead, try something like ...

Fred woke hungover and angry, not as angry as that clown at Jane's party, but angry enough to bark at his wife and continually honk at other drivers on the way to work.

You can probably come up with something better, but I hope that gives you the basic idea. Notice that I didn't bother rehashing the stuff about Jane's mother and her murdered dog. I'm betting that if I subtly jog the reader's memory about the party clown, the whole sorry incident will come back to him.

Of course, this won't help out the reader who didn't bother reading book one at all. But I can't please both him and the reader who did. If I put in so much exposition that people can gather all the plot points of book one, I'm going to piss off people who took the trouble to read it and don't need it rehash of the whole thing. So you have to choose.

Assuming you choice to simply remind readers of book one about important elements, try listing all the key points readers might have forgotten. Don't worry about working reminders of them in when you make your first draft. But just keep the list next to you. When you see an obvious way to work one in, do so. As you redraft, find subtle ways to work them all in.

Bottom line, you need however many reminds you need. Work them in organically and subtly.

Another option is straightforward, honest, bold exposition in a forward. "For readers who want a recap..." I don't know why more series writers don't do that. It's what they do on TV (scenes from last week's episode) and it works really well. They generally don't include TV-recaps on the DVDs of the show, because DVD viewers can rewind, watch episodes back-to-back, etc. But putting a recap in its own section, at the beginning, allows it to exist for readers who need it and allows it to be ignored by readers who want to plunge directly and permanently into new information. When placed by itself -- apart from the story -- you can let exposition be exposition. You don't need to hide it inside other story elements.
posted by grumblebee at 1:52 PM on November 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you're using "epic" as in "1000-page" or "elves & dragons". If the latter, Tolkien had a synopsis of the first tome(s) of Lord of the Rings in the second and third tome. Proust had Marcel reminisce. Or you could go for episodic writing a la Patrick O'Brian if your first book can accommodate that style.

I second grumblebee you shouldn't make it obvious (especially to the reader of the first book) that you are recapping.
posted by ersatz at 6:17 PM on November 7, 2008

Please god, put in what you think is necessary and then quarter it. Draw and quarter it. I'm not kidding, because exposition bores the shit out of me, and is one of the main things that can turn me off to an otherwise okay series. I'm not sure why authors consistently do this too much: Is it bad editing? Are they actually being pressured by editors? Are they trying to inflate page-count because they lack actual ideas? Or is this what normal people really want to read?
posted by tejolote at 1:41 AM on November 8, 2008

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