Context and Backstory in a Series

I’m working on the second book in what I intend to be a series (mystery fiction) while trying to figure out if I want to go the traditional or indie routes for publication of the first.

One of the things I’m wrestling with is how much context or backstory to give in the second book about events that took place in the first book. In particular, two of my characters have a major conflict in book 2 because of unresolved feelings around something that occurred in the climax of book 1.

On the one hand, I’m concerned that if I give too little context, readers of book 2 who haven’t also read book 1 are going to be terribly confused about the source of all this anger and pain between the two characters. On the other hand, if I give too much context, people who happen to read book 2 first are going to find that it spoils book 1 for them. I’m really struggling with where that balance point lies.

Anyone else here write series fiction? If so, how do you handle that balance?

Have you looked at the Potter books for guidance – especially the early ones when JKR was probably less certain that readers would religiously follow the series from start to finish? I think she handles “episode continuity” quite well.

I prefer limited backstory - only including those elements that are absolutely necessary for the telling of the new story. I wouldn’t assume that your readers have read your earlier books when jumping in. This is even more likely to be the case if you get further into a series - especially if book 5 is a breakaway hit.

I always find it jarring when I’m reading a book by a favourtie author and they suddenly to pause the action to give blatant exposition on things in earlier books. As a reader I much prefer it when the extra context is a reward for having read the earlier stories - like in-jokes for loyal readers.

Of course, if it’s a genuine series - as in book two is actually part 2 of the story rather than a selfcontained story in in the same universe with the same characters - then I’d go on further: No unecessary context (unless you feel even loyal readers may need a reminder) and just start with a big warning on the front cover: “This is book 2 in a series. Go read book 1 first (it was awesome).”

I read a fantasy trilogy by Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, if I recall correctly). In books 2 & 3, he provided a synopsis to the story as it has progressed before each book. I think this was partly because the books were so long, and published so very far apart, that salient plot points might have been forgotten between readings.

But if you’re concerned about people not knowing what it going on in book two, that might (and I want to emphasize the uncertain nature of this suggestion) allow you to dive right into book two without worrying about back story. Perhaps you could write a 5 page synopsis for the sole reason of putting your mind at ease; it’s always there if you or a publisher decide it’s needed, but easily excluded if it proves unnecessary.

Personally, I think that unless you’ve got decades of intrigue and intricate plots covered over many hundreds of pages, I’d just go with hints as to what is going on between them, brought up only as needed.

I agree with the others–the least amount of repeat exposition in the story as you can. This is mostly a reader thing, as I really hate reading series that continually are wasting my time and slowing down the narrative with detailed explanations of things I remember perfectly well from just having read the previous book. (Even books that come far apart in their publication, a lot of readers will re-read the previous one in anticipation, if the series has overarching plots and such.) I’d even be somewhat contrary here and say it bothered me in the Harry Potter books, but then I’m not a huge fan of them anyway and I didn’t read them until after everything was published, so I wasn’t waiting a year in between. (Though no one I knew who loved them waited either, since they always reread before the new one came out.)

Which isn’t to say don’t have any reference back to what happened, but if you can pare it down to the essential point and break it up and work it into the characters’ dialogue, thoughts, descriptions about their actions, etc. or insert it subtly as lead-up to their explosion, that will ultimately be more intriguing than having to deal with a paragraph of expo-dump where you get everyone up to speed with what happened in book one. If it was really a big deal to the characters such that it’s going to make a reappearance here, you’ll probably have the opportunity of letting them naturally think or speak on it and so inform your readers while also advancing plot and character arcs.

I also wouldn’t worry overmuch about spoiling your readers if they skipped book one. If anything really major happened there that’s going to carry over into the next book or books, chances are it’s going to necessarily be spoiled because otherwise your characters won’t be able to take it any farther and make new discoveries about it. And that’s not really something a reader can blame you for–“Hey, I picked up the second book in a series and it totally spoiled some of the revelations from the first book!” Unless you completely disguise the fact that it’s a series, they’ll know what they’re getting into, and your goal is to make that second book interesting enough (and therefore sufficiently understandable) that they’re motivated to go back and read the first book to get all the extra details and more time with your characters and in your world.