How much to recap at the start of a new book in a series?

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#21
That's funny, writing that post, I literally thought to myself that 'diegetic' was a term you would be familiar with due to your work. Anyway, I still think that sums up the two arguments in this thread. Implicit recap for those whose concern is the structure of the story, explicit recap for those whose concern is the reader.
Yeah, I'm trying to figure out that perfect balance for the series, one that's acceptable to hard-core fantasy fans yet is still accessible to casual readers of the genre, which I think sums up the two positions of this argument.
 
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Tanniel

Journeyed there and back again
#22
I'm trying to figure out that perfect balance for the series,
I think at the end of the day, you have to choose what you're comfortable with. If you feel it becomes awkward to write in recaps in the story and doesn't work well for you, that's not the right way to go. Reversely, if you feel that the separate recap at first is out of place or just doesn't come together right, then that's not the right way to go. Having the audience in mind is always good, but you also got to play to your strengths. That'll secure the best end result no matter which route you go.
 
#23
Still brainstorming the second book in a series and would like folks to sound off on what they think is the proper amount to recap in the opening chapters.

I was discussing this with my wife, who has a more... shall we say, porous memory than my own, and she believes recapping is a must in the earlier chapters to reorient the reader, who has probably not read the last book in the series for quite a while.

I guess I agree, but am wondering to what extent this should be done. I'm guessing the protagonists' goals/ quest needs to be restated by the end of chapter 1, but what about the rules of the world?

Does one toss it in as an addition to a plot-progressing sentence (forgive me for using my own world for example)? "...Marta summoned her Breath, the living essence contained in all living things..." The italicized second half of the sentence there is what I would consider the recap of a core concept/ rules of my fantasy world. I like this because I don't think it's too intrusive or disruptive to the reading flow.

But would it be better to have a paragraph or two at the onset dedicated just to reorienting the reader?

Any other strategies that I haven't considered yet?
I would be inclined to spend a page or two to summarize, then redo the last "scene" from the previous book. Almost like Rocky II started with the end of the fight in Rocky. Good luck with whatever strategy you employ.
 

Silvion Night

Sir Readalot
Staff member
#24
I completely agree with Joze!

Recaps and summaries, are what lazy writers do for lazy readers.

A good example of when it's done well, is Clive Barker's Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War. It's the second book in the series, and if you so desire you can skip the first book and dive right into the second. The main events of book-1 are related through dialogue here and there, and give the reader a wonderful sense of an ongoing story that's in flux. It's far more natural and allows the reader to take up a position with the characters, as opposed to that of an all-knowing narrator.
There are examples of authors that do in-story recaps/summaries well enough so that it doesn't bother the reader. However, for long epic fantasy series which consists out of 700+ pages tomes I just don't want to spend half my reading time reading in-story recaps or summaries. I much prefer a dedicated section which I can skip if I read the books in the series consecutively. It's a great way of retaining immersion.

A separate summary of previous books in the series gives the reader a choice; read it if you haven't read the previous books or if you need a refresher, or skip and dive straight into the repetitiveness-free story.
 

Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#25
Heh. I like the Dresden Files' call-backs.

Now, I have no problem with recap chapters at the start of books. I think they're sensible ideas. But!

I'm not going to read them. I'll skip straight past, even if I've not read the prior books in the series. And I do sometimes pick up books out of sequence - I did so yesterday at the library because they had book 3 and not books 1 and 2. Imma gonna read the actual fiction. And that fiction needs to work as a stand alone. I need to be able to enjoy that book without needing the recap.

If I get confused a bit because I don't know the events that went prior then, well, I'm not going to be that bothered. But if I get confused a lot, I will be.

The worst sin in this case is if you assume I know the characters and don't introduce them properly as a result. Not that I've seen anyone do that - but say if I picked up book 9 of the Dresden Files, and Bob's perviness became a major plot point later in the book and wasn't properly noted at the start, I'd be quite peeved.

So do recap chapters if you want them, or dramatis personae lists. But they are a thin reed to rely on when it comes to keeping forgetful/new readers from getting confused. What they need to know has to be in the text of the actual book.

By all means write a recap, but don't think that having done so means you've told readers everything they need to know about what went before.
 

Alucard

In the name of the Pizza Lord. Charge!
Staff member
#26
Heh. I like the Dresden Files' call-backs.
I dont like them. Diana Rowland does the same thing with White Trash Zombie series. And I can't understand why she doesn't get that if I'm reading the 5th installment of that cray cray series, I'm a fucking fan. I don't need a recap on what's been going on with my sweet Angel cakes (seriously awesome female character btw). I've made it through 4 books of that literary rumbustious ride already, you better believe I'm in the know.

I feel like I haven't been pimping this series for a long time now. So anyone in need of fun urban fantasy/police procedural/zombie books with the same setting as the True Detective i.e. goddamn Louisiana, well hop on this choo choo train ASAP and go get that first book.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland
 

Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#27
You and a lot of other people it seems Alucard but there we go. I like them and you can't stop me. Nyaaaaah :p

Incidentally, the book 3 I got out off the library? I'm pretty sure the first chapter is a recap 'disguised' as in character conversation. And I don't like it. Oh no I don't.

Okay. Here's how I see it on reflection.

The moment the reader sees a full page of your text, no matter what it is or the context, they have started reading. And 'started reading' is code for 'the countdown to terminal boredom has started'. The author has to keep entertaining them from that point on or the countdown will accelerate. Sure, if you entertain them a lot, then you put the countdown so high that you can afford to muck around a bit, but at the start of a book you don't have that luxury. Its entertain or die.

So every second spent recapping is a second probably not spent entertaining which is a second spent sending the reader to terminal boredom.

Entertain the reader first. You can always fill them in about the backstory later. But you can't entertain them after they've put the book down.
 

Sparrow

Journeyed there and back again
#28
That's an interesting statement, and, personally, I'd phrase it as "efficient" rather than "lazy." But you've got me thinking as to how the reader is consuming the series.

Do you usually read series straight through or pick them up piecemeal over time?
I much prefer series like that of Iain Banks, and his Culture books.
You pick the books at random, or whatever you're in the mood for... stories are fashioned in a loose episodic way, characters and plot lines come and go. There's no obvious narrative arc, which to me, is more like real life.

I also hate prologues and epilogues.
I don't need, nor want everything explained to me. These days, the problem is that most readers of fiction are so used to television style entertainment, structured, linear storytelling, that they don't like to be challenged as a reader. Personally, I love stories told from the POV of an unreliable narrator.:)
 

Sneaky Burrito

Crazy Cat Lady
Staff member
#29
I also hate prologues and epilogues.
Lately the ones I have been reading (especially the prologues) are quite horrible (not that I've been reading a lot lately, but that is a separate issue -- this is a generic comment regarding stuff I've read for the past few years). They're too often used as outside-the-main-story attempts at infodumping a whole bunch of worldbuilding stuff that could've been more artfully included elsewhere. Or they should just be straight up chapters. Or completely discarded. If you are picking the most interesting place to start writing the main action of your story, then why are you including all this less interesting stuff first?

I still don't mind skippable summaries before a story, though, as long as those are clearly identified. Saying those break immersion is a little like saying the acknowledgments, copyright page, maps, chapter list (if there is one), character list (though I think there are some arguments for including character lists at the end of books instead of the beginning), or title page breaks immersion. If they are clearly labeled as such, pay attention or not as you see fit. Or get a Kindle where you are usually auto-sent to the first page of the actual story.
 

Olli Tooley

Knows the real name of Lower Corte
#30
Hmmm.
I like recaps woven into the text... plausibly.
I agree that two characters discussing a previous adventure together is trite, but hey, why not let them tell their tale to another character?
Frankly, this just gave me the idea (I bet it's been done) where two characters tell the same story to a third party, but with their own slant on what happened.
Neither version is strictly true but it is the way that character sees things as having occurred.
The new reader dipping in will get the gist, but the series reader will have a wry smile knowing that neither warrior really slew the giant, but it actually hit its head on an overhanging rock (or whatever)
2-4 pages of plot summary sounds unbearably tedious to me. Who are these weirdos who start part way through a series anyway? Freaks. ;):)
 

Sparrow

Journeyed there and back again
#32
Lately the ones I have been reading (especially the prologues) are quite horrible (not that I've been reading a lot lately, but that is a separate issue -- this is a generic comment regarding stuff I've read for the past few years). They're too often used as outside-the-main-story attempts at infodumping a whole bunch of worldbuilding stuff that could've been more artfully included elsewhere. Or they should just be straight up chapters. Or completely discarded. If you are picking the most interesting place to start writing the main action of your story, then why are you including all this less interesting stuff first?
That's what it usually is, the writer setting the stage for his story... it kills it for me.
I want be like the characters in the story, not all-knowing or given a special advance notice on what's to come.

The worst ever let down was at the end of the last Harry Potter book, and Rowling ties up all the loose ends, tells you what becomes of the main characters, marriages, kids, etc. So lame. It wasn't bad enough that she allowed the three main characters to be very much alive at the end of an epic adventure where Evil has been held at bay, but that they go on and live happily ever after!
 

TomTB

Super Moderator
Staff member
#33
My shit memory tends to render prologues pointless. A lot of the time the events of a prologue only become relevant / apparent at some latter stage of a story, but by that point I've completely forgotten what the hell happened over the course of a handful of paragraphs 300 pages ago and how it could have any relevance to what I'm reading now. I like a story to be built, not to be thrown at me from various directions.
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#34
Thanks to everyone for having sounded off. In the end I decided on a "the story thus far" chapter at the beginning of the book (albeit a little long at about 6 pages at the 250 words/page conversion). Mainly because my wife's vote trumps everyone else's.

And I have to say, it was really useful to me as the author to reorient myself. By trying to sum up the story thus far it reminded me of what the audience needs to know for the plot to make sense. This in turn reminds me to always keep the audience in mind.

Again, thanks everyone. I would never have considered this solution without everyone's input.
 

Placida

Owns a Ring of Power
#35
Better late than never

I like having the "Story thus far" section. When I've just put down book 1, then I skip it. When I read book 1 six months ago (maybe sooner, my memory must be like Tom TB's) then I can scan that section. I know that it's been done by Stephen King, Stephen Donaldson, and Tad Williams. Tolkien didn't use any technique to bring readers up to date (you either knew or you didn't), I think there were some "story so far" sections for Herbert's Dune series., none in Chronicles of Amber.
 

jo zebedee

Journeyed there and back again
#36
One thing that does occur to me is that this will differ between a trilogy and a series (it was the LOTR comment that got me thinking).

In a series, each book needs to be able to standalone. When that's the case, then I think some sort of basic 'this-is-the-world-as-we-know-it' information - in whatever format - is needed.

In a trilogy, it's not needed. The expectation is that the reader reads the full body of work. (Certainly, that was the advice I was given.) So, yes, a little bit of context-dropping is useful (I tend to open with expansive chapters that cover a little bit of the past and catch it up), but no more than that is needed.
 

Diziet Sma

Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
#37
One thing that does occur to me is that this will differ between a trilogy and a series (it was the LOTR comment that got me thinking).
In a series, each book needs to be able to standalone. When that's the case, then I think some sort of basic 'this-is-the-world-as-we-know-it' information - in whatever format - is needed.
Well thought! It makes sense to me (from a reader's p.o.v)
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#38
One thing that does occur to me is that this will differ between a trilogy and a series (it was the LOTR comment that got me thinking).

In a series, each book needs to be able to standalone. When that's the case, then I think some sort of basic 'this-is-the-world-as-we-know-it' information - in whatever format - is needed.

In a trilogy, it's not needed. The expectation is that the reader reads the full body of work. (Certainly, that was the advice I was given.) So, yes, a little bit of context-dropping is useful (I tend to open with expansive chapters that cover a little bit of the past and catch it up), but no more than that is needed.
I think it's really interesting that you make this distinction between a trilogy and a series. Just last week I had an aborted blog attempt where I tried to explain why Star Wars (the original three) and LOTR are the only two good trilogies in film. In it I maintained that Indiana Jones fell under my category of "franchise" rather than trilogy (because we're all well aware that there's ONLY three real Indiana Jones films) because those three films could be watched out of order without affecting individual understanding/ enjoyment whatsoever. They were stand-alones due to their lack of an overarching throughline.

Which might explain one of the reasons why Crystal Skull was so abysmal: It tried to instill continuity on a series that was entirely composed of stand-alones before.

That said, I don't know if I agree with you that each individual book in a series needs to be a stand-alone. Or maybe I do now that I consider it further...

Dresden has been mentioned before, and each book fits your statement in that it is a stand-alone and can be read out of sequence without terribly damaging understanding/ enjoyment of that specific book. Yes events like character introductions and deaths (and a certain tyrannosaurus) affect later books, but only minimally. In a certain sense it's like an episodic show like CSI or Law & Order in that the only throughline that exists is the characters' existence instead of an overarching goal.

But Harry Potter is certainly a series that's more than three books that doesn't really work as well episodically. Each book is like an extended chapter in a really, really long story. So they sort of stand-alone in that they're a contained story per book, but there's definitely impossible to read out of order (IMO... which is sort of suspect since I've only read a few of them). They're definitely meant to be read as one big whole because of the massive throughline.

Anyways, sorry this is so rambling but I'm sort of figuring this out as I type. I'm sure I'm just splitting hairs here in disagreeing with your definition. But you've got me thinking, which I appreciate tremendously.
 

Silvion Night

Sir Readalot
Staff member
#39
I think it's really interesting that you make this distinction between a trilogy and a series. Just last week I had an aborted blog attempt where I tried to explain why Star Wars (the original three) and LOTR are the only two good trilogies in film. In it I maintained that Indiana Jones fell under my category of "franchise" rather than trilogy (because we're all well aware that there's ONLY three real Indiana Jones films) because those three films could be watched out of order without affecting individual understanding/ enjoyment whatsoever. They were stand-alones due to their lack of an overarching throughline.

Which might explain one of the reasons why Crystal Skull was so abysmal: It tried to instill continuity on a series that was entirely composed of stand-alones before.

That said, I don't know if I agree with you that each individual book in a series needs to be a stand-alone. Or maybe I do now that I consider it further...

Dresden has been mentioned before, and each book fits your statement in that it is a stand-alone and can be read out of sequence without terribly damaging understanding/ enjoyment of that specific book. Yes events like character introductions and deaths (and a certain tyrannosaurus) affect later books, but only minimally. In a certain sense it's like an episodic show like CSI or Law & Order in that the only throughline that exists is the characters' existence instead of an overarching goal.

But Harry Potter is certainly a series that's more than three books that doesn't really work as well episodically. Each book is like an extended chapter in a really, really long story. So they sort of stand-alone in that they're a contained story per book, but there's definitely impossible to read out of order (IMO... which is sort of suspect since I've only read a few of them). They're definitely meant to be read as one big whole because of the massive throughline.

Anyways, sorry this is so rambling but I'm sort of figuring this out as I type. I'm sure I'm just splitting hairs here in disagreeing with your definition. But you've got me thinking, which I appreciate tremendously.
I guess it depends on the series. Books from series like Discworld and Dresden can be read as standalones, whereas books from series like Harry Potter cannot (or they can, but they wouldn't make much sense). Same goes for series like the Wheel of Time or Malazan Book of the Fallen. These can be read as standalones as well, but to fully enjoy the story, one should read the entire series.
 

Tanniel

Journeyed there and back again
#40
Which might explain one of the reasons why Crystal Skull was so abysmal: It tried to instill continuity on a series that was entirely composed of stand-alones before.
It's funny, bringing back the actress from the first movie was one of the only things I actually enjoyed about Crystal Skull. They were obviously always going to have a love interest for Indy in the movie; rather than inventing a whole new character, bringing back the first one (which also signalled how Indy was getting old, returning to something familiar from his youth rather than finding something new) made good sense to me. I think where they really failed was the choice of artefact - Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, Crystal Skull? 2 of those items evoke imagery of a supernatural quest, 1 of those items sound like a cheap novelty trinket.

Harry Potter is interesting because I think it changes lanes mid-way. The first 2 books are very much stand-alone works. Of course, the first one introduces the universe, but you don't need to know any of the events of book 1 to understand book 2 or book 3. However, whereas 1 and 2 ends on a resolved note, the first change happens in book 3, where the plot is somewhat unresolved by the end of the book. And in book 4, all pretense of resolving the story is gone, ending on a cliffhanger. I guess you could call HP a septology, but it seems to be a cycle of works, consisting of a series of 3 books followed by a tetralogy.