12 August, 2010

Dana's Dojo

Today in the Dojo: When to say when on recapping the past so you can get on with the present.
A thing I never know, when I'm starting out to tell a story about a chap I've told a story about before, is how much explanation to bung in at the outset.  It's a problem you've got to look at from every angle.  I mean to say, in the present case, if I take it for granted that my public knows all about Gussie Fink-Nottle and just breeze ahead, those publicans who weren't hanging on my lips the first time are apt to be fogged.  Whereas, if before kicking off I give about eight volumes of the man's life and history, other bimbos, who were so hanging, will stifle yawns and murmur, "Old stuff.  Get on with it."

I suppose the only thing to do is to put the salient facts as briefly as possible in the possession of the first gang, waving an apologetic hand at the second gang the while, to indicate that they had better let their attention wander for a minute or two and that I will be with them shortly.

        -P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

Sequelitis is a horrible disease.  Symptoms are: a sinking feeling that one has said too much/too little to adequately educate the reader as to prior events, a tendency to expound on the previous novel to the detriment of the previous, increasing reader frustration leading to the sequel becoming airborne, and the consequent decline of the suffering author's sales.  Risk factors: writing novels in series.

Since this is a common disease, and so many authors are at risk, it astounds me that there is so little medical literature and research regarding it.  I don't think I've ever come across treatment options in the hundreds of writer's magazines and books I've read.  It seems that folks think it's a foregone conclusion that anyone reading same is never going to finish the first novel, much less tackle a second, and if by some miracle this happens, the author in question is somehow magically immune to the disease. 

Read a series, and you will know that this is not true.  Many writers suffer.  That suffering is imparted to their readers.  Something must be done.

Now, I'm not a certified expert.  I haven't written a successful sequel, but I've read enough series to fill a small-town library, and I'm a writer.  So I think I have some valid treatments for this disease.

Sequelitis manifests in two forms.  First there is the sequel writer who spends at least fifty pages of the sequel talking about the first book.  This sufferer believes that previous readers have forgotten everything that happened in the first book, and that new readers who have jumped on while the train is already moving won't know where said train is going if they don't have a detailed understanding of where it's been. 

In these novels, the action is frequently stopped by long passages of exposition explaining the backstory.  It's like hearing a story at a cocktail party told by a person who, every time they bring up a new part of the tale, feel compelled to explain everything that led up to that new bit.  You know the type.  "Then Fred - oh, I need to tell you about Fred before you can understand this.  See, Fred stubbed his toe on a rabid squirrel about ten years ago, and..."  Ten minutes later, we come back to, "Then Fred tried to kick Bart, which didn't work too well since he'd forgotten his prosthetic toe at home."

Meanwhile, half the audience has wandered off to browse for coctail wienies.  Readers will do the same thing with long-winded authors who think that they are a) suffering from memory loss or b) too dim to catch up mid-stream.

The converse is the author who explains nothing.  While vastly preferable to devoting half the pages of the new book to a rehash of the old one, it's still not a good experience for the new reader, or the veteran reader who's read roughly 14,000 books between the first book in your series and this one.  This type of author won't even explain that Fred lost his toe to a rabid squirrel.  He will simply state that Fred's effort to give Bart a right proper boot in the arse failed due to his forgetfulness, and the two people in the audience who know and remember the prior story will laugh mightily while the uncued will scratch their mystified heads and then go in search of the wet bar.

Ideally, what one wants is a deft handling of present and past.  You want to present your veterans with a tiny aide de memoire, while providing the newbies with enough information to understand the present tale - and salivate at the prospect at getting the whole story regarding the previous one.  This is not a simple task.  It's hard to know the balance instinctively.  Going back to the cocktail party, there are few people so glib that they can, without turning a hair, reach storytelling perfection off the cuff:  "Then Fred, who'd lost his big toe to a rabid squirrel last decade, attempted to land a good solid kick on Bart's rear.  It would have been spectacular if the silly ass hadn't forgotten his prosthetic toe."

There you have the secret to avoiding sequelitis - elegance, brevity and simplicity.  Not that saying that helps much.  It's getting from amateur to expert that's the problem.  So let's see what's to be done for it.


To determine the correct course of treatment, we must first know the patient we are treating.  There is no one magic pill that will work for all series. 

I'm going to do some case studies here.  Hopefully, once we're done, we'll have a good, clear idea of how to proceed.  If not, we'd better hope that our editors are really damned good.

The Loosely Connected Series

In the first instance, we have P.G. Wodehouse's novels and short stories featuring his famous manservant Jeeves.  These stories are narrated by Bertie Wooster, the gentleman who employs Jeeves and is completely conscious of the reader.  They're not meant to be read in order - one is able to dip into the series at any point and enjoy them fully.  This can present some hairy problems: while there is a long history between Jeeves and Bertie, with many hijinks ensuing, Wodehouse doesn't have the luxury of assuming the reader has ever encountered them before.  Now, it's natural for people to refer to things that have happened in their pasts.  So he can't just start fresh each time.  On top of that, long-time readers, as he pointed out, would get pretty damned impatient with every novel behaving as if this were everybody's first time. 

He gets past it by having Bertie provide the briefest sketch of past events as they come up.  Usually, he'll spend no more than a sentence or two on exposition; the most I've ever seen him engage in is about three paragraphs.  As for the relationship between himself and Jeeves, it's not rehashed every time.  I didn't even know how Jeeves had come into Bertie's life until recently.  It didn't matter.  What's important is that Jeeves is smart enough to get Bertie out of the sticky situations, and that happens in every story and novel.  Newbies get the picture quite clearly, and that sentence or two filling in what happened on the referenced adventure is quite enough to understand the present one, while longtime fans who know exactly what happened experience that warm buzz that comes from being in the know.

Another prime exemplar of this type of series is Terry Pratchett.  His Discworld novels read well in order or out.  His narrators are most distant - they don't realize the reader is there.  But they still manage to convey the essential bits of what happened before without boring the veterans to death, and like Wodehouse, each novel stands alone.

So if you're writing a series connected only by the characters, intending it to be sampled in whatever order the reader pleases, consult these two authors for a crash course in how it's done.

The Tightly-Woven Series

It becomes much more tricky when you're writing the type of series in which each book builds on the one that came before.  In this case, it's essential that the reader be completely clued in about the past.  And yet, the series has to move.

I must apologize in advance, because the only series like this that I read are fantasy.  But fantasy authors aren't exotic - we use the same techniques in most cases as mainstream authors.  Therefore, I won't apologize for making you read a fantasy series or two.

The first is C.S. Friedman's Coldfire trilogy.  She does a masterful job of disguising exposition as something else.  You won't find a long description of the previous book in the second.  There are a few gentle prods to the ol' memory, but otherwise we're off and running from the start.  If you didn't read Book One, you're going to be seriously at sea in Book Two - which is how it should be in this type of series.

The second author who does a masterful job is Robert Jordan.  I won't make you read the Wheel of Time.  That will take you months.  But read the first three books if you want to see a master artist at work.

In a tightly woven series, you're not so much welcoming new readers into the fold as helping your loyal fans remember what happened last year.  Authors of this type of series know that it's fatal to pander to the newbies.  If they're too lazy to pick up Book One, they don't deserve Book Two.  Harsh, yes, but true. 

Now that we've performed some case studies, we're prepared to explore some treatment options. 


There are some treatments common to both types of series.  When the treatments diverge, I'll clearly mark the differences.  After this course of treatment, we should have perfectly healthy sequels.

1.  Don't frontload.  It's easy, when you're writing your sequel, to think you should spend the first fifty pages revisiting the first book.  Avoid this temptation.  The beginning of the second book is meant for hooking the reader and getting them involved in the new story, not sitting about yapping about the past.

2.  Brevity is key.  When you do come to a point at which you absolutely must clue the clueless or forgetful reader in, do it as economically as possible.  You don't need the reader to be able to write a dissertation on previous events, just grasp them enough to not get lost as they push bravely forward.

3.  Freshen it up.  Old information doesn't have to feel old.  If you find a way to describe it differently, add a bit to it, or put a new spin on it that changes everything either a lot or a little, even your veteran readers will be hanging on to every word.  It's a case of, "I knew the squirrel that bit Fred's toe off was rabid, but you mean to tell me he knew that at the time?  What a putz!  And here I was feeling sympathy for the idiot!"

4.  Assume your readers are intelligent.  In the case of a tightly woven series, it's okay to assume that they've read the previous books and only need an occasional prompt to recall essential details.  In loosely connected series where the reader might have jumped in at the deep end, trust them to get the gist of it from context, brief references to the past, and other clues. 

5.  Make use of clueless characters.  They can stand in for the readers who don't know what happened but need to know, so you can make those rehashes part of the story rather than stop the action dead to speak to the reader directly.  But don't abuse them.  If you're spending pages at a time catching these folks up while the story waits on hold, it's going to get pretty boring for all involved.

6.  Make even more use of test readers.  Do you have folks who read your first book?  Great!  Quiz 'em.  In the case of a tightly woven series, it will be very useful to know what they remember from when they read your first book last year.  If the majority of your test readers recall the same essential events, those are the ones you don't have to harp on.  If the majority are unclear on those essential bits they must remember if they're going to get what's happening now, then you'll know to delicately recall it for them in the narrative.  In the case of loosely woven series, new test readers can let you know whether they felt lost at sea or paddled happily along without a floation device of past history.  In both cases, test readers will be able to tell you when your exposition got in the way of the story.

7.  Resist at all costs the temptation of the summarizing foreword.  Look at it this way.  If you intend to draw in a crop of new readers mid-series, telling them all the essential bits means they don't have to read the first several books, in which case your sales and their happiness suffers.  And you end up looking like a pompous doofus.  And no, it's not any better if you have someone else do it for you.  Leave the dissertations to the college campus and keep them out of your novels.

8.  Do your job right with the first book.  In a tightly woven series, if you wrote the first book so well that the events seared themselves into the readers' brains, you won't have to spend a good part of the next them jogging their memories. 

As for techniques for getting that exposition in, you can use typical exposition techniques with a few minor adjustments.  History can come through dialogue, straightforward narrative, interior monologue, or a host of other ways.  The same rules of exposition apply: generally, avoid the "as you know, Fred, your toe was bitten off by a rabid squirrel ten years ago" syndrome.  But the beauty here is, if the character in question might genuinely have forgotten the even, you can use this wonderful trick: "Didn't you know how Fred lost his toe?" in dialogue, and "Not many people knew the full story of Fred's toe" in narrative.

Learn from the masters.  Read all the series you can.  It's never easy to find the proper balance in your own work, but it helps if you know where the pros got it right (or wrong).  Above all, be aware that it might take several revisions before you have it just right.

We are now on our way to having happy, healthy sequels.


Silver Fox said...

Writers that start out knowing they are making a trilogy or quadrilogy or what not seem not to be bothered by this so much (e.g. C.J. Cherryh, a sci-fi heroine of mine). Unfortunately, that means that when the 4th or 5th book comes out years later, that one needs to re-read the 1st 3 or 4 (whichever it was).

A terrible dilemna.

A great quote - makes me want to read a book by that one.

Chris said...

"The catch about the code of the Woosters is that if you start examining it with a couple of telegrams staring you in the face, one of them almost certainly containing news of vital import, you find yourself after a while beginning to wonder if it's really so hot, after all. I mean to say, the thought creeps in that maybe, if one did but know, the Woosters are priceless asses to let themselves be ruled by a code like that..."

-Can you guess which Jeeves novel THAT comes from?