Sequel Summary Syndrome

So I’m writing a sequel now. No, it’s not a sequel to Beneath the Sky. It’s the sequel to another book of mine that’s scampering along towards publication. Anyway, this has brought me face to page with one of the most annoying things about sequels. How do you remind old readers (and tell new readers) what happened in the previous book without boring them to tears?

We have all seen this done badly. We will get pages of exposition dumped between trivial dialog, or worse, masquerading as dialog. “Well, Bob, as you know, I recently went on a two-year expedition up the Nile with my partner James, who unbeknownst to me, was actually a secret agent working in the Queen’s private service, but we were both equally surprised when the villainous Dr. Cavendale made his appearance in chapter four, I mean, in Alexandria. I need not tell you what happened next, but it began with…”

When I see it done that badly, I just want to skip ahead to the third or fourth chapter. Sure, I might miss something important, but if so, surely it will be repeated at the start of the next book. If I ever live long enough to get through this one, that is.

There has to be a better way.

I confess that in a fit of disgust with one particular author, I thought that the best solution would be a simple prologue. No, not the kind of prologue that shows a shadowy figure clawing through the Cave of Obscuria in the Time Before Calendars. No, I mean one that simply says, “This is book three in the series. If you’re not going to read the others first or if you’ve merely forgotten what happened in them, well, here’s what happened. In book 1, Billy met a nanobot named Charlie…” Two or three pages of key plot points, and then you can dive right into the new story.

But when I shared this with other readers, no one really like it much. To tell you the truth, I have soured on it some myself. I’m pretty sure I would skip those prologues, and then I would get into chapter three and start wondering where the hell Midge the Motor-mixer came from, because she walked onto the page like she owned the place.

So what are writers supposed to do? Fortunately, I’ve seen it done better recently, and once again I’ll point to Jim Butcher, that dream-crushing bastard of good writing. (No, I’m not envious of his talent – why do you ask?) I never get that mind-numbing “as you recall” crap from him, especially not from Harry Dresden. In fact, he doesn’t seem to reference the past much at all.

Then how I know where Midge the Motor-mixing Magi came from?

The key seems to be to put off all that backstory information until you absolutely need it, and then give the least information possible. From my programming days, that was what we called demand-loading. Don’t load the code until you actually call it the first time.

The only problem with this solution is that… well, it’s HARD. You can’t have Midge barge dramatically into the room and then dump three pages of backstory on the reader. By the time we get to the end, we’ve forgotten what she’s doing right now, and given that she’s mixing up people’s motorheads, it’s kind of important. I suppose the coding equivalent of that would be to demand-load a 200MB subsystem just to display a dialog. By the time it comes up.

Here I have to say Mr. Butcher cheats a little, but it’s a cheat I wish more people used. In Harry’s first-person narrative, he drops it in as a friendly reminder to the reader who obviously remembers all the rest, right? Instead of three pages of backstory, it’s merely, “Midge the Maddening Motor-Mixing Mage barged through the door. Damn, but I hadn’t seen her since that little disagreement we had over farm equipment. Nebraska is still putting out that fire.” Boom, we know she’s an enemy, they already fought once, and there’s unfinished business, and oh yeah… farm equipment. That was in book 16, Hay Day. I remember now.

It’s harder in third person, where the narrative voice is a lot stiffer, but still, I get how it’s supposed to be done. That doesn’t mean I know how to actually do it. If that doesn’t make sense, watch me try to change the oil on my car sometime.  I mean, really, you just unscrew this little filter thing, right?

So, what was the worst sequel summary you ever saw?