Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I am working on Volume 2 of my YA fantasy, and am encountering the problem of all Volume 2's of anything: working in the backstory from Volume 1. How much does the reader need to know of what occurred before in order to understand what is occurring now? And, most crucially, when does he need to know it?

There are four choices here, none of them really good: (1) Put the backstory in a sort of Prologue or diary entry or some such thing, (2) Start with backstory in Chapter 1, disguised as current story through conversations, (3) Start with an exciting scene in Story Time and then put the backstory in Scene 2 as a critical flashback or, if you think you can get away with it, an eloquently written expository lump redeemed by wonderful prose, and (4) Drop in the backstory in small, easily digestible lumps and hope the reader can remember them all well enough to piece together the backstory even as story-time is progressing.

I have picked Door Number 4, but it's hard to know if it's working because, of course, I already know the backstory. After several drafts of Book 1, I know it ad nauseum. Therefore it's difficult to judge if I'm including not enough, too much, or just the right amount for a new reader to also know it. Where is Goldilocks when you need her?

The answer to this is a reader who has not read Volume 1. Eventually, I'll need to find one. But not yet. Thank heavens for that, because right now I'm too busy juggling fictional people to add a live one to the mix. This is why people hesitate to commit trilogy.


Lost Wanderer said...

This is something I have been thinking about myself lately, since my main focus in on fantasy writing.

What do you think about series books where the characters remain the same, and though each book is essentially a stand alone, characters' lives do move on. What is the best way to add back story in that scenario?

Daniel said...

I guess I take a hard-nosed approach to it, just EXPECTING the reader to have done their homework, and I only make minor mention of backstory details as needed. I know, not very merciful.

Richard said...

Harry Turtledove does this as skillfully as anyone I've personally read. He's kinda a "option 4" guy but not ad nauseum.

Mike Flynn said...

I recently sent in the second volume of the Spiral Arm series. Up Jim River starts the morning after The January Dancer ends. But the nature of the story is such that the reader need know very little of the actual narrative of the first volume in order to understand the second. The continuity is one of some characters and the overall astropolitical and pseudoscientific background. What I tried to do is mention those things that must be mentioned if this were the first volume.

Of course, as you say, knowing the background is a handicap, since I may not have thought to mention something crucial to understanding.

The problem is worse with In the Lion's Mouth, the third volume, which starts in a sense about an hour after the second ends. But again, the story line is independent of the first two. These are "episodic" rather than a continuous single story.

David Ivory said...

"Commit Trilogy" - You make it sound like a crime. Though if you do it right it needn't be.

Option 4 for me.

I watched BSG season one without knowing about the Mini Series - and it blew my mind how everything in the show was fully formed. Working out the relationships and the backstory from the very minimal hints was fascinating. And revelatory of the writing process.

So Option 4 - but don't sweat it. If the current story is compelling readers will forgive being thrown in the deep end.

So yeah - continue committing aggravated trilogy - but please just maim only fictional people.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I guess the 4th door is the best. (Haw--lyric writers don't have these problems!)

There's a 5th option, though I don't know that it's ever been done.

Publish book 2 =along= with the first book in a new edition. Then, the first 2 along with the last in an omnibus volume.

Of course, your publisher might have reservations. So here's what you do then:

Go to your editor's office carrying your new Hugo statuette. Slam it down on his desk while shouting, "Why not? We'll make publishing history!"

When he calls Security, exit dancing like James Brown, singing, "The refined and creative artists scuffle, and the money men live large!"

Hope this helps.

Nancy Kress said...

Mike -- I'm speechless.

Pebble Texture said...

If there's a way to make Option 1 an engrossing introduction, it has some advantages. If you've already read the previous books, it lets you skip ahead and get on with the story you want. It can't just be a an infodump standing on its own that lacks storytelling interest; the concept of an introduction has to mesh with the overall book concept.

If one takes Option 4, I think Mike's rule is a good one - mention those things that must be mentioned if it were the first volume. Some writers approach this in an ad hoc way, hurriedly stuffing in one-paragraph precis when they need to dredge up critical plot points from previous volumes. It can be very distracting and annoying for the reader who's read every book in the series.

My favorite is the hard-nosed approach - expect the reader has read the previous books. And by the way, that is what motivates me to get the whole series and start from the beginning.

gdtownshende said...

I'm a fan of door #4 myself. As I recall, I believe Rowling chose that door for her Harry Potter novels, and she did it masterfully, too.

I'm currently wrapping up a fantasy novel of my own (not a series, however). This is the third novel I've written, but nothing published yet. ~crosses fingers~

When I finish this story (which should happen sometime this week), my plans are to immediately start on some short stories, and to begin work on the background necessary for the next novel I have in mind.

I look forward to what you have coming up!