Discussion: How much backstory needs to be in a sequel?

Posted: November 25, 2015 in Uncategorized, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

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My daughter and I are in the final stages (knock on wood!) of querying our middle grade contemporary fantasy novel, The Last Princess.  In case you’re new to this blog, the story is basically this:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie folk crown her their princess. But she must embrace the heartbreak of her Trollish heritage to rescue her kidnapped BFF, because nobody wants a troll for a princess.

Cat goes on to become Princess of the Fae-born and discovers some amazing truths about herself and her family, and makes a whole royal court full of new friends.

Now, however, we are starting on our second book, the sequel to the first, and we’re faced with a question: How much backstory do we need to provide at the beginning of the second book?

A lot happens in the first book.  It would not be easy (or particularly interesting) to recount all of it for new readers. But if I don’t the sequel cannot be a stand-alone book.  How important is that, for middle grade readers?

There are other layers to consider. At the very minimum, we need to remind the reader of how our universe works — who are the fae-born and where did they come from, and what kind of magic do they have.  Also, it might be good to remind them of the important insights Cat gained as a result of her adventures.

What we want to avoid (if we can) is explaining who everybody is in a large cast of characters. Who they are, how Cat knows them, their shared history, etc. We’ll never get this book off the ground if we have to explain all of this.

Do you think we are on the right track, or do we need to step back and rethink the opening — or ad a descriptive prologue — to bring everybody up-to-speed?  As it is now, we pick up where we left off, with some fun action. But it won’t really make much sense to anyone unfamiliar with the characters.

Please discuss.

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Comments
  1. bethaman80 says:

    I would suggest that the best way to give “backstory” is to weave it into scenes instead of laying it out in a prologue. (think ‘show, don’t tell.’) It’s a fine line – you don’t want to annoy old readers but you don’t want to confuse new ones. So for now, just write what you feel is a good mix. Start the book where you feel it needs to start, and then have some new readers and some old readers try it out and give you feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kaphri says:

    Hey John, I’ve enjoyed following your and your daughter’s experience and hope to endure the same soon. On the issue of backstory. I once read an old science fiction series (I’m a vociferous reader of sf/f series) that had +50 books. The author used the same paragraph in every one to explain the backstory. He’d honed it to that precision! Of course there were additional comments scattered throughout to further enhance the backstory, too. I’m not sure I’d want to work that rigidly, but it certainly worked for him. If you plan several books it might be good to refine what the critical information really is, and, like it or not, make it the dreaded information drop. Every series writer has to do this in some way. The shorter the backstory block, the better. Using devices like “xx had once thought…, but after… she knew…” can cover some topics, but there will still be things that must be conveyed as obvious “tell”. Frankly, I think the “show don’t tell” mantra is sometimes overdone to the point it makes us scared to put pencil to paper. We are, after all, “telling” a story. Whatever device gets the message across in the most pleasant, comprehensible way to the reader is the best way.

    On your mention of Cat’s insights; dialog can carry some of that off. And characters have ways of revealing themselves. You might not need to give as much background as you think!

    I’m looking forward to your success!
    Bobbie

    Liked by 2 people

  3. kaphri says:

    ooops. that would be voracious, not vociferous.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi John, I really like and approve of the comments from both Beth and Bobbie. I just have one more suggestion: forget about backstory for now. Get Book #2 written, anyhow, anyway, and worry about backstory after your first draft is done. I’d be willing to bet my first royalty check that the solution to the backstory problem will come to you, effortlessly, when you finally get around to editing that first draft.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Paul Cobb says:

    I have had to face up to the same myself with a trilogy. I have opted for a “The story so far” intro, meaning that readers familiar with book 1 (etc) can skip it if necessary, but it serves as an explanation to newcomers. Then, I also briefly wove explanations into the first few chapters as required when previous characters reappeared. I found I needed to take a step back and pretend I was a first-time reader. Confusion isn’t good, but then again, neither is lengthy repetition. The more complex the plot and the more characters that appear in the first book, the greater the quandary.

    Liked by 1 person

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