On sequels

I’ve been reading a number of highly anticipated sequels lately, as well as editing a sequel or two myself. It has me thinking about the best ways to reintroduce your reader to your characters and plot that they may have just read last week—or maybe it’s been more than a year. How do you avoid over-dumping on the re-reader without leaving the non-re-reader in the dusts of confusion?

One strategy I’ve seen in sequels for young readers, especially, is to just stop the action entirely at some point in the first chapter and explain what happened in the last book. It’s a trick I saw used a lot in series books for kids when I was a young reader obsessed with Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books.

This doesn’t really work for me. Any stopping of the action for an infodump breaks the spell for me as a reader, taking me time to rebuild my suspension of disbelief. It worked to a point in those old series books because my library didn’t always have every single copy in order when I wanted them (not to mention they were missing several volumes), but especially if you’re not writing series books (as in, shared-world), it’s not the best strategy, in my opinion.

Then there’s the school of thought that just dumps you into the action of the new book. This can work, but it’s tricky. One book I read recently is a good example (no, I’m not going to tell you the name of it): I’m right there with the story until the character thinks of another character who she’s lost touch with. He’s not in any scene for the first quarter of the book, and I was racking my brain that whole time trying to remember which of two or three possibilities he could be, and that confusion wasn’t cleared up when he showed up in-scene.  And it’s a confusion that I’m not sure the author could have anticipated. Maybe I should have glanced back at the previous book to remind myself. Was he a love interest? Was he a brother? Was he a potential love interest who turned out to be a brother? (Perhaps too much Star Wars in my diet?) I couldn’t remember until at least halfway through the book, and mostly because I picked up the last book and skimmed. This has happened to me a few times lately.

I think there are ways to help jog the reader’s memory without losing momentum or forcing the reader to go back to the previous book (some readers might not even have the previous book on hand—they might have borrowed it from the library or a friend). In my opinion, the best way to remind readers, whether they’ve just read a book and are launching into the sequel immediately or it’s been a year since they read the last book, is the same principle as getting your reader into a completely new world: through well-placed details planted with a deft touch.

Let’s look at the opening pages of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, for an example. The first two paragraphs are right in the moment, Katniss thinking about what’s going on right now and what’s about to happen. We don’t get a direct reference to the Hunger Games until paragraph 3, but all along she’s talking about their outcome because that’s what life is for her now: reporters and camera crews, preparation for the Victory Tour, the dread she feels so much that it’s physically affecting her.

Then in paragraph 3 we get a quick review of book 1 with an in-scene rumination on how much she wants to forget the Hunger Games but isn’t allowed to because it suits the political purposes of the Capital. One paragraph, and it all matters to the current plot. She doesn’t stop the plot to explain what the Hunger Games were, just reminds the reader with a deft touch of the repercussions of all the events of book 1.

Then we’re on to the scene again, and the purpose of Katniss being in the woods: hunting for her best friend, Gale, who can’t be out in the woods as much anymore (and in the meantime, glancing off the subject of her mother and her sister, in context, discussing how life has changed for them since Katniss won the Games, how she doesn’t have to hunt for them to survive), and how Gale’s family is still living hand to mouth, why she’s the one hunting (Gale has gone to work in the coal mines), etc. The next couple of pages is kind of a “what’s happened since last time” catch-up combined with a few key details reminding us of events of book 1 or backstory while Katniss clears her snares, but woven in so that we know that she’s thinking about these things while she’s hunting. She’s got a lot of time for her mind to ruminate while she roams the woods, and these things matter to her now, right now while she’s going about her daily tasks, rather than the “stop and review” I was referring to above. It’s a subtle difference—and probably the conversational tone of the present tense of Catching Fire helps with that. It feels like Katniss is personally telling her story, so a few thoughts of the past that she’s currently thinking about work in a way that might feel odd in past tense.

I had another sequel in mind to use as an example, but it’s at home and I’m at the office and I’ve been drafting this post over the course of several days now. So I’ll go ahead and post this now, but maybe I’ll come back with that other book when I get home from the office, as a counterpoint. Catching Fire actually doesn’t do a whole lot of active reminding of what happened in the last book—as I said, it’s more of a “here’s what’s happened since last time” approach, using a hunting scene as a framework, that simultaneously reminds readers of characters and relationships, with a sentence or two here or there where necessary to remind readers of past events (like the sentence that notes that Gale’s mother lost her husband in the same mining accident in which Katniss lost her father). But not every book has as memorable a plot as The Hunger Games—not everything can be about kids being forced to kill other kids on reality TV—so there are some sequels in which a more active reminder is necessary. But these sequels still require a deft touch so as to avoid stopping the action. I believe the book I have at home does that, but I’ll have to go look at it to be sure. So, more later!