How Much Should Be Carried Over?

Most authors writing a series are aware that each of the books must stand on their own. That means a new plot and new characters, since the one usually requires the other. Yet a series does feature the same protagonist and often a core cast of characters. They all have rich backgrounds once the first book is written. So what is the dividing line between starting a new book from scratch and borrowing too much from a past book?

A first guideline is: use narrative summaries. You shouldn’t be borrowing parts of scenes from a previous book. Anyone who read that book will experience deja vu—didn’t I already read this stuff? No one likes to read repeated material, even if they haven’t read a book in a while.

When you use narrative summaries, you can then follow a second guideline. Write out any background information from a previous book in the same way you would write background info for a new character. You write a paragraph or two, maintaining a narrative distance because you’re trying to get through the material quickly. If you have backgrounds for multiple characters in a core cast, you can drop in the compressed back stories at opportune times for each (that is, not all stuffed in one place). That’s the way you would do it if you were starting off fresh.

There is an additional consideration. What if the first book is not picked up by an agent or doesn’t sell to a publisher? You may need to be flexible. The second book you write may end up being the one that sells first. All that time you lavished on background material for the second book now has to be tossed. You have to write new material to insert in what you thought was the first book. How much time do you want to spend on stuff that is not moving the story forward?

That leads to a third guideline: write the narrative summaries as though they would fit for any book in the series. That means in particular that you shy away from referring to specific events in a previous book. If you feel that the character’s history must contain them, leave a few sentences in that paragraph(s) blank. That way you can fill in the events once you know in which order the books will appear in the store.

That last point touches upon a very common problem with writing sequels. You can be trapped by what happened in a previous book, to the point that you get stuck and can’t devise new plot events for the new book. Forget what happened. Just relate how the characters related to each other. That’s all the series reader will remember, anyway.

“The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” —Salvador Dali

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.