How to provide a reader with recaps of previous books in a series

Posted on November 8, 2013 (Subscribe to Blog)

When writing a series of books with an arcing plot, it's often necessary to add recaps to remind the reader what happened previously and why a character might be in a certain situation. But how much recap is too much?

This is especially true with my books because each follows on directly from the last. I'm up to Book 7 of the Island of Fog series and have a lot of story left to tell but even more behind me. In the opening chapters, I struggled as usual with the dreaded recaps – reminders of what happened before so that the reader is clear what's going on now. After all, it might have been eight months or a year since he or she read the last book, and that's a long time to forget important details.

At first I wrote in lots of reminders in the first chapter, which seemed necessary before I could move the plot forward. I didn't like it. I wanted to get straight to the action, and all the small flashback narrative was slowing it down. So I had an idea, something I've employed before: include a "previously" section in the front of the book. This is commonly used in TV shows, so why not in books?

So I wrote a two-page "what happened before" introduction that could be skimmed over by readers who remember every detail, but would be really helpful to those who don't. One or two of my beta readers commented in their notes that they'd prefer to have reminders sprinkled through the first few chapters as necessary rather than two pages of it before the story starts. Another added that Harry Potter and other popular series just assume readers know the back story already.

I put an Official Question out to all beta readers this morning. Option 1 was to keep the "Previously" section. Option 2 was to delete it and instead sprinkle any necessary recaps throughout the first few chapters. The first few responders surprised me:

I prefer the "Previously" section as there's enough info there to get into the new story, and to entice one to read the previous ones if you want more detail.

Option 1. I find the inline reminders a little annoying.

I prefer option 1, really enjoyed reading that part and not the updates in the book!

I think the "previously" section is a very nice addition and helpful as it has been awhile since I've read the other books. I would definitely keep it as you have it now!

I didn't have a problem with the review in the beginning of the book. However, going into the next chapter, there was more repetition of the review. I didn't like that.

That last comment refers to the bits that I forgot to remove from Chapter One after I'd written the "Previously" section, so I'll definitely be fixing that. But otherwise the opinion so far is pretty clear!

Any others want to weigh in on this? This argument applies to ANY series, not just mine, so feel free to give me your thoughts in a more general sense.

Comment by MARY on Friday, November 8, 2013...

I like it when books start where they left off and don't waste space on what I already read but maybe some would need a recap.

Comment by HAKEEM on Saturday, November 16, 2013...

I once beta read one of your books. and because of this, I still haven't gotten around to reading the finished version. so I was thinking if you could get enough people to do this, then you could have all your beta readers read just one chapter instead of the intier book. so its only running one part of the book, and people will sill read the finished copy.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, November 18, 2013...

Thanks Mary!

Hakeem, sorry for the delay in posting your message. Your idea might work for those who are willing to read the earlier chapters only, but I can't imagine anyone wanting to read the final chapters only — they'd know the ending before they read the beginning! :-)

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