I’ve begun writing the third book in The Conjurors Series, and in the opening chapters I’m running into an issue that I remember from writing the second book. How much backstory should I include from the prior books? I flipped through some of my favorite YA fantasy novels, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and found that the authors made subtle references to the prior books, but it was done in such a way as to not interrupt the flow of the story.
Since I don’t have J.K. Rowling’s phone number, I tried to work backwards to see what was working. I researched what other writers recommend on this topic and was surprised to find that there weren’t a lot of tips out there. Below is the list I’ve compiled on what has worked for me when writing series backstory.
Include brief reminders of who characters are and any defining characteristics when they are introduced for the first time.
Whether it’s a defining physical characteristic, personality trait, or supernatural power, a phrase or sentence about the basic essence of who characters are can help readers flash back to the earlier story. This is especially critical for minor characters.
Only recall plot points from prior books when absolutely necessary.
If readers will be confused about what’s happening, it’s okay to include a brief sentence or two referencing key events from past books. But don’t feel you have to rehash the entire plot – new readers may be intrigued enough to go back and read prior books in the series. I know when I read books by my favorite authors that I love little Easter eggs that reference earlier stories. It’s okay if continuing readers don’t catch all of your references during their first read, as long as they can follow the plot.
Let critical backstory emerge through dialogue and action where possible.
Rather than telling readers what they should know about your series backstory, let your characters ask the questions, or subtly weave in critical information into dialogue. Even better, let it emerge during the action. For example, if your character was seriously wounded in a prior book, reveal the persisting weakness or pain during a current battle. The old scar will make sense for new and continuing readers alike.
Even if you don’t mention information from past books outright, make sure prior events still inform how your character behaves.
One thing that I noticed worked incredibly well in successful YA fantasy series was that even when events from prior books in the series weren’t explicitly rehashed, the ways the characters had evolved stayed true to the story. Any way the character has matured, grown, or perhaps fallen apart, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, is carried through. I try to think about how my protagonist changes over the course of the novel, and how that ties into the larger change in her character arc for the entire series.
Ask your beta readers to flag places where they were confused about who characters were or past plot that was being referenced.
The most important source of advice for how much backstory from prior books to include was from my beta readers. Even my own father, one of my most trusted and valuable beta readers, struggled to remember the nuances of the plot and the details about minor characters from the first book when he beta read book two. Knowing where he was scratching his head let me know the places that needed me to invest some time referencing past plot points.
Do you have any additional suggestions for how much backstory to include when writing subsequent novels in a series?