The problem with writing sequels to a book is the inevitable recap to get people up-to-date on events in the previous books in order to move forward. The temptation is to do a major info-dump at the beginning of the story just to be done with it, or it’s dragged throughout the first few chapters, but both of these can be boring and lose the readers who are already familiar with the story. So then the temptation becomes to simply skip all the recap and dive headlong into the story because, after all, your readers should know all about this universe you’ve created, but you could be wrong.
I’ve picked up books that were in the middle of a series without realizing there were any books prior to the one I had in my hand. For the most part, the authors handled this well, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. On the other hand, there have been authors who handled this poorly, and my impression is, “This person is a terrible writer!” But the truth was I had jumped into the middle of a series without realizing it. You don’t want this, and no, you can’t say at the beginning of the book, “READ PREVIOUS BOOKS IN THE SERIES FIRST!” Yes, it would be great if it worked like that, but of course that’s too easy, and real life never lets you have the easy way.
So what is a proper way to recap without boring your readers? First of all, do you recall what it was like when you wrote the first story? How you had to bring your readers up-to-speed about the universe of the story? Employ that same tactic here. Imagine the sequel is actually a solo story. All the previous stories do not exist. Of course, your fans and you know they do exist, but at the beginning of the new story, you have a clean slate from which you can build the story. This is where you can have fun and really play with your readers minds (especially those who have been reading since the beginning). Say you have one character who, in the earlier books, is the antagonist, and the readers come to hate him! But in this new story, a new character comes in, meets the antagonist and is instantly charmed by him. While your faithful readers are screaming, “NO! Don’t trust him!” and they constantly look around waiting for a familiar protagonist to enter the scene, any new readers may be intrigued by the antagonist, and of course they’re in for a shock when the entire story flips on its head.
How do you inform the readers on past events that are important for the progression of the story? Sprinkle it throughout the story. Mention it only when it is relevant, and only do it either in dialogue or when your character has paused to think and reflect. For instance, say a you’re in the third book of a series, and you have this character who disappeared in Book 1 and wasn’t in Book 2 but you’re bringing him back in Book 3, and you want to remind your readers of the tension he creates for the main character (MC). Now, you could go into great detail as to how this character had betrayed the MC at a crucial point in his journey, or you can simply show the resentment, creating questions for the readers, and eventually answering those questions at the right time:
“Uh, general…not sure how to tell you this, but um..”
At Silas’ rambling, General Cephas took in a patient deep breath then raised his eyes to glare at the man standing in his doorway. Only, Silas wasn’t alone, and Cephas recognized the silhouette of the other man immediately beside him. “Blackwell.” He narrowed his eyes as he rose to his feet, but he fisted his hand, forcing himself not to walk around his desk in order to strangle the man.
“General!” Blackwell smirked as he stepped around Silas, who withdrew to watch the confrontation from a safe distance. Blackwell approached Cephas’ desk. “Did you miss me?”
“You haven’t changed, I see, but hey, you got a new office—nice upgrade.” Blackwell motioned to their surroundings as he moved to sit on the edge of the desk.
Cephas folded his arms as he regarded the man before him. Derek Blackwell—his former second lieutenant but also chief tactician. He served Cephas for many years, but the last time he saw the man was at the disastrous raid of Selgove when the Galactic Army encompassed and trapped Cephas’ small force, and they had to fight their way out. In the midst of the fighting, Cephas turned and was taken back at the sight of Blackwell standing beside a nameless Galactic general observing the fight. Before Cephas could fight his way to them and demand an answer, a gunshot whizzed past his head, and he returned to the immediate fight around him.
However, after his men had escaped, Cephas had much time to contemplate Blackwell’s actions, and perhaps now he would get an answer.
“What are you doing here? Playing spy for the Galactic Forces?” Cephas narrowed his eyes, watching every movement Blackwell made—ready to unholster his gun and shoot the traitor in the chest right here in the middle of his office if necessary. Yet he gave his former second lieutenant the chance to speak, but Blackwell merely wagged his head as he chuckled a little.
“You’re always been quick to judge people, General.”
And so the scene could continue. The scene which Cephas recalled in this chapter would have been a scene which the readers would have witnessed in Book 1. It was summarized in a way that still showed but was brief and quickly returned to the present moment of the story.
In essence, treat each new book in a series as a stand-alone book although reading them in order will give the reader a better sense of unity than if they had read the series out of order. However, if they pick up a book from the middle of the series, at least you’ll be able to keep the new readers rather than discourage them.
You’re not obligated to give your readers ALL the information immediately, but it is important to set the story, establish the characters, and keep the readers informed as they progress through the story. Time each reveal just right.
This takes practice, patience, and an ear closely in-tuned with every moment of the story. You must pay attention to the characters, their thoughts, and their emotions as they encounter all their conflicts. Once you’ve completely honed into that moment in the story, you will know when it is right to reveal or to withhold certain information, and this is crucial with books which are sequels.