Friday, January 15, 2010

Dealing With Your Character's Emotional Baggage: Handling Backstory in a Sequel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Backstory in a sequel is harder to do than regular backstory. I think it's because there's an entire book out there that colors how everything in the new book is perceived, and without knowing that first book, things aren't as clear. It's not just bits and pieces of history driving your characters and making them feel more fleshed out, it's major stuff that directly affects the plot of the next book. And worse, it's stuff a lot of readers will already know.

While writing book two, I treated book one as plain old backstory. I'd just mention the details that felt relevant, and do it in the same way I'd do any other history. This was working for a while, but it was very easy to bring up far to much about book one. I found myself re-hashing a lot, or worse, relying on book one to understand book two.

And that's where the key to sequel backstory lies.

I was trying to pick up where I left off and just continue the story. Even though I knew it was its own book, and I had a new plot and everything, book one was still there looming over me. Book two wasn't coming across as a "new" book, because the old one was still running the show. It wasn't until I made a real mental break from book one that determining what backstory was needed and what wasn't became more clear.

Unless you're one of the very few with enough clout to write a long story and break it into three books (and let's face it, not many of us can do this), a sequel should be it's own book. If someone never picked up book one, they still need to be able to enjoy book two on its own. So two has to be understandable on its own merits. It has to treat everything as if it was all new.

When I started thinking about book one as a motivator for my protagonist's actions in book two, it made it easier to slip in relevant details. They became more than just facts, they became emotion, same as the back story driving her in the first book. She could think about them in terms that affected her current problems. They became the mistakes she didn't want to make again, or the lessons she learned the hard way.

That's the first half of sequel backstory.

The other backstory problem I ran into was setting and world building. I had to re-introduce the world, but anyone coming from book one would already know it. This was tough to balance because I wanted to get in the key details, but I didn't want to use the same details. But some things I couldn't skip over, like my city's canals, or the occupation. That would be like talking about Middle Earth and never mentioning Sauron or the Shire.

I've found that, in general, a lot of writing problems can be fixed by diving into your point of view so that's what I did here. My protagonist had gone through a lot in book one, and those experiences now affected how she saw her world. So I could show things she didn't notice before, and also let her see details I needed to get in there, with a whole new perspective. I could talk about it in a fresher way that wouldn't bore old readers.

Probably the best advice I can give on backstory and sequels is to write the first draft as if book one never existed. Force yourself to look at it as its own book and stand on its own feet. As you revise, then you can add whatever additional details are needed.

Here are a few more posts on Backstory and writing a sequel.


  1. Thank goodness, I've been waiting for you to do this post. And good luck with Shifter 3. When you say a sequel has to be its own book, does that mean a sequel mustn't have the same villain as the first book, or does that apply only the major plot

  2. It can have the same villain (and often do). It just has to have its own plot, with a goal and actions to resolve that goal that aren't dependent on knowing book one to understand. The books can be read independently of each other and still be understood. It's not one large book broken into three parts where book two is really the middle of the story. Does that make more sense?

  3. I'm not a big fan of sequels--I like to have everything self-contained in one book. One series the consists of sequels where I thought the back story was handled well is the "Body Farm Series" by Jefferson Bass.
    One of the best sequels ever that addressed the back story very well is HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

  4. I think the series is popular with Fantasy. I like it. I always wonder what happens after "the end". Thanks for the info.

  5. Thanks for the great post. This was another one of my questions and very timely as I'm working on chapter one of book two of my series and am trying not to explain too much. I think that's advice on trying to be in the main character's POV and just telling back story as relevant to her current thoughts/actions. I'm going to go back & read the other posts this weekend.

  6. I love series where I can stay with a character and story I enjoy, but I've found that I need those characters to change and the stories to be different enough from each other or I lose interest after three or four books. But lots of folks love visiting the same story over and over, which is probably why series books are so popular.

    Of course, there is a difference between a true "series" and a story with multiple parts, like a trilogy. I think of Shifter as being one long story, not a true series. Something like Nancy Drew or the Artemus Fowl books are real series to me, because it's the same characters and world, but new plots every book. But I think those lines are blurring now. Look at Percy Jackson. Five books with a complete story arc tying them all together, yet each book has it's own plot line that connects to that overall arc.

  7. Yeah, I understand now, Janice. The plot for my WIP is actually sort of like what you mentioned about the Percy Jackson novels - each book with its own plot and an overall arc tying them all together