Friday, January 15
Dealing With Your Character's Emotional Baggage: Handling Backstory in a Sequel
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.