Extended Book Series and the Fallibility of the Human Memory

As a fantasy reader, I am well familiar with book series. And although I’m just as fascinated by standalone fantasy and the rise of the duology (specifically for their tight narratives), I will never complain at stumbling across a book I really love and finding out that it is the first in four, or seven, or fifteen.

There’s just one problem. Books can take a long time to write, and although waiting eagerly for each book to come out has its own thrill, it does also mean that people following the series as it gets published will also have to do the mental gymnastics of trying to remember everything that happened in the previous book(s). As a writer, one of the things to keep in mind while writing the sequels is straddling that line between the current reader–who has to wait, sometimes years, between publications–and the future reader–who won’t.

Followers of my blog may be aware that Leigh Bardugo’s new Rule of Wolves is on my TBR list for this year. What was not on my reading list was a King of Scars reread, but when I realized I didn’t remember the plot of the first book at all and when googling up a synopsis only served to confuse me further, I just bit the bullet and sat down with King of Scars to get that refresher. But it got me thinking. This is an easy solution because it’s a duology, but I ran into this same problem when reading the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas several years ago, and while Wheel of Time was completely published by the time I reread it last year, I won’t deny getting confused sometimes when the story did a callback to an event that happened two, three books previously. I pity the poor souls that had to actually wait for each installment of that particular series.

An author should of course recognize that some details are going to be needed to refresh their readers on the details of the plot from previous books. The problem, of course, is how much detail should be included. As a reader returning to a series, there are a few options available. For me, if I care enough about the writing and the story, and if the series isn’t unfathomably long already, I will probably reread the previous books, a habit that I’m sure many of you lovely readers also practice.

From a writer’s standpoint, catering to readers like these aligns with those aforementioned future readers, where one may not need much in the way of a summary. In fact, the more of a summary we get, the more annoyed we might become, because to give the reader information that they already know is to waste their time, which is one of the biggest breaches of trust between a reader and an author.

But, unfortunately, with a constantly-growing pile of books on my TBR, I can’t afford to reread every single book in every single series that I’m technically in the middle of right now. If I did that as a fantasy reader, I would probably never have time to read anything new because I’d be too busy trying to remember what happened in books I already read. In these instances, I could do what I had hoped to do with Rule of Wolves: search up the plot of the previous book(s) and hope that the author gives something of a summary in-text to fill in the gaps.

It’d be a lovely little dream to think that an author might cater to the busy reader’s needs and offer plenty of callbacks so that a reread wouldn’t be necessary. But busy readers are, of course, not the only kind of reader an author must cater to. So when it comes to the details, should an author provide more… or less?

To be honest, this whole discourse reminds me of television series with the whole “previously on” for viewers watching as each episode airs, and the (perhaps niche?) running internet gag of “Bold of you to assume I need a ‘previously on’ when I’ve just binge-watched the whole first season in a single day” on Netflix or Amazon or other streaming services where binge-watching is an option. It brings up the same consideration for consumption of media, and how varied the pace of that consumption can be.

In fact, it almost makes one wonder why something akin to the TV practice isn’t also readily available in books. The only time I have ever seen it is in my copy of Christopher Paolini’s Brisingr, the third installment of the Inheritance Cycle, where it offers the synopsis of Eragon and Eldest. (Whether the last book, Inheritance, also has a synopsis, I couldn’t tell you; for some reason, it is the only book I don’t have a copy of.)

One could argue that such a practice would serve as the best of both worlds. A casual reader could refer to such an introduction to catch back up on the plot, and for longer series, it could help ground the readers as they make their way through. We got lucky with Wheel of Time; the wiki pages for that are extensive and detailed. Most series don’t have that luxury of that level of an avid fanbase. Theoretically, if the casual reader can refresh their memory with such a “previously in…,” it would also mean that every reader walking into the next book in the series would be armed with the same level of pertinent information, making it easier for the author to decide how much minor information might be needed for smaller-level callbacks.

I’m not even entirely sure that it would be more work on the author’s part. There’s no exact science or practice for pitching a book, and sequels may be a different beast entirely from standalones or first books, but I do know that having to write a synopsis in order to pitch a book is a common practice. Presumably, an author could use the same synopsis from their pitch as the baseline on some kind of “previously in…” introduction.

Either way, I’d say this is a pretty low-stakes discussion, but I thought it might be fun to take a break from the usual intensive novel break-downs that we normally do on this blog and just have a lighthearted discourse. So tell me, do you see any downsides to having a “previously in…” introduction? The only thing I can think of is it’d require a few extra pages in printing, but I can’t imagine it would be that costly. Besides, if it’s a series I don’t want to commit a reread to, I’d probably be more likely to pick up the sequel if I knew there was a synopsis that could help me refresh my memory. But maybe that’s just me.


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