Recap Chapters – Mission Impossible

 

Recap sequences (according to Wikipedia) are the “in previous episodes” narrative device used by many television series to bring the viewer up to date with the current events of the story’s plot. It is usually a short 20 – 40 second montage of important scenes.

Recap chapters are a similar device, that could be used in series books, at the beginning, to bring readers up to date. Note: You won’t find this phrase defined in a dictionary or discussed on Wikipedia as we are using it.

I thought of this subject for today’s discussion, because it is something I am considering for book #4 in a series. The book is currently out for beta reading, and I am getting multiple questions from readers who have not read the first three books and are interested in information from earlier books.

Two posts worth reviewing, that are relevant for today’s discussion:

Terry’s recent post on “Reminders or Repetitions” – https://killzoneblog.com/2021/03/reminders-or-repetition.html

And Sue’s post on “Tips to Create a Series Bible” – https://killzoneblog.com/2020/12/tips-to-create-a-series-bible.html

Series books need to stand alone, so readers can read them in any order, but we need to provide those readers with the knowledge of what came before so they are not confused. And frankly, readers of previous series books often need some reminders. In general, this can be handled in one of two ways: tell before (a recap chapter) or weave the reminder into the telling of the current story.

As I thought about this dilemma, I wondered what techniques other authors have used. Are there any other choices? So here is the thread of my search to educate myself. First some definitions (based on discussions in Wikipedia):

Foreword – usually written by someone other than the author. Tells readers why they should read the book. Usually signed. 

Preface – usually written by the author, and tells how and why the book came into being

Introduction – a beginning section to a book, article, or essay which states the purpose and goals of the following. More likely used in nonfiction to introduce the reader to the main topics and prepare readers for what they can expect. Used in some classic children’s literature, where it is used as a preface. The only thriller with an introduction I could find on my shelves was Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire. And there it was used as a preface.

Prologue – the opening to the story, establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one

Appendix – in the back matter, used in nonfiction, gives useful additional information, but even without the rest of the book is complete

Blurb – a short description for promotional purposes on the cover or in an advertisement

As I initially thought about these choices for “recapping,” it seemed to me that the preface, the prologue, and the blurb were potential tools. I was curious to see if any authors were doing recap chapters. I googled “in previous episodes” and found “recap sequences.” When I added “books,” I found an interesting discussion – http://bestfantasybooks.com/forums/threads/how-much-to-recap-at-the-start-of-a-new-book-in-a-series.2934/page-2 – from 2016, discussing recap chapters at the beginning of  books. The discussion boiled down to a disagreement between those who liked a recap chapter, and those who didn’t.

I would insert here that this discussion was in the context of the fantasy genre, and might change the discussion because of world building, the limits to the magic in a specific series, unusual characters and beings, etc. Thrillers and suspense might generate an entirely different discussion. That’s what we’re doing today.

In any case, in the above blog discussion, the minority wanted their recap “woven into” the story.

The majority preferred a recap chapter at the beginning, leaving the “reminding” out of the way for the present story. I was surprised at the results.

Some interesting comments from the discussion are worth repeating:

“Recaps and summaries are what lazy writers do for lazy readers.”

(Having a recap chapter) “spoils the immersive experience” that should begin at the beginning of the first chapter.

And, beginning to read a recap chapter as the first chapter means the “countdown to terminal boredom has started.”

By the end of the discussion, the host decided in favor of a recap chapter in his WIP. Here are a couple of his comments:

Writing the recap chapter was “really useful to me as the author to reorient myself. By trying to sum up the story thus far it reminded me of what the audience needs to know for the plot to make sense…”

(The recap chapter) “was the best option by far” and he “was surprised that more authors don’t do this. Yet I can’t think of one author who has.”

As I thought over the comments in the discussion, I began looking for ways to keep everyone happy – that is, all readers happy. And I was reminded of the “prison of two ideas,” meaning we always have an infinite number of choices, and we do not have to be locked in to only two choices. So, I came up with some additional options for you to consider for target practice. Shoot them down, or protect them from destruction.

“Series Preface” – The preface is placed in the front matter, before the story begins. Readers can choose to read it or skip it. Placing it in the front matter keeps readers from getting bored if they don’t want to read it, and prevents the stopwatch from beginning on that “countdown to terminal boredom.” In this location, it could be kept brief, with just enough material to bring the reader up to speed for the current book. It could also be used as a blurb to entice the reader to read the earlier books in the series.

“Series Appendix” – The appendix is used in nonfiction to make additional information available to the reader and to refer to other sources. Why not use it for a place the reader can look when they want answers to questions about earlier books in the series? Being in the back matter, it definitely won’t get in the way of the reader anxious to begin the book. Being in the appendix, the author could get as extensive as he/she wishes, allowing for readers with extensive questions to find answers or references. The material could be organized in multiple different ways. And, again, if the material is organized by book (previous series books), this would be a way to make the material both “recap” and blurb.

One could get really creative here with references to a website with “Sue’s Series Bible.” I have read that some of J. K. Rowling’s success was due to an extensive website where she kept readers busy while she was writing the next book.

“The Whole Enchilada” – And, not to be a prisoner of two ideas, an author could use a combination of the “series preface” and the “series appendix.”

And, just think. If this is actually something new (maybe it isn’t), and it catches on with fiction writers, we here are TKZ could say we were part of its creation. At least we could lay claim to the inception of the two terms, “series preface” and “series appendix.”

 

So, now, dear TKZ family, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to defend the tradition of weaving previous events into the fabric of the current story, champion a new garment to refresh our memory before we admire the current story, or break free from the prison of two ideas and invent something entirely new.

Take aim, and shoot down the ideas, or tell us if you like them. Give us your reasons, pro or con. If you have other ideas, please tell us and give a defense of your idea. Put on your “What if?” hat and let the creative juices flow.

Recap chapters:

  1. Have you used them?
  2. Can you think of a writer who has?
  3. What do you think of a recap chapter as chapter #1?

“Series preface” and ‘series appendix”:

  1. What do you think about a series preface?
  2. What do you think about a series appendix?

What better ideas do you have? Please give a rationale and defend them.

 

As always, should you or any member of your writing force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions.

+11

35 thoughts on “Recap Chapters – Mission Impossible

  1. Good morning, Steve.

    You have covered one of my favorite topics this morning, and bless you.

    I am an, um, older reader. I read most of my books on a Kindle now because of that delightful “search” it has. I have been finding that my ability to keep track of more than a few characters in a book is deteriorating. I use the search feature frequently. Thrillers often mention someone who appears to be a minor character at the beginning of a novel who turns out to be important at the end.

    A continuing series, one in which a new book builds on the foundation of what has gone before, creates another problem. I read several different series of that type and often find myself “at sea,” if you will, for several chapters before I get my legs underneath me both in terms of characters and plots. A year (or more) has often passed since the last installment in the series and all I can remember is that I liked it. I have had to give up reading a few of my favorite series of this and because (as in life) minor characters from past novels became important in the new ones. I had no idea who they were.

    I would suggest that authors writing series that build on what has occurred in the past include at the beginning of each book a section titled “What Has Gone Before.” Readers such as myself could stop there and bring ourselves up to speed while the young whippersnappers could skip it and cut to the chase. Similarly, a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of such books would be helpful. My placement of such at the beginning is deliberate. I recently struggled with identifying the characters featured in an ongoing series only to discover that a who’s who could be found at the end of the book.

    Thanks for yet another terrific post, Steve. Have a great weekend.

    +8
    • Thanks, Joe. Your comments are terrific.

      I like the idea of a “What Has Gone Before” section. That was what I was trying to achieve with the “series preface.” If it were clearly titled “What Has Gone Before,” readers would know what it was and could decide to read it or skip it. I would suggest putting it in the front matter, so readers would know it was not part of the new story.

      And the “Cast of Characters” – great idea. And again at the front. That is probably the most common question beta readers ask. “Now, who is so-and-so?”

      Great thoughts, Joe. Thanks for your ideas! Have a great weekend.

      +5
  2. Thanks for the shout out, Steve.
    As a reader, I want to enjoy each book from page 1 to ‘the end’. If I see a cast of characters at the front, I’m immediately taken back to the purple mimeographed sheet Mr. Holtby handed out when he assigned “War and Peace.” My initial thought becomes “this book is so complicated, the author couldn’t figure out how to keep characters straight in context” so I give it a pass. I don’t want to keep flipping back.
    Likewise, bringing readers up to speed in a series can have other consequences. In one case, (big name author) opened the book which was well into the series, with a holiday dinner scene and proceeded to introduce all the characters, how they were connected, what had gone before… I gave up.
    In another case, there were so many recaps in book 2, that I saw no reason to go back and read book 1. The killer was named, so what would be the point?
    There are times when reading a lengthy series, that I wish there were footnotes pointing me back to whichever previous book the event mentioned took place.
    But you definitely don’t want “As You Know, Bob” slowing the story.
    I know readers who will go back and reread the previous book when the new one comes out.
    It’s a slippery slope.

    +5
    • Thanks for your comments, Terry, I knew we would have disagreements on this discussion, But, that’s what discussions are for. You’re correct in that recap material at the beginning should not be so extensive that it keeps readers from going back and reading earlier books in the series. Optimally, it would serve as a blurb to entice the reader. I like your comment on footnotes. Great idea.

      Thanks for joining the debate!

      +2
  3. Sir Terry Pratchett, who wrote delightful satirical fantasy, had a huge series set in the Discworld universe. You can read any book in the series in any order. He used footnotes for amusing comments, past occurrences the reader needed to know (or were so ingrained in that universe that not knowing would be leaving a new reader out of the joke), and for the odd pertinent ‘fact’ that just adds to the story without being part of it. For instance, the Librarian at the Wizard’s University is an orangutan who says only ‘ook’, which everyone seems to understand. In every book with the Librarian in it, he gives a footnote for his first mention, explaining the magical crisis which had turned a book-loving wizard into a book-loving orangutan. But every time he gave this footnote explanation, he would do it differently and in such a way that it also explained the Librarian’s current state of mind.

    Of course, these books were humour, so odd things like footnotes can be more easily forgiven. But I think if footnotes (or prologues, or prefaces) are done really well, the reader can forgive them in any genre.

    +3
    • Thanks, Beverly, for your comments. Footnotes sound like a good way to have the information close at hand, but not right in the story, Readers who want the extra information, can glance at the bottom of the page. If they don’t want to be bothered, they can keep on reading. I did that with magic spells that I use in my series. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the discussion.

      +1
  4. Steve, thanks for raising important questions for series writers and readers.

    Another factor to consider: spoilers. In bringing readers up to speed, you don’t want to give away surprises that happen in earlier books.

    I weave explanations of prior characters and plots into the story. With most characters, it’s enough to explain how they met or how they’re related. In the first book of my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series, Tawny is saved from prison by attorney Tillman Rosenbaum. In the second book, she goes to work for him, investigating his estranged father and learns the reasons for the estrangement. In later books, I refer to the troubled father/son relationship but don’t go into the details behind it.

    Sometimes a spoiler can’t be avoided. After a romance with plenty of ups and downs, in book #5, Tawny and Tillman are finally planning their wedding. That story brings together many characters from earlier books who don’t know each other so that gives the opportunity to briefly explain their connections to the main characters. I mention past plot events but don’t reveal details in hopes that people who read the series out of order will be intrigued enough to buy prior books.

    My general rule is to explain only enough to keep readers from being confused. They know there are past problems but lack of specific knowledge doesn’t interfere with the current story.

    +5
    • Thanks, Debbie. Great advice. Avoiding spoilers would need to be one of the top priorities, no matter what approach the writer takes. It sounds like you have a system that is working for you. I wonder if this discussion would be different with different genres. And I agree that however one does it, the idea of enticing or intriguing the reader enough to buy a previous book would be a goal.

      +2
      • Aw, thanks, Sue!

        The novella was #5 out of 6 books.

        Reading books out of order should be like coming to a party late. You don’t know what happened before you arrived but you still have fun.

        +2
  5. I guess I’m a purist, Steve. I want each book to start off with a grabber and to feel like it is a stand alone. I’ll drop in some explanations of previous events, woven into a scene, but that’s it. Also, if a reader gets into my series by reading, say, #4, I wouldn’t want anything up front that would dis-incentivize him from going back and actually getting and reading previous titles.

    +9
    • Thanks, Jim. Your comment is what I expected from a majority of writers at this site. Fortunately or unfortunately, our discussion thus far has been much more civilized than the discussion (argument) I referenced for the fantasy genre. I value your advice. The off-the-wall ideas I suggested were attempts to appease both camps.

      Have a great weekend!

      +3
      • I agree with Jim, Steve. I try to make my series novels read like stand-alones. I do re-introduce my characters for people who are new to the series. Good dicussion.

        +1
        • Thanks, Elaine. Good comments. Reintroducing characters is probably the thing readers ask for the most (about previous books). I expected that the majority of TKZ participants would answer as you did. I was trying to stir up some conflict. I guess that is reserved for discussions of plot.

          0
  6. A recap might be genre-specific, Steve. Although, I’ve read speculative fiction out of order and wasn’t lost. For psychological thrillers, I never include recaps other than slipping in a sentence like “he’s been trying to kill me for two years.” My series books can all stand alone. Are they better in order? Probably. But I’ve had readers who’ve read them in reverse order and said they never felt lost.

    A series bible is great for the author, not for the reader, IMO. Readers are a lot sharper than many writers care to admit. Trust them. If we’ve done our job well, they’ll be able to follow along and not feel lost even if they’re reading book 3 or 10 first. Better yet, they’ll pay attention while they read, knowing you won’t recap what they might miss. 🙂

    +5
    • Thanks for your comments, Sue. I am beginning to think that the subject of recap is genre specific. You have found what works for psychological thrillers. I wonder if there aren’t more things to keep track of in Sci-fi and Fantasy. I like your statement: “they’ll pay attention while they read, knowing you won’t recap what they might miss.”

      Have a great weekend!

      +1
  7. I’m fine with the prologue, preface or blurb, but I’d strongly say no to the first chapter recap. Chapter ones always tell me we’re in the meat of the story, so I don’t want that disrupted by recap.

    Here are some other things I’ve seen authors do (all fantasy authors)

    Cast of characters: Listing the main characters, adding new ones, can quickly remind the reader who’s in play and who have been killed.

    Article/letter/book excerpt: Start with one of these at the beginning of each book. They can be the same or different each time. I’ve also seen them between chapters.

    And more creative ways. I read a kid’s series where the oracle of delphi invited you in with a humorous recap.

    +1
    • Thanks for your comments, AZAli. And great ideas. It seems that there is more use of recap techniques in speculative fiction (or maybe, more acceptance of it). I liked your example of the humorous recap. There are probably many more ways that would work. Our imagination is our only limitation.

      0
  8. Happy Saturday, Steve! Today’s post is a thorough look at the issue of recaps. So far, I’ve only completed a single series, my five novel long fantasy one, “The Empowered.” Like Jim and Sue above, I come down on the “side” of minimal referencing to what has gone before, done in scene. I want to ground the reader in the “now” of the particular book in the series, weaving important mention of what had gone before in scene in hopefully judicious fashion.

    The title for each book is a reference to the role/situation my hero Mathilda Brandt finds herself in: Agent, Traitor, Outlaw, Rebel, and Hero. I used the book descriptions (which I’m about to refresh) to indicate what had come before without spoilers and where the current book is going.

    YMMV of course, this is just my own strong preference as a writer, and as a reader 🙂
    Thanks for another informative and interesting post! Have a great weekend.

    +1
    • Happy Saturday to you, Dale. Thanks for your thoughts. You’re in the majority, and what I expected here at TKZ. I liked your idea of using book descriptions to indicate what had come before. Those blurbs could serve to entice readers to buy earlier books as well.

      Have a great weekend!

      +1
  9. Steve, you bring up a really interesting question–and a difficult one. I would even say there is probably no one answer for all genres & I can see how there might be a tendency to use it more in sci-fi or fantasy or other major world building genres (but then I could argue–what genre isn’t doing some world-building?).

    To me, the concept of writing a novel in a series to stand alone means you skillfully weave in needed information into that book to accomplish just that purpose.

    RE: Series preface – thankfully I have not experienced it that much, but my honest reaction when I see this is the equivalent of the author shouting at me, “Here, reader, in case you didn’t get it.” And it has the unintended consequence of making me lower my expectations for the book at hand. I also think it has a tendency to take away some of the intrigue of the current book.

    Whereas if the author simply weaves in JUST ENOUGH info from previous books, more than once that has had the result of raising my curiosity & causing me to go seek out other books in the series.

    You also bring up the interesting question of where similarities in fiction and non-fiction can cross over. Percentage wise, I read FAR more non-fiction than fiction–probably 90% to 10%. In non-fiction, I WANT brief, summarized data so I can skip around to the sections I need to read. But in fiction I want immersion from the beginning, and for me, lists and prefaces for the series are things that remove me from the immersive experience.

    However, as reading habits change, things change about the way books are published. I may not like it that e-books throw the copyright page in the back of the book (ah there’s just something cool about flipping pages even electronically to see the content you expect in the order you expect–very hard to be jolted out of my lifelong expectations) but I understand the argument for doing so.

    I would not lean toward books with a series preface, but I can also see how many would.

    +2
    • Thanks, BK, for your thoughts and your explanation. It is especially helpful to hear from you how a reader of nonfiction (more than fiction) would respond to these techniques. And your opinions, as a writer also, have more weight. Your thoughts are definitely in the majority today. Thanks for your explanations.

      Have a great weekend.

      0
  10. Great topic, Steve. Made me do a little recap thinking about my SIP (Series In Progress). I have a based-on-true-crime thing on the go where each book deals with a crime story I was involved in. (Investigating, not committing – that’s for another series.) I write in the 1st person voice of an old detective and the only place my name appears is on the cover. All through the exposition and dialogue the detective is never named – including in the internal reflections. I use recap once or twice in each story (which can be read as stand alones) and I even note the chapter (scene) as “recap” on my storyline flow chart.

    The recap scenes are set at the detective’s home after shift when he either sits alone (with the obligatory trope of a glass{s} of wine or a shot{s} of Scotch – because this is reality of what goes on behind the scenes in real detective life) or sits with his wife and reflects on what’s happening in an ongoing investigation. Here the evidentiary details or ongoing leads are recapped, and I think it brings the investigation process into perspective for the reader, including the red herrings that always show up in a real case.

    I didn’t make this recap stuff up for the goodness of the book. I can’t tell you how many times I went home after an investigation day and sat there talking to my wife (who was a police dispatcher when we met) about the current crime. It helped me clarify, plan, and vent.

    For me, recaps work as long as they’re not an in-your-face-as-you-Bob-info-dump. It lets the reader glimpse on how detectives think and, for me as a writer, helps me stay on track with where the story is going. So that’s all I have to say about that. Enjoy your Day!

    0
    • Thanks, Garry. Your use of recaps in your story, sounds like what Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) called sequels. (Scene and sequel). I like your setting for those scenes, and the fact that it was consistent with your experience. Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

      Have a great weekend!

      0
  11. One of the worst mistakes I can think of in writing a blurb is using it as a recap, backstory, or info dump. You have a few sentences to grab a new reader, don’t waste them. I did a blog series on bad blurbs in the real world where I found the worst blurbs possible from various promotion sites and skewered them. Here are a few blurbs who did the history and recap bit.

    ACTION ADVENTURE (History with no characters or goals in sight): It’s 1931 and men are desperate for jobs. A lucky few will get to work in the searing heat of the Nevada desert on the massive Hoover Dam, the single largest public works project in history. Their goal is to tame the mighty Colorado River with a dam that towers sixty stories high from the base of the canyon to the crest of the dam. In doing so they will create the largest man-made lake in the world. Nothing like it has ever been built.

    FANTASY: (Worldbuilding) In 2013, a gate to another world opened, and Elves used their magic to conquer Earth, crushing all resistance before them. Three hundred years after the Conquest, the exiled Elven High Queen rules an orderly but stagnant Earth, with humanity forced to fight in the High Queen’s war against the traitors on the Elven homeworld.

    COZY MYSTERY: (Recap that isn’t cozy mystery) Never push a woman to her limit when all she knows is pain. A powerful story of a young woman named Eva left on the doorstep of a neighbor as a child by her very own mother. She is abused, neglected, rejected and without a legal footing in the only place she knows as ”home.” All the odds appear to be stacked against her and those looking from the outside in seriously wonder how one human being could be expected to battle such atrocities without making a fateful decision to end it all far quicker than it ever began.

    +1
  12. Great post again, Garry! Couple of things to add to the discussion as I work on Book 3 of my Neanderthal time travel fantasy series:

    1. I’m in the “work it all in organically” camp, laying in past details little by little. One of my reasons for this is due to the current book-reading landscape. Those who have waited a year for the next installment—and who could benefit from some sort of recap—are, and will continue to be, in a diminishing minority. For the next 500 years after I publish #3 of the trilogy—do you love my ambitious timeline?!—most readers will go instantly from #1 > #2 > #3. No recapping/rehashing required. And I strongly hint at a reading order by indicating which book they are reading/considering in the subtitle, half-title page, and paperback spine.

    2. Some writers get very creative with all this. Look at Michael Crichton (one of my main influencers). In “The Lost World” (the follow-up to “Jurassic Park”), he starts off with his typical “Introduction” where he lays the scientific groundwork (that’s a very Crichtonesque thing to do). But within this Introduction, he smoothly shifts to one of the characters of his story. You’re now into story time. Then he has a Prologue. Then he has a new “section” called “The Lost World Hypothesis,” in which he has a key paragraph that recaps Jurassic Park in five sentences (in the character’s POV). Then he starts Part I. Oy! The man loves his Front Matter!

    3. Another thing that is not mentioned here is the idea (for Indies, at least) of a series marketing blurb. Amazon now allows a separate description at the top of the “series page” where they clearly show the entire series and each book (numbered) in it. Instead of the default “From Book One…” excerpt, you can now create whatever description you want. I am doing this.

    Good food for thought.

    +1
    • Thanks, Harald. Great comments. I definitely want to check out Crichton’s “The Lost World” and his front matter techniques. Sounds interesting.

      Thanks for the heads up on Amazon’s series page. Definitely sounds worth doing.

      Have a great weekend.

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