I mentioned in my posts about world-building that I like narrative, I like following a story and seeing it unfold. I like to get a sense of the flow from start to finish. One experience that is forever denied me is seeing Star Wars in chronological order. Episode IV was released the year before I was born, and was a regular at Christmas when I was a young child. So naturally, I was excited when Episodes I-III were announced. But by then, I had seen IV, V and VI so I knew too much. I can’t watch Episode I without knowing what’s going to happen to the characters.
That’s just by way of preamble. Today’s topic is about novel series, and the related topic of backstory.
I find it very off-putting if I see an interesting-looking novel on the library shelf or at the bookshop, and when I pull it off the shelf to look at the cover and blurb, only to find the caption “A Frank Sloggs Adventure”, or “Another DI Hincklebotham Mystery”. Obviously, publishers and authors want to let fans of their earlier works in the series know that this is the next one that they’ve been waiting for. However, I who have never heard of them before – I don’t know who Frank Sloggs or DI Hincklebotham are – feel as though I am being told, “Sorry, mate, you’re a bit late to the party.” If the blurb makes the story look really interesting then I may be motivated to note down the author’s name and type it into Wikipedia to find out what the first Frank Sloggs or DI Hincklebotham novel was and then see if I can find that at the library or bookshop the next time I am out looking for stuff to read. More often, I put it back and look for something where I can slip straight into the world without wondering what happened before.
There is a tendency, after all, for authors to want to build on their recurring characters’ experiences and have them drive forward the development and story arc for their personality. This, in turn, means that events that happened in the first novel will be a part of the reference point and backstory to the later novels. This was a tricky point for me with some of the Roger Moore James Bond films – following on from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, dialogue referenced events in that film as backstory for Moore’s 007. With the change in appearance of the lead character, and the more-or-less episodic “stand-alone” character of the Connery films (and, indeed, most of the other films) in which any necessary backstory is included in the current film, this seems like a jarring inconsistency. It’s worth noting that the Daniel Craig movies feel in some way like a reboot, in that “Casino Royale” is a version of the original James Bond novel, and explains how Bond gains his “00” status; “Quantum of Solace” explicitly follows directly on from it, and “Skyfall” sets up the familiar characters (albeit with a new twist). That works much better for me.
Obviously, when I am familiar with the series and have been reading from Book 1, I love it when the old events are not brushed under the rug but have an impact on the characters. They should do! What bothers me is feeling like I have come in halfway through a conversation and not quite following what people are talking about. Whether it’s mentioned explicitly or obliquely, the previous event almost always implies a familiarity with the characters that an established fan would have but that I, if I am coming to it for the first time, would not have.
I like a series I can follow and that has familiar recurring characters. Sometimes, I even enjoy them greatly even if they are out of order – if the “previous events” all much the same, then it makes little difference what it was specifically last time around, after all! Reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple stories is a case in point (as is watching them on television – David Suchet of course, and for me it has to be the BBC’s Miss Marple with Joan Hickson).
This is all very well. Yes, it pushes me away if I come in halfway through the series, but that’s no reason to say “don’t do it”.
However, it is one thing to have written the story to follow on from the last novel you wrote. It is quite another to hint at a previous story that doesn’t exist, especially if it’s an important element of the backstory. In the summer, I read a debut novel in which frequent references are made to some dramatic and tense investigation (it was a police detective novel) with a drastic climax had led to the protagonist having emotional consequences that formed part of the basis for his development in this novel. It was a debut novel, and yet I had that same feeling of missing the start of the conversation, or the first twenty minutes of the movie. I just couldn’t understand why the author didn’t start with the novel that told about the earlier investigation.
Backstory is important, naturally. Characters need to have a history, where they came from, what’s happened to them so far. It can even be a colourful and exciting history with all manner of events going on (that’s how you get good prequels). But backstory should not overshadow the current story, surely? If there’s a significant life-changing experience then either tell that story as its own novel, or at least include it as a short story prologue so we know what the point of the references are when we get them in the main body of the novel. Ideally, for me, a backstory is relatively smooth. Our central characters may have a troubled past or an easy life, but they have some kind of equilibrium that has developed fairly organically up until now. What makes the story exciting is that something is going to force a change and disrupt that equilibrium.
There are always exceptions. An option I have seen a number of authors use is to combine an adventure with a mystery, in which surviving the action also reveals more and more clues until the true nature of the past event is revealed. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t in my opinion, but the fact that it works sometimes is obviously a counter-example for my thesis already stated. My guess would be that it works best when one thing or the other is given precedence – either it’s “Adventure, with a small mystery” or it’s “Mystery, with a little bit of adventure”. Of course, I am putting those as genres, but they also describe broader categories of writing – the “What happened?” versus “What’s going to happen?” questions.
The bottom line, I think, is about confusion and familiarity. You want a protagonist to feel familiar to the reader. If there’s some key event in the past that is significant to the character, then the reader needs to be familiar with that, too. Dropping hints or oblique references, or even saying explicitly that something happened without saying how and why, just confuse matters and distract from the story you are trying to tell.