The Sequel Problem

My husband and I recently started watching Dexter. Yes, we may be a little behind the curve, but we don’t have cable.  Also, we just discovered that our local library has all the seasons on DVD.

Okay, now at the beginning of each episode (and this is the case with True Blood, The Walking Dead, and many other series) and for important episodes of other random shows (i.e., The Big Bang Theory, Buffy, etc.) they do this “Previously on *insert show title here*” and have a highlight reel of all the important scenes from past episodes. It’s kind of like the producers (or whoever) of the show are saying, “Look at this! Do you remember this? You need to know about it if you’re going to understand this next episode at all.” It’s like a review before a test, but much more fun.

So, a lot of books that I’m excited to read this year are installments in a series or trilogy. Now, in some cases, it’s been like a year since the previous book in the series was published, and I’ve had lots of other things on my mind since I read it. It’s not like I only read one book a year. And even if I did, I’m pretty sure I would still forget really important information.

Now, I was thinking—why can’t they take this brilliant idea from TV and apply it to, I don’t know, novels?

I really feel like a lot of novels, or the ones I’m exposed to, could benefit from this. Authors tend to approach this problem in one of two ways.

  1. They “weave in” important background information in the first chapter to not-so-subtly remind you of important things (i.e., who characters are, major plot points from previous book(s), etc.), and this is fine. I think more often than not it can come across as clunky writing. However, if it’s really well done it’s beneficial to the readers. Yes, I get that you want readers (who for some reason decided not to read the first book) to be able to understand the book, but really.
  2. They just pretend readers remember everything from the past books and skip over option one up there.

wicked-lovelyOkay, so an example of numero dos—anything in the Wicked Lovely universe by Melissa Marr. I want to make perfectly clear that I really love these books and Marr as a writer, but she’s got this bad habit. It seemed to me, as I was reading her books, I was getting totally confused. It’s important to know that these books take place in an ordered universe. Let me explain, books 1-5 should be read in order. However, the technical sequel to book 1 is book 4. Books 2 & 3 include characters from the first book, and you need to know the events of these two books to understand books 4 & 5. But the main plots are different… Make sense? If not, I can draw a map. The plots were complicated and there was a pretty large cast of characters that I needed to keep up with. I needed a “previously on…” segment to help me out. Usually, I’d start to read the newest book, get confused, and have to start the whole friggin’ series all over again.

On the other hand, some people can pull numero uno off very nicely. For example, I recently read Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath. I wasn’t sure how Johnson would handle the, as I’m calling it, “sequel problem,” but I was jaded from Marr (and other books). I reread the whole first book in preparation for the new one. Turns out, Johnson goes with choice number one, and does it rather well I think.

So, what I think publishers should do is give us a page or two that can act like our gentle reminder of people, places, plot points, whatever. If you need the refresher, awesome, it’s there. If you don’t, skip it! Enjoy the book.

Okay, but those are just my thoughts. Have you experienced “the sequel problem” before? What books? Let me know!

Caroline Whitney

Caroline Whitney

Caroline Whitney

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