It’s an interesting question. How does a writer go about introducing a recurring series character or key story element, if their audience is not guaranteed to read their books in order? Of course, it might also be the case that even if readers do consume a series in order, large periods of time might go by and their memories of certain details will likely have faded.
With my crime series, the story continues chronologically but each book can also be read as a standalone in any order. As a reader, I liked authors that did that and so I decided to do the same. There are different arguments and approaches.
Firstly, a lot of this boils down to genre and convention. With speculative fiction for example, there are going to be recurring elements such as complex settings where an awful lot of world-building has been crafted and established early on.
The story so far
A separate dedicated section at the beginning of book to orient the reader with a full on recap. This doesn’t seem to be a popular option for readers from my research and some actively hate any type of prologue, but readers familiar with the world of the book can skip them if they don’t want or need to read them. This approach is obviously really popular with TV series but not many authors seem to do this. It could come across as a little condescending.
An additional line or two of information that isn’t intrusive, doesn’t disrupt the story momentum or reading flow.
e.g. ‘A familiar face walked through the door after the client. Sam Rogen still wore an earnest expression, but he looked a lot more relaxed than he had when we’d dated.’
Personally, I like this option because done right it will pose questions that readers will want answering and could act not only to create additional tension and conflict but also to draw them to other books where this relationship is a significant plot line in the story.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling spends an entire paragraph reiterating the rules of Quidditch. Those readers already familiar with the game will skip over this text with their eyes glazed, so it seems like a waste of effort.
I would say stick to the golden rule of not including any more backstory than is necessary to move the plot forward. I personally think, if you keep references short and locate them appropriately the reader will appreciate that more.
We have to consider the effect of what happens if someone binge reads a few novels from a series in a row. Heavy reiteration is going to get old quickly. It’s also going to mess with believability, jarring the reader out of the story world. It’s just not logical to have two characters who’ve shared this world across half of the series give clumsy recaps to each other.
So I prefer to very lightly interweave recaps into the story itself when I write. A recap at the start of the book wouldn’t be the norm in crime fiction but even where it might be more acceptable, such as in fantasy etc., it still seems to be a stark reminder of the artificiality of everything that threatens the disruption of reader immersion, although it could be argued the reading experience hasn’t really begun.
I think this is where illustrations can help where there is a complicated story world such as in fantasy or sci-fi, by way of a map for example, which seems to be quite popular. There could also be a creative way of including character bios in terms of rankings prior to a competitive battle or tournament for instance, or included by way of the characters themselves in the form of a song or poem perhaps.
With any form of front matter however, consideration needs to be made on its placement if it’s going to be sold as an ebook. That ‘look inside’ first 10% of real estate is really valuable in relation to sales potential. It’s probably best to allow anyone taking a quick peak to get to the killer opening of the story proper and be hooked in enough to want to purchase, rather than reading through a load of stuff that’s not really relevant to them parting with their cash. For an ebook, any type of included material to set the stage should go at the back.
If a series character has a well-known quirk that’s going to be key to a plot point later on in a new story, maybe they’re a sociopath, then that will need to be foreshadowed earlier on. We could always show that via a scene of action, different from anything that’s happened previously in earlier works.
For shorter series, such as a trilogy, I would expect readers to have read them in order although an approach could be to have a character stewing about a past event, which could include a flashback perhaps to reveal motivation and also to slow the pace after a period of high tension in order to offer some breathing space before ratcheting things back up again. For the fourth story in my series, I’m planning a scene centring on a haunting dream where my lead imagines how a loved one had been murdered although she hadn’t any details previously other than that someone close had been killed. This reintroduces information from an earlier story in a new way as it’s relevant to a plotline in the new story.
I would say it boils down to some key questions: can any of the outside of the main story stuff be included elsewhere? Or is it really needed at all? Is it crucial to the story? Maybe it is if you’re writing an overarching narrative and heavy throughline across multiple books. And I think, when we’re trying to grip a reader from the off, you should be asking yourself why are you including all this less interesting stuff first?
What I would absolutely recommend for anyone writing a series is you create some kind of continuity bible. This should contain key character traits, nicknames, dates of birth, addresses and anything else that you don’t want to be wasting time looking up in your older books so you can avoid plot holes in your new ones!