Last time, I talked about ways to get series backstory (the stuff that has happened in the previous books of a series) into the sort of series that’s really a three- or five- or seven-volume novel split into parts. Today I’m talking about the backstory for the other sort of series, the kind that’s a collection of stand-alone novels, usually (but not always) about the same set of characters having different adventures or problems. Most detective series are good examples of this kind of thing.
As I said before, there are a lot of really good reasons for a multi-volume-novel type series to need a bit of review or reminder in the first couple of chapters (ideally in Chapter One, but you can’t always swing that).
None of those reasons apply to the stand-alone type series.
If what you’re writing is a collection of stand-alone novels, then each one ought to stand alone. That means that the writer doesn’t put in lots of extraneous-but-interesting information to get new readers up to speed, any more than the writer of a non-series stand-alone novel puts in a huge infodump recalling the protagonist’s life history to that point in his/her life. Everything that happened before Page 1 of the current novel is history, and the fact that some of your readers already know it doesn’t mean you have to treat it any differently from the background/backstory you made up prior to Book 1.
Yes, knowing the background and relationships that have developed over the past nine or ninety books ought to make the reader’s experience of the current book richer, but new readers don’t need to know all that in order to enjoy the current book. Book seventeen will be a different experience for people who come to it with sixteen books worth of backstory than it will for readers who haven’t read anything else in the series, but different does not mean bad or boring or unenjoyable. And it certainly does not mean incomprehensible – in fact, the amount of background a new reader requires in order to understand what’s going on is usually a lot less than the writer fears.
(This is, in fact, one of the potential advantages of writing a collection-type series. If the first two books of a five-volume novel are out of print when the last book hits the shelves for the first time, it’s a major problem. Very few readers want to read only the last half or the last third of a novel. If the first twelve books of a nineteen-book set of detective novels are OOP, it’s an annoyance for new readers who grab the latest one, love it, and want to go back and fill in, but it’s not the same kind of catastrophe.)
So, what goes into the book is however much background, backstory, or history needs to be there for that story, whether we’re talking about politics, the history of ancient China, the protagonist’s confused relationship with his/her childhood sweetheart, or the slowly growing friendship between the sidekick and the alien from Rigel VII. And rather than dumping it all in Ch. 1, you put the information in when the reader needs to know it – some in the first chapter, some in the third, some in the tenth…wherever it makes sense.
Note that “the amount of backstory that needs to be there” a) is nearly always less than the writer and faithful readers think; b) is not going to be the same for every novel in the series; c) is not related to where in the series a novel falls (Book 19, in which the heroine has been kidnapped by pirates and spends the entire novel dealing with them, may need very little of the background that’s been established in the 18 prior books, while Book 7, in which she’s dealing with a complicated plot to assassinate her best friend’s father-in-law [who’s also Chief Justice of the Interstellar Tribunal] may need to refer to nearly everything in the previous six books, one way or another); d) can vary if there’s a two- or three-book story arc mid-series, and e) often varies depending on stylistic and thematic considerations. In other words, like “it works,” how much backstory one needs is a judgment call.
Most writers have a fairly good handle on this when it comes to their characters’ history. You don’t see detective novels that start with a run-down of every murder the detective has solved in the past six books. What seems to trip people up most frequently are the character relationships. I’ve seen more than one great stand-alone series bog down around book six with what I call “check-in syndrome” – the writer spends more and more time at the front end of the book “checking in” on all the recurring characters the readers love, even if those characters have no particular part in the current story. Then the book either bloats up to twice the length it needs to be, or else the actual plot is crammed into the remaining few chapters, greatly to the detriment of the story.
What all this boils down to is that in a collection-type series, I’d recommend erring on the side of too little backstory rather than too much, unless you already know that you under-explain or unless you have solid stylistic or thematic reasons for running on and on about what’s already happened (for example, a garrulous first-person narrator…)