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Recaps. We've all seen them. This question deals with whether or not they should be included in a series of novels, and if they should, how.

Many series use recaps to 'catch up' the reader to what has been going on. They are also a good refresher if there are long pauses between novels. J. K. Rowling reintroduces Harry every novel, as well as the events of the previous novels. Mary Pope Osborne, author of the popular children's series The Magic Treehouse, does the same thing, but in a prologue. Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series, has no recap at all (that I am aware of), and simply lets the reader discover the main character as the story progresses.

This question has two parts. The first is, if you are writing a series, should you include a recap with every novel after the first? Assuming you can write your novels in a realistic time frame, do you really need to summarize everything that has happened? Can't you outline a few of the major points and trust that the reader remembers the rest? Or is it best to err on the side of caution and assume the reader remembers nothing?

Also, is it really that likely that someone is going to pick up in what is obviously the middle of a series? If I find a series that sounds interesting, the first thing I do is look for book one. Is anyone really going to start in the middle? Am I the odd one out in starting at the beginning?

The second part of this question is, if you do include a recap, how should you do it? In what way should you include a recap? Should you integrate it into the story, as Rowling does? Or should you put it in a prologue which can be easily skipped if the reader is familiar with what has been happening?

I personally always find the recaps in Harry Potter boring, because I already know them. No matter how eloquently they are written, I almost always end up skipping over them to get back to the story. With a prologue, I can jump right into the action.

Should I include recaps with my series? If so, in what form?

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I can only speak to personal taste, but in the interest of generalization, I will try to justify my personal taste in this. I think serials should consist of stand alone novels that can be read independently. This is for four reasons.

  1. Many of the serials I have read -- Sharpe, Aubrey/Maturin, Hornblower, Longmire, Leaphorn/Chee -- I first encountered at some middle book in the series, whatever the library or the airport bookstore happened to have on the shelf. If I had opened these to a recap, it would at once have suggested that there was no point in reading this if I could not start at the beginning, and that I was unlikely to enjoy this unless I bought the whole series, which is more of a commitment that I am willing to make. In other words, if you want me to start, you better promise me a payoff in this novel, even if I decide not to pursue the entire series.

  2. I am not going to read an entire series in order from beginning to end without a break. I read the first six Aubrey/Maturin novels and then took a three year break before I picked up the seventh as a vacation read, which lead me to buy 7-11, after which I will almost certainly take another several year break before I pick up 12-21. Each novel needs to work as a novel. There are lots of ways to make the in in-situ recap interesting. O'Brien is a master of it, usually using it to introduce characters who will be important in the next novel.

  3. A series of novels should be a series of novels -- independent works connected by a slender thread such as recurring characters. It is not the same thing as a saga -- a work too long to bind into a manageable book. LOTR is a saga, not a series. If you need an explicit recap to make sense of the book I am holding, that suggests that I am in the middle of a saga rather than a series. A saga cannot be read out of order or with large gaps of time. A series can. Each book in a series should work as the first book the reader reads.

  4. Many stories have backstories that have to be told as some point. Just because the backstory of novel B happens to have been related in novel A does not make an initial infodump the right way to supply the backstory to the reader of novel B.

  • Surely a recap HELPS every novel stand on its own, rather than detract from it? It actually seems to remove the need to pick up earlier books to get the full experience, as the author can give you exactly what you need rather than you needing to guess at it. – Weckar E. Jul 17 '17 at 12:08
  • @WeckarE.Every novel stands within the stream of an imaginary history. For a standalone novel it is universally acknowledged that starting out by info dumping the bits of that history you need to understand this novel is a terrible idea. But all a series is (as opposed to a saga) is a set of novels set in the same imaginary history. Why should the rules be different for treating the imaginary history in those novels than they would be for a standalone history in an individual novel? – Mark Baker Jul 17 '17 at 12:13
  • I agree that we're well beyond the era where opening with a history is acceptable, but especially if further books in a series follow the same characters a recap is a quick method to grow some familiarity and 'catch up' the reader, so to speak. It certainly makes a difference whether it is a wheel of time or a discworld, certainly. A shared world vs a continuous cast are very different ways to use the series concept. – Weckar E. Jul 17 '17 at 12:17
  • Mark, I like what you said here about series and can definitely understand. There were a few books I didn't pick up again until years later and ended up not wanting to continue reading as it has been far too long and couldn't remember the previous books. I can also see Weckar's point though that a recap may end up causing someone not to read the first 4 books in a series if all they need to do is read a recap. The best way for a recap would probably to bring up the peak of the story as a reminder of where the action left off before continuing. – ggiaquin16 Jul 17 '17 at 22:37
  • Like the Movie of LOTR did with 2T opening the 2nd movie with a recap of Gandalf fighting the Balrog and having Frodo wake up in the current story having that fight being a nightmare to then lead into the next part. – ggiaquin16 Jul 17 '17 at 22:38

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