Thursday, October 17, 2019

Sequels, Prequels, and Reading Order

Should the audience for a sequel be able to understand it completely without having read the previous book(s)? The EPIC e-book contest allowed judges to subtract points if a novel required familiarity with a prior book to be fully understood. I thought that criterion was unfair; in many fiction series, a story arc continues from one volume to the next, so that each installment legitimately depends on the previous ones. The Harry Potter series and Stephen King's Dark Tower saga are obvious examples. And some trilogies or series are actually single stories divided into multiple volumes, such as the Lord of the Rings. I recently read the final volume in Theodora Goss's delightful "Athena Club" trilogy, starring the daughters (born or created) of the classic 19th-century mad scientists. A reader might be able to understand and enjoy the second novel, EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTROUS GENTLEWOMAN, without having read the first, although a lot of nuance would be lost. The third, THE SINISTER MYSTERY OF THE MESMERIZING GIRL, however, depends too heavily on the others to stand alone.

On the other hand, with most mystery series the reading order doesn't matter so much. Although the detective's character may develop from book to book, so that taking the volumes in order enriches appreciation of them, it's not necessary. Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey stories fall into this category, mostly, except for the ones involving Harriet Vane. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels, on the other hand, can be read in any order with no loss of appreciation.

C. S. Lewis fans disagree on the proper order in which to read the Narnia books. Lewis didn't commit himself on that point. He agreed with a child reader who preferred the internal chronological order, but the context suggest he was just being polite. At first sight, chronological order within the universe looks logical. Most fans, however, seem to support publication order. They reasonably point out that many details in THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW don't have their full impact if one hasn't read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE first. Although LION... takes place later in the timeline, it was published first, when Lewis had no idea of writing further books in that setting. Marion Zimmer Bradley encouraged new readers to approach Darkover in publication order rather than internal chronological order, because doing it the second way meant they would encounter the earlier-published novels (which she considered inferior to the later-published ones) before books written when her craft had matured.

When my husband (Les Carter) and I started plotting LEGACY OF MAGIC, the previous-generation prequel to our Wild Sorceress trilogy, I planned it so that it could be read either before or after the trilogy. Someone who picks it up first will find that it works as a stand-alone fantasy romance. For someone already familiar with the trilogy, LEGACY OF MAGIC answers some questions about the background of the characters in the other three novels and contains "Easter eggs" that will be meaningful to those readers. For people new to that world, I painstakingly tried to avoid including spoilers in LEGACY OF MAGIC that would reveal secrets meant to come as a surprise in WILD SORCERESS and its two sequels.

I'm currently working on a sequel to my recent light paranormal romance novella, YOKAI MAGIC. It might more accurately be called a spin-off, though, because the hero and heroine of YOKAI MAGIC appear only as minor characters in the new story. Prior acquaintance with them isn't necessary for understanding or enjoyment of the sequel/spin-off. Most of Mary Jo Putney's Regency-era romances work this way. Recurring characters (protagonists from previous novels) pop up from book to book, but nobody needs to read the earlier novels to enjoy the newer ones. Recognizing the established characters, however, enhances the pleasure. That's how I've structured my Vanishing Breed vampire universe. Aside from CHILD OF TWILIGHT, the immediate sequel to DARK CHANGELING (the first one published), the novels, novellas, and short stories can stand alone, with almost any one of them serving as a viable entry to the series. Similarly, readers can enter Bradley's Darkover or Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar at almost any point, as long as they read the individual books in the various sub-series in the proper order. For marketing purposes, that would be the ideal way to arrange a series. But most series with long-term story arcs building steadily from one book to the next just don't work like that.

And then there's the question of how much background information to include in a sequel. How much effort do you make to accommodate a new reader who might pick up a book in a series out of order? Or do you assume (as is more often than not the case) that a person reading a sequel is familiar with the earlier book(s)?

How do you handle sequels, prequels, the risk of spoilers, and the chance that readers might feel lost if they start in the middle?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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