An open letter to authors, editors, and publishers of fantasy and science fiction epics.
There is a quality problem that has been plaguing our industry for a long time, and I think the time has come to address this issue.
The issue to which I’m referring is the “subtle” insertion of catch-up exposition added to sequels. Recaps are always annoying for hardcore fans of the series, though it gets worse as series get longer. When a quick recap of the events of book one pop up in say, book three of Gentlemen Bastards or book two of Mistborn, it is extremely annoying. It pierces the cloud of suspended disbelief and reminds you that you are reading a fictional story. It grinds the narrative to a halt and flashes there like a giant beacon of mediocrity, but, in most cases, one is able to simply sigh, grit one’s teeth, and power through until the book becomes its own story again a paragraph or two later – a whole chapter, if you’re unlucky. But these irritating recaps get exponentially more disruptive, the longer a series continues. When you’re in book six of Harry Potter and having to read about how Slytherins crave power and Ron comes from a big family, when you are in book eleven of Wheel of Time and are being told that the Aes Sedai are a powerful organization of women who can use magic – well, it sucks. It ruins your reading experience. And the more catch-up authors, editors, and publishers feel the book needs to engage new readers, the more profoundly the narrative suffers. When book two comes out it's three paragraphs of exposition spread out over the first five chapters, but by book ten it has become a solid 10% of the book. A tenth of your book is now annoying and repetitive and slows down the narrative even as it bores and irritates your biggest fans and dedicated readers.
I recognize that these things are not done for no reason. An author’s hardcore, dedicated fans make up only a tiny portion of their readership. If you are writing books just for that specific audience, you will not sell enough books to be able to keep writing for a living. I know a person who picked up book three of “A Song of Ice and Fire” and started the series there. I know someone who was going on vacation and grabbed book seven of “The Wheel of Time” at the airport bookstore so they’d have something to read on the beach, and they read it and enjoyed it “well enough” and that was all the Jordan they ever read. I know that these people exist, and if the recaps aren’t in the book, they will be completely lost and unable to enjoy the book that they randomly picked up halfway through a series. And I recognize that there is also a huge population that reads these books without obsessing over them. As each new book in the series comes out, they will read it once, then put it down and wait until the next book comes out, without ever re-reading the last volume. A few years (sometimes longer) might pass between each book in the series, and they simply don’t remember the details. The recaps mean that they can happily read the new book without getting confused or having to go back and re-read the whole series in preparation of the new addition to the series.
Now, we know that dedicated fans of the series are likely to be annoyed by recaps, but there is one other big victim of the practice – your own legacy. See, in a hundred years, no one is going to be waiting for your next big release. Your legacy, for good or ill, will be set and established. When someone sits down to read A Song of Ice and Fire, they will have a complete seven-book series in front of them (I dearly hope, please, please GRRM). They aren’t going to be waiting a year or more between each volume, they are going to binge the whole thing, and the recaps are going to be so annoying. It will be like when DVD seasons of shows from the 80s and 90s came out, and people starting binge-watching series that had never been consumed in that way before, and getting really annoyed when Friends had to keep reminding people that Monica’s boyfriend was super old so that the jokes made sense to the people who hadn’t bothered to tune in the last five episodes. Eventually, people realized that [good] shows were going to mostly be binge-watched by posterity, so they started formatting them different. You got “previously on LOST/Battlestar Galactica/Spartacus” recaps right at the beginning, and then you no longer had characters awkwardly recapping things just so that the audience didn’t get completely confused. When you are binge-watching the DVD set the “previously on” can be easily skipped; some DVD sets don’t even include them as part of the autoplay, you have to specifically click on them if you want the recap.
So, what to do when it comes to books? “Previously on” doesn’t work nearly as well in written word – you can recap massive happenings with a single cool-looking shot in visual media, but a terse sentence describing events with little detail is just going to be boring, and a massive infodump right at the beginning of a book is just about the fastest way to kill the excitement of a reader before they can even begin to enjoy a novel.
Well, here is my suggestion: You publish your standard version of the novel that has all of the recaps intact for new readers or casual readers who might not remember the details of previous books. BUT THEN, a little later down the road, you publish a special “I’m-reading-the-whole-series-and-I-don’t-need-pointless-recaps” version of the book, and these editions become the official, canon version of the series.
Personally, I suggest that we take a similar approach to Brandon Sanderson. For those of you who are unfamiliar, many of Sanderson’s works (Elantris, Warbreaker, Mistborn, The Stormlight Archive) are set in a shared universe called the Cosmere, and the books have some (so far mostly very minor) characters and events that very loosely tie the different worlds and series together, presumably building to a massive, epic, universe-spanning conclusion a few decades down the road. When working on such an ambitious project (most people expect the Cosmere novels to number somewhere in the forties by the time the series is concluded), some world-building inevitably falls between the cracks no matter how meticulously you plan. Sanderson’s elegant solution to this problem came out last year in the form of a gorgeous “Tenth Anniversary Author’s Definitive Edition” of his first published novel, Elantris. Sanderson and his team went through the entire novel with a fine-tooth comb, correcting minor spelling and syntax errors that had fallen through the cracks of the first edition, and, more importantly, altering some of the events of the book that did not make technical sense within the context of the book itself, like the direction a character ran during a key scene. In addition, he also published a limited-edition run ofleather-bound copies of this new edition, full of international covers and other artwork. Sanderson has stated that he’d like to continue to publish these “Author’s Definitive Editions” as each of his novels hits its tenth anniversary, and I hope that he does continue. I think it is a really wise idea. It pays service to his biggest fans right now, in the moment, and helps to secure his legacy as an author in the long term by showing how committed he is to making sure that his worldbuilding is consistent.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if “definitive” editions like this of our beloved fantasy novels included a recap clean-up as part of the editing process?
I truly believe that doing this will benefit the long-term interests of the author, the publisher, and the public, and that it will improve the very existential nature of epic fantasy/science fiction series for the generations to come.