Here are a few more notes on prologues. In some cases, even if it involves your main character, but it occurred a long time ago, then you might want to use a prologue. Another way to handle past events is through flashbacks. A flashback can vary in length, but if it’s too long, the reader may get lost in space and time. Then again, some background information may be too comprehensive to cover in snippets.
If you’re unclear on such a situation, this is where your beta readers and author friends with whom you share your work can be of tremendous help. It may even send you back to the drawing board as far as your story is concerned. Are you starting it too late? Or is it something that could be covered later as a prequel?
The good news is that any plot with that much context or character with that much history is probably a great one. It may even become a series instead of a single book. I know first hand how that goes. My Star Trails Tetralogy didn’t start out as a four book series with a prequel and full-length side story, but that’s how it wound up. My current WIP was supposed to be a cozy mystery, but it quickly evolved into a not-so-cozy conspiracy thriller that will be long enough upon completion to split into a trilogy.
Once your characters come to life and start writing the story for you, there’s no telling where you might wind up.
If you’re writing a series, refresh your memory of previous events by rereading the book’s predecessors. You’ll be surprised at the new ideas that come your way! I did this when I was writing the final volume to my Star Trails Tetralogy. It had been a while since I’d written the others, so I decided to read them to get myself into the flow to assure continuity, consistency in details, and so forth.
It was so worth it! I found an amazing number of little details to tie into the conclusion. At the time, they were just part of that particular episode, but when they fit future events, it was tremendous fun to find them.
Tying story arcs together in small ways feels good as an author and pleases your loyal readers as well. They’ll appreciate the reminders and when you tie everything together it leaves them more satisfied. It also brands you as a skilled, meticulous, and clever author. Life is full of interesting details, coincidences, and serendipity. Your stories should be as well.
If your novel becomes a series, bear in mind that not all readers will start with book one. Describe your characters again and recap key plot elements. Loyal readers will appreciate the refresher.
Probably the biggest author faux pas is leaving a reader feeling lost, which also tends to throw them out of the story. If they have to stop and backtrack (which is especially difficult and annoying when you’re reading an ebook), it may be because they forgot or it could be you didn’t state it clearly enough. If a reader starts with book two or three of a series, this is especially likely to happen if you don’t do an instant replay of key events in a previous book.
Even those who have read the stories in sequence can use a refresher. It’s highly unlikely that you are the only author they read. Thus, they have probably read other stories between them, especially if a span of time elapsed before the next book was released. They will likewise be more comfortable with the story with a few reminders.
Cliffhangers are one of those reader lures that can backfire if they’re so abrupt they annoy the reader and the sequel is not yet released. One way to mitigate this frustration is to include the first chapter or so of the sequel at the end. This is particularly easy to accomplish in an ebook. That way your reader might feel less abandoned, used, or manipulated and hopefully make it more likely they’ll buy the next one in the series.
If you’re writing a series, have you ended each volume with a cliffhanger? Most series constitute an ongoing story, but if you end each one in the middle of a nail-biting scene, bear in mind that there are pros and cons.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered such endings before and actually said something out loud that wasn’t very nice. In other words, sometimes they irritate your readers. If the sequel has not yet been released, it’s even worse. In that case, if a reader has to wait, they may forget all about your story in the meantime or remember how frustrated they were at how the book ended. Granted, if your reader really loves your story and characters they’ll deal with it and look forward to the next book, but otherwise it could backfire. Mainly, be aware it doesn’t always work as expected.
Another thing to consider is that not all readers will start with volume 1. Starting a book in the middle of an intense scene carried over from the previous book is likely to be confusing, not something you want to do to a reader.
What do you think of cliffhangers? Feel free to leave your thoughts on them in the comments.
If you’re writing a series, be sure to remind your readers what your characters look like. This also pertains to any key plot elements that happened in the previous episode(s). To you as the author, it’s all one story. To the reader, however, weeks, months, or even years may have passed since they read the first book. Thus, they may have forgotten numerous details, like what the characters look like, or other important details.
Furthermore, it’s also possible that someone will start reading in the middle of your series. These new fans definitely need this information! If they’re lost, then what? Best case, they’ll buy the previous book(s) and read them in order. Worst case, they put it aside and you’ve lost a potential reader.
It’s best if each book in a series has it’s own independent plot, even if it’s part of a larger picture. Flashbacks or character dialog covering previous events are ways to sneak in information they missed. Descriptions of their appearance and perhaps the setting itself should include reminders at least. Your readers will thank you for it.
Know the difference between a serial and a series. If your story line & plot continue book to book and culminate in the last one, it’s a serial. This applies even if the stories can stand alone. A series comprises entirely independent stories but with the same characters. Examples include the Nancy Drew series (which were written by multiple authors under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene); Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, or Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series.
It’s too bad that these two terms are so similar, which makes them easier to confuse. Readers are often less than pleased to find out the book they’re reading doesn’t quite end, but carries on in another one, especially if it ends with a cliffhanger.
When writing a series, be sure to note at the conclusion of each volume (except the final one, of course) that the story will be continued. Include the title and link, if it’s already written, a potential release date otherwise. Without such information, readers may think you just got tired of writing and quit, leaving them frustrated with regard to what happens if you ended with a cliffhanger. If you didn’t, then readers may not realize that the story will be continued. If you know it’s going to be a series when you finish writing the first book, go ahead and put “Volume I” or “Book 1” (or something along those lines) on the cover, another clue for readers that there’s more to come.
When writing a series, it’s helpful to go back and reread the previous stories before starting the next one. You’ll be surprised how many little details you can tie in or use to create new plot twists. Fans love it when they encounter and recognize such connections, which make them feel like an insider.
Rereading also helps you regain momentum established in the previous story, especially if it’s been a while since you wrote it. Being consistent with details is essential, such as character eye color, relationships, location descriptions, and so forth. Don’t ever assume no one will notice because you don’t even remember yourself. If a reader binge-reads the series later or has a steel-trap memory, you’re going to hear about it, probably in a less than friendly manner. Thus, it’s to your advantage to take the time to do it right. Your fans will appreciate it.
If your story becomes a series, remind your readers the fundamentals, such as what the characters look like and any important backstory information. This benefits not only those who read the earlier books sometime in the past, but helps those who start with a later episode.
As an author, your series is one continuous story, but it’s unlikely your readers will read all books in sequence, especially if they’re released at different times. You’ll want to draw them back into the story and plot as quickly as possible so they’re comfortably established. Also consider that your books may not be read in order. Thus, including a plot summary here and there or flashback to a previous story is essential; a prologue is another possibility.
You can find additional tips for writing a series here and here.