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March 12, 2024

How Can We Avoid Readers’ Deja Vu in a Series?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring how we can avoid giving our readers a sense of déjà vu when we need to repeat information throughout a book series. Let’s look at the various writing techniques we can use in different types of series for preventing repetitive or redundant information…

Recap: Determine the Type of Series

As I’ve discussed before, there are different types of series. In general, books are designated and/or branded as a series because they share at least one element:

  • Shared Setting: These series take place in the same “world” but each feature different point-of-view (POV) characters. The characters of book two may or may not have been introduced in book one. The events of book two may or may not be dependent on the events of book one.
    Many romance series fall into this category, each book featuring a different couple that receives their “happily ever after” by the end of their story.
  • Shared Character(s): These series feature the same POV character(s). The events of book two may or may not be dependent on the events of book one.
    Many adventure, mystery, suspense, and thriller series fall into this category, each book featuring a different bad guy or obstacle for the protagonist to defeat.
  • Shared Story Arc: These series follow a story arc over several book installments. Each book usually features at least some of the same characters. Sometimes a story will end with a cliffhanger to be resolved in the next book. These books need to be read in order to make sense.
    Many young adult series fall into this category, as each book tackles the next obstacle in the series-level story arc.

However, series can share more than one element. Those with a Shared Character usually also share a Setting, and those with a Shared Story Arc usually share Characters and Settings as well. So the dividing lines between types may be trickier than we assume.

Why Does the Category Matter? And Which One Applies to Our Story?

Depending on the type of series we’re writing, we’ll likely find different writing techniques more effective at sharing necessary information without making readers feel they’ve heard it all before.

  • Does our series need to be read in order? Refer to the Shared Story Arc techniques (in my Writers Helping Writers guest post).
  • Does our series feature the same POV character(s)? Refer to the Shared Character techniques section below.
  • Neither? Refer to the Shared Settings techniques section below.

What If Our Series Can Be Read in Any Order Up Until the End?

In some series, the earlier books may be read in any order—so we can use the Shared Setting or Character techniques—but the last book(s) will make sense only if readers are familiar with the rest of the series, as that book’s individual story arc encompasses the series’ story arc. In that case, we can change to the Shared Story Arc techniques for the last book(s).

If our series experiences that Shared Story Arc growing in importance, we should also tweak our marketing. For example, we should make it clear in our book description/back-cover blurb that while the remainder of the series is standalone and can be read in any order, for the last book(s), readers should first read the rest of the series to get the most out of the story.

It’s much more common—and more likely to be successful—for a series to go from standalone to Shared Story Arc than the reverse. If a series attempts to change from a defined-end, Shared Story Arc series to an open-ended series, readers may feel that the author is just trying to string out the series to milk its success.

What If Our Series Can Be Read in Any Order But Events in One Book Affect the Next?

If events from previous books affect later books, we’d treat the earlier events as backstory. However, just like any backstory, we’d want to touch only on information that’s needed to understand the current book.

What writing techniques can we use to avoid repeating too much information in our series? Click To Tweet

More importantly, because these series can be read in any order, we’d want to avoid “spoiling” earlier books too much. Instead of explaining the play-by-play of events from earlier books—especially giving away the whodunnit or how events happened—we’d want to limit the information to just hints (and hopefully pique readers’ interest to want to go back and read that story, rather than decide that they no longer need to read it).

In other words, we’d bring up previous events only when relevant to the current story, such as when our POV character would naturally think about them. Then we’d limit our POV character’s thoughts to avoid too many details.

For example, in a romance series, the couple of book one may make an appearance in book two, as friends or family of the new couple. Obviously, readers will know those characters ended up together at the end of the previous book, but any references to events of that earlier book could focus on all the obstacles the couple ran into along the way, which would be more likely to intrigue readers with a desire to learn how they managed to work things out. (See Tip #3 in this post for more advice and examples on this balancing act.)

Techniques for Series Based on Shared Settings

In a series based on only a shared setting or story world, our job is usually easier because the POV character changes for each book…

Emphasize Different POV Character(s) Perspectives:

As the protagonist(s) is different from book to book, it’s a simpler task to vary the repeated information about the setting, worldbuilding, and/or minor recurring characters. With each book’s different POV character, the voice and description style used to share any common information should be different, and more importantly, we can focus on the unique aspects of their feelings or reactions to the information.

For example, in a series set in a small town, the first book may focus on the charming aspects of the town because the protagonist loves the place, but the second book may focus on the town’s limited employment opportunities because that book’s protagonist has a different point of view and priorities and struggles. Those differences—rather than boring returning readers when encountering repeated information—can make the world and the setting more fleshed out or grounded.

Don’t Shortchange Descriptions in Standalone Stories

While we may be tempted to condense descriptions in later books, this type of series is usually considered standalones, where readers may experience the books in any order. That means we do not want to “cheat” readers out of the reactions of our characters to various aspects of the setting or worldbuilding simply to avoid repeating information. Instead, we should rely on the technique above to make our descriptions unique.

However, we can condense explanations or descriptions for common elements if the element is less important in this book than it was previously in the series. In that case, we should describe or explain the setting or story world only to the point necessary for understanding this story.

For example, in a paranormal romance series, we wouldn’t want to condense any new human characters’ shocked reactions to learning that the world isn’t what they thought, even though returning readers already know how the story world works. But if this book doesn’t use magic the way previous books in the series did, we may decide to skip explaining the “rules” for how magic works in this book.

This type of repetition usually isn’t an issue for our series. Not only are new readers more likely to be reading this standalone story, but this book’s characters are going to have different questions, concerns, and reactions to the information anyway, so the descriptions will feel less redundant even to returning readers.

Techniques for Series Based on Shared Characters

In a series based on shared characters, our job gets a bit harder because the POV character remains the same, yet we still need to accommodate new readers…

Avoid Repeating Prior Information the Same Way

In contrast to series with different POV characters, a continuing POV character(s) is more likely to have a similar attitude, personality, and point of view from one book to the next. However, even though the way our POV characters think of, react to, or internally describe elements isn’t likely to change much, potential new readers might still need all the information, limiting our ability to condense it too much.

Three writing techniques can help us minimize the sense of redundancy for returning readers:

  • Focus on having our POV character use different words, phrases, or descriptions for repeated information. For example, if the previous book(s) changed the character’s perspective, they may view the same information through different filters now.
  • Allow other (non-POV) characters to define, react, or create impressions of repeated information (making it more unique). For example, rather than having our POV character establish a reader’s impression, the information could be shared by a side character, automatically creating a different perspective.
  • Question whether the information is necessary for this story. For example, a setting or character detail that was important in a previous story may be less important in the current story, so we can either eliminate or condense the information.

In other words, we should at least find different words/phrases to share repeated information. In addition, we can try to use other characters or simple condensing to vary how we present the information.

Treat Events of Prior Books Like Backstory

Even though this type of series is considered standalone, these books can either be connected or episodic. If episodic (like the Nancy Drew series), events of one book don’t affect the character or storytelling moving forward, so all information would require the technique above.

When can we condense information from prior books in a series? When can't we? Click To Tweet

However, if the characters and their story world change from book to book—but can still be read in any order—an additional technique can be applied to repeated information about prior events (such as references to a side character’s death, the POV character learning something about their family history, etc.). In connected stories, we treat the repeated information like any type of backstory, going into detail only as far as how it affects the current story.

Check out these earlier posts for more tips on crafting backstory that matters:

Techniques for Series Based on Shared Story Arc

Keep reading and hop over to my Writers Helping Writers guest post to discover the techniques we can use for Shared Story Arc series…

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Techniques for Series Based on Shared Story Arc: Continuing a Series: Is This Info Too Repetitive?

Come visit my guest post at WHW, linked above, where I’m sharing more about how to avoid repeating information in a book series, especially those in the Shared Story Arc category, including:

  • learning more about when our series may change categories (and how to handle the switch)
  • how our writing approach may change if we know readers will start at the beginning of our series
  • why Shared Story Arc series can’t avoid every bit of repeating information
  • how to decide what information to re-share
  • 2 additional ways to make repeated information unique from book to book

When writing series, we don’t want readers to get bored by too much repeated information, but with the right techniques, we can avoid major issues. If we craft our stories correctly, the sense of the story world and character development will grow throughout a series, not despite our necessary use of repeated information, but because of information that we’ve tweaked just enough to add layers from book to book. In other words, done well, revisited information can strengthen our stories and their connection to readers. *smile*

Does seeing repeated information bother you when reading a series? If you’ve written series, have you struggled to avoid repeating information? Or if you haven’t struggled, what techniques have you used? Can you think of any series that shares information that doesn’t feel repetitive? Or any series that felt like one rehashed paragraph after another? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Angela Ackerman

More great info, Jami! It occurs to me that someone good at seeding information to build connections between books while still making each an independent story is Stephen King. Whether it’s books within a series or set in the same or ‘joined universes’ he manages to supply what is needed in a way that doesn’t make readers feel like they really missed out by not reading an earlier book, but also delights readers of other earlier books, because they recognize the significance of certain things that may seem like an ordinary detail in the current book, but they are actually tying to something in another book of his (and potentially a totally different series and world).

He lays these Easter eggs in most (if not all) of these books and it is so satisfying to find them, like being in on a secret. The more of his work you’ve read, the more you see how they are all connected and contain these ‘crossover’ references or characters. A stranger passing the main character on the sidewalk in one book may be a villain in an entirely different series, and by a brief, specific description of them, the reader knows having read that other book, but the character in the current story just sees a guy passing him. It’s a brilliant way to involve loyal readers.

Clare O'Beara

Thanks, Jami! You could mention again here why a series link is good – readers find a series easy to follow, and a correctly linked series means you can collect them as a series on Goodreads and Amazon.

Sieran

Hey Jami,

Oh gosh, I was thinking about when I should end my story, LOL. Well, where I should end my book. That would get into what type of series it is, and how I could carry information forward.

It would be shared setting, characters, and probably POV as well. Likely a shared story arc, though I MIGHT do a story where the protagonist is older. (They’re 15 right now. So maybe a story when they’re in their 30s, for instance.)

It’s like Tales from Watership Down is a sequel to Watership Down, sort of. But it talks about life much later at Watership Down, though before Hazel’s death ( :'( ) Sooo there’s some backstory they had to hint at, but the actual story arc is separate from the original Watership Down.

Ha! I’m nowhere near done this book, unfortunately. But it’s still fun to think ahead for how I could convey info without sounding tedious!

Norma
Norma

Anytime I think of this subject, I remember that danged old otter bag from Clan of the Cave Bear, et al. We followed that bag through a lot of harrowing stuff, but it always reappeared the worse for wear in the next book. I think she even made a new one in a later book. I bet it looked just like the first one, lol!

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