Backstory – how much is too much? Confessions of a Dirty Blonde

This week’s question comes from a client. And it’s a damn good one.

Sequels: do you assume the reader has read the first book and launch right in? Or provide extensive recap for those new to the party? Or strike a happy medium?

My main man Mark Twain started what I believe to be the best American novel with, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

We could argue whether Huck Finn is actually a sequel to Tom Sawyer, but let’s acknowledge these central characters only exist in these two novels. Plus, Twain’s the shit.

His point? People were picking up this novel without reading the prequel. Acknowledging this possibility was all the time he spent rehashing Tom Sawyer’s story, yet Tom contributed quite a bit to Huck Finn.

Did it matter Huck was introduced in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Not really. The characters were reintroduced throughout the novel, personality traits and habits written in where necessary. And Twain didn’t rehash the plot because it was insignificant to the movement of the second story. So done and done.

But some stories do need the background. For example, The Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire wouldn’t make sense without the referencing the plot of the first book. Rehashing the previous plot too much will lead to boredom for returning readers. But avoiding an explanation may lead to confusion for new readers. Tough call.

Or is it?

Maybe the difference is in your storyline.

A good question to ask yourself:

Does the sequel build off of the plot of the previous book?

If not, you’re in luck. You can choose to play with redeveloping your characters in the second story, maybe even reinventing them.

In Huck Finn the answer is no, it doesn’t. So Twain didn’t include the recap, except for his tiny shout out.

If your story does build off of the previous plot, you probably need to consider how much retelling needs to happen. Yes, YOU love your characters so much you want to give away all the details. But is it necessary? In most cases, a chapter is enough to bring characters back to life. And, as always, showing is far more important than telling.

In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins spends the first chapter reminding her audience of previous events and her heroine’s feelings without saying, “Katniss remembered the arena and the terrors of winning the Hunger Games.” She puts her instead on the verge of a victory tour, moving forward with the action and reminding us the protagonist is unhappy about something.

I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor. I should get up, move around, and work the stiffness from my limbs. But instead I sit, as motionless as the rock beneath me, while the dawn begins to lighten the woods. I can’t fight the sun. I can only watch helplessly as it drags me into a day that I’ve been dreading for months.

The first paragraph could work for both audiences because she puts you in the middle of the action. Sure, the rest of the chapter describes important characters and events, but only raving fans would say you must read the first book to understand. Regardless, those fans are going to continue reading whether or not they appreciate the homage to the first book.

What’s important to note, however, is the similarity between these books. (Yes, between a classic American author and a contemporary young adult author). The writers chose to forgo a lot of review and simply thrust the reader into the middle of the action. While it’s true some recap is included, it’s thrown in throughout the books.

Harry Potter books are the same (although a chapter recap is usually included). So are memoirs like A Child Called It and its sequel, The Lost Boy.

So if we’re analyzing famous sequels, I think the pattern is for less.

Give me action. Give me the bare bones of what I need to know if I’m picking up your sophomore book as my first. But you don’t need to waste a lot of space on detailed background. It’s unnecessary and it leaves more room for fresh, engaging content.


Got writing questions for Capo? Email Confessions of a Dirty Blonde goes out every Thursday.

Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less

What we have here is a new monthly column brought to you by . . . YOU.

We’re giving up control of what’s said and handing it over to the people who matter most: our clients. Your words in this space, once a month.


Oodles of ah-ha moments.

Some of the writers who will appear here didn’t have a clue where to start and subsequently transformed into writing machines. Some started right where you sit today, confused and needing guidance or maybe a little inspiration. And some were seasoned authors who needed a boost.

ALL of them figured it out and wrote epic shit.

This week, meet Brooke.


I’m laying by the pool, shaded by a Florida palm tree. I have The Bell Jar in one hand and my iPhone in the other (I’m a writer—I can multitask like nobody else), when I’m asked what has my editor, Becky, taught me?

I haven’t written anything for two months. Sure, I’ve written for a banking association and a few small businesses in St. Louis, but I haven’t worked on any of my own projects. Like my memoir.

I say writing gives me nightmares (PTSD is the pits). I say I can’t be too controversial because I’m only 19. (Employers and graduate schools check everything.) I say I’m busy, working 40+ hours to meet my diva-like needs leaves little free time.

The real story? I’m scared.

But Becky has stuck with me through it all — even when I avoid her emails like studying for the LSAT.

I came to Becky when I was 18. I had just finished my first year of college. I was working through a traumatic childhood (like most people) while getting slammed with the trauma that comes with being a young, single girl in a city. For the record, recovering from being roofied is worse than recovering from a narcissistic mother. Weekly therapy sessions helped me, but writing was my savior.

I came to Becky to strengthen my voice and learn to trust my writing. I sent her a few blurbs and she responded: Write a memoir.

But could I really write a memoir?

How could I keep a relationship with my mom if I take the phrase “airing your dirty laundry” to a new level by publishing family secrets? How could I ever get a job if all of my blunders are posted on the internet because writing helps me process my mistakes?

It’s been eleven months since I asked Becky those questions. And guess what? I have half a memoir written. (I could have it finished, but I’ve had to learn how to manage my PTSD while reliving the hard parts of my life in my writing.)

Becky taught me to take breaks when needed and how to say fuck you to the people who want to silence my voice.

I have a story. It deserves to be heard. And so do you.

Ask Becky.


Come back next month for another addition of “Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less.” Brooke is a freelancer and college student who wanted to start a writing career but wasn’t sure how, until her former high school English teacher (our own Confessions columnist, Lindsay Capobianco) told her about Becky’s work. Since she wasn’t born a Kardashian, she figured she would write her way to stardom. She’s still learning the inner-workings of the writing industry while studying social work and English in St. Louis. You can find Brooke on Twitter @angeldbrooke, or you can drop her a line via email at brookedangel(at)gmail(dot)com.

P.S. The awesome cell phone app, Write Raw is out on Google Play for your Droid or the App Store for iPhone. It’s like having power cards delivered to you every day – FREE. And don’t forget to leave an app review.

P.P.S. The entire app image collection also lives on Pinterest. (We add more as they are released.)