I love series books. I’ve been known to discover Book One in a series and go to the bookstore and buy the next 14 books all at once. If I start a book and realize there were precursors, I’ll put it aside and read the earlier ones until I catch up. I want to meet the characters head-on in their first appearances.
In the mystery genre, series books feature a protagonist and a group of secondary characters that grow throughout the series. People may come and go, relationships may change, but the books build on each other. By my definition, the books in these series are sequels. The same protagonists come back as the stars, moving forward with their lives.
In romance, though, ‘series’ tend to be spin-offs, rather than sequels. There might be hints and references to what happened before, but the major players in Book Two were probably secondary characters in Book One.
(I did write a true sequel to a romance, primarily because I wasn't "done" with the characters, and also because nobody told me it was against the "rules"—but that's another story.)
The trick to series, sequels and spin-offs is a careful balance of back story. I read a sequel by a well-known, big-name author that revealed so much I never bothered to read book one. When I picked it up, I was unaware it was book two, or I probably wouldn't have read it first.
Now, readers aren't all as anal as I am. Some even (gasp) will read the end of a book first. But it's important to trickle in back story so that you have moments where a reader who's read the earlier books can feel "in the know" without making those who haven't read it feel left out.
How much to reveal in the second book? For example, at the end of When Danger Calls, Dalton, who's going to be the hero of Where Danger Hides is injured. Nothing serious, but should I mention it? Is it possible to use it as a 'connecting point' so readers will remember the scene from the first book. Will it waste valuable page time to go back and explain the whole thing? Or does it matter at all?
You certainly don't want to stop for info dumps in the early chapters. (Ever, really, but especially not in the beginning.) So, this is the way I referenced Dalton's injury – it should let readers who know what happened feel like insiders, but those who haven't read the first book shouldn't have to stop and wonder about all the back story details, or feel like they're being left out of a private moment.
Dalton scanned the crowd for Fozzie's likely target. Red fingernails and lipstick on the women, red jackets on the wait staff spattered the room with relief from an endless sea of black and white. "The redhead, right?" Dalton motioned with his chin.
"You know my weakness."
"Yeah, well once in a while you might try to find one with an IQ bigger than her bra size."
Fozzie punched his arm. Dalton grimaced and sidestepped.
"Sorry, mate. Arm still sore?"
"Only when some idiot punches it." He dodged another hit. "I'll meet you on the west balcony in fifteen minutes."
Fozzie wrinkled his nose. "With the smokers? Don't you know secondhand smoke can kill you?" The twinkle in his eyes belied his dead serious expression.
Dalton rubbed his arm. "As opposed to bullets, right?"
This should let the reader presume that Dalton was shot in the arm, that it happened recently enough so that he's still sore, but it's not really important to mention that it happened in a shoot-out in Montana with Ryan, and heaven forbid, go into the who was shooting at whom and why, none of which is important to this book. As with any back story, it's important to know 1) Does the reader need to know this? And 2) Does the reader need to know this now? But with series and spin-offs, there are additional considerations: 3) Does this spoil the read for earlier books? And 4) Will this confuse the reader instead of moving the story forward?
What about you? Do you read books in order? Do you like sequels? Spin-offs? And what's your take on spoilers?
For more information about these and other of Terry's books, visit her website. She can also be found at Terry's Place blogging about writing and life in general.