Anatomy of a recap

One of the horrors I had to face when starting out on Strange People (the sequel to Strange Places) is this age-old question: How do you recap the story for the benefit of those who might not have read Book 1, without boring the skin off of those who actually have read it?

The rather blunt way to do it, of course, is to write a prologue entitled something like, “What Has Gone Before,” or even “Things You May Have Missed in Book One.” This gets the job done, but it is, how you say… inelegant. Isn’t there a better way?

Sure there is. All you have to do is find a way to motivate retelling the previous events as part of the continuing story. Let’s take a look at how that works.

Often, when we writers wish to explore an unusual or unfamiliar situation,  we’ll introduce a “stranger in a strange land” character. Somebody who has just been transferred into the situation of your story (think “Agent Myers” from the first Hellboy movie, for example) provides the storyteller with an excuse to have characters explaining things that should be commonplace to them and require no explanation at all. When was the last time you explained how an electric light switch works as you turned on the lights? But introduce a frightened native girl from Peru who had never seen indoor lighting, and you might actually find yourself explaining such things.

That is the value of the stranger in a strange land character. Without the explanations, the reader/viewer is lost, but without the stranger character, the explanations seem artificial and contrived.

Like many, I recently read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series and one thing that struck me was how well integrated the recaps were – particularly Book III, The Mocking Jay. In the very first chapter, our heroine is suffering from the stress of Book II, Catching Fire, and is in a shaky mental state. To help her sort out her fantasies from reality, she uses a technique suggested to her by one of her doctors: make a mental list of all the things you know to be true, starting with the simplest. And what things do you suppose she lists? Right. The important facts and events from the previous books.

I for one found this to be a fresh and enjoyable solution to the recapping problem. But for the Finding Tayna series, I can’t do that. First, I can’t use that specific device because that would be blatant thievery. Furthermore, I don’t have any one character who has a grasp of the entire story. So I think I’m going to have to handle my recap in multiple scenes, and that means I’m going to have to come up with multiple techniques – otherwise the whole exercise will feel repetitive.

At this point, I think I need four such scenes – one in the real world, and one in each of the capital cities of the Methilien races. I’ve just finished writing a strange-land scene for Grimorl, so that just leaves three more scenes to come up with. And three more techniques.

Stay tuned.



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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.