Dec 9 2009 5:44pm

What has gone before?

Dear Lords of Publication, Glorious Mountain Press of Adrilankha, (or any appropriate representative on our world),

I am writing to assert my complete and deep agreement with Sir Paarfi of Roundwood on the subject of synopses of previous volumes at the start of subsequent volumes, to whit, they are an abomination, irritating to the writer, unnecessary to the reader, and a complete waste of carbon and trace metals. Paarfi said those who agreed with him should have the honor to address you in these terms, and so I do.

Generally, that’s my position. I appreciate that summaries of the previous book are useful for people who aren’t going to re-read previous volumes before reading the new volume, but I am going to re-read them, so they’re of no use to me. I can also see that they’d be useful for people who randomly pick up sequels without knowing they’re sequels and then read them. I never do that. Well, I never do it knowingly. I sometimes do it by accident, and if I find out before reading it (for instance by seeing a “what has gone before” summary) I save it until I have found the first volume. And similarly if I know I want a book and I find a later volume, I keep it. My inpile has had the second and third Doris Egan Ivory books sitting on it for several years, ever since I found them shortly after enjoying City of Diamond, and being told that Jane Emerson and Doris Egan were the same person. Sooner or later I’ll find the first book, and read them in order. There are plenty of books. There’s no hurry.

Synopses are so annoying nobody could like them could they? Could they?

Well, the rant against the practice that Steven Brust puts into Paarfi’s voice at the start of The Lord of Castle Black, the second volume of The Viscount of Adrilankha, is so spirited and charming, and so well expressed everything I feel on this subject that I nearly change my mind and feel the existence of this one wonderful synopsis justifies the whole procedure. It begins with a rant against the practice as “futile and self-defeating” adds that “were any of the events of the previous volume such that they could have been omitted without severe damage to the narrative, we should have omitted them to begin with” then goes on to give a perfectly serviceable summary of the first volume, enlivened with comments like “several other persons of whom the reader who has failed to read the first volume of our work will bitterly miss the acquaintance” and then goes on to exhort the reader to write to Glorious Mountain Press expressing their agreement.

In fairness to subsequent-volume synopses, I really have never liked them as a reader, but it’s as a writer that I’ve come to loathe them. This is because anything sounds stupid when summarised. I don’t know any writers who like doing them—though I suppose there may be some. But in my experience, being asked to do one leads most writers to mutter: “If I could have written this novel in a thousand words I’d have done that in the first place and saved myself a lot of work.”

And so I most sincerely remain, dearest Lords of Publication of Glorious Mountain Press, your enthusiastic correspondent,

Jo Walton

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer who has been reading too much Paarfi lately and been infected by his style. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, which appears in the Baltimore City Paper list of the top ten books of 2009. She reads a great deal, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where she sits in the window reading and drinking tea and watching the snow fall.

2. Musicalcolin
I know! I can't imagine why someone picking up the second volume of a multi-part epic fantasy series (maybe a few months or a year later either because the sequel hadn't been released or because, you know, life is busy) with each volume hovering around the 800 page mark, tons and tons of characters with complex social and poltitcal relationships, not to mention a complex geography, mythology, and magic system, might want a simple four or so page reminder of what had come before. It's just inconceivable!
David Goldfarb
3. David_Goldfarb
My dear lady, without in any way wishing to disparage or disagree with your excellent remarks, I fear that a commitment to etymology compels me to point out the phrase "to whit" in your first paragraph. This of course should be "to wit", a word deriving from Old English witan (meaning "to know"). Without a doubt you were already aware of this, and the spurious 'h' found there was a mere slip of the finger, but among the masses who hang upon your every word there may be found some who lack this knowledge and might be led astray into incorrect usage, and I speak for their edification.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
David: No, I nearly think I was turning into an owl.
John Patrick Pazdziora
6. mrpond47
A highly entertaining post, bluejo. I'm sure the Lords of Publication (on whom may the gods eternally smile!) will be delighted with your report. I'm just a lowly peon aspiring to be a loremaster, but I was delighted.

I beg to observe, however, that the notion of 'summaries'goes back to the greatest Loremaster of our craft. I hardly need clarify that I refer to Professor Tolkien.

I admit that I read his summaries with delight each time I work through LOTR, simply for pleasure. He could make even summaries poignant and interesting.

But I do think you're right, and not many other people can do that too terribly well.
Elizabeth Coleman
7. elizabethcoleman
This is definitely one of the many reasons I love Brust's work. I am all about a huge world full of books that can stand alone or be linked at will. If you can integrate back story into the first book of a series, why not the rest of them?
Ken Walton
8. carandol
Personally, I'd rather have a "what has gone before" which I can skip, than the awful practice of having characters constantly reminiscing about events in previous volumes and telling each other things which they all know perfectly well, for the benefit of the non-existent listening reader who might not already know these things. I mean, imagine...

The Return of the King
"Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf's cloak. He wondered if he was awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began. He'd dreamt of his old home of Hobbiton, and how he and his party of fellow Hobbits, with their curly hair and hairy feet, had set out on a long journey. "Gandalf," he said, looking up at the old grey-bearded wizard who had accompanied them from the Elven valley of Rivendell, "is Frodo's ring really magic?"...
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
To My Most Dear Lady Walton,

While I most sincerely agree with you on the substance of your correspondence, I would allow that there might be circumstances where a prologue is useful to those of less capable intellectual prowess, who might nearly need a refresher on the subject at hand.

Unlike yourself, I seldom bother with obtaining the second volume of a series until I have completed the first due to economic circumstances beyond even this poor reader's control.

I remain,
Your Most Obedient Reader

John the Irish Mongol
Jonah Feldman
11. relogical
I think Douglas Adams found the best solution:

"The story so far:

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move."
Pellegrina Stoat
14. Pellegrina
But in my experience, being asked to do one leads most writers to mutter: “If I could have written this novel in a thousand words I’d have done that in the first place and saved myself a lot of work.”

At my doctoral viva the very first question the examiners asked was "How would you summarise your thesis in a few sentences?" or something like that (I've blotted out the horror), and the only words that presented themselves to my boggling brain were "Haven't you just read it?? If I could have said it in a few sentences I wouldn't have written 98,500 words!". Since I felt that being sarcastic to the examiners would be unhelpful, I bit my tongue, and consequently could think of nothing else to say either, and floundered inelegantly until they asked several leading questions to put me out of my misery.

(Miraculously I passed with very minor corrections, but as an attempt to break the ice by giving the candidate an easy opening question, that one failed.)
Michal Jakuszewski
15. Lfex
Well, I not only like summaries, but I freely admit I sometimes write my own when I know the next volume in a series will be out several years from now. I do it because I really don't feel like rereading all volumes of something like Wheel of Time or Malazan Book of the Fallen - to use extreme examples - every time a new book is out.

I understand some writers may find writing summaries annoying, but they are useful, IMHO, especially in a long ongoing series.
16. peachy
8 - Agreed, absolutely. Nothing bogs a story down worse for me than that kind of artlessly inserted recapping. (Massive infodumps are a close second.) It's obviously nice if the author can bring you up to speed artfully, but that's gotta be pretty tough. So I'm fine with a separate brisk summary - no detailed character descriptions or explorations of motivation or whatnot, just a greatest hits tour of the plot - that the reader can easily skip past if they choose, with no interjections later on that are unnecessary for the action at hand.

I wonder if it might be easier for some authors to have another writer bang out the summary. I suppose it depends on the writing style - someone who starts with a skeletal outline and then gradually adds layers of detail (especially if the skeleton is derived from historical incidents) would probably have a fairly easy time boiling the action down again; whereas a writer who just starts at the beginning and lets the story carry them along might find it harder to disengage.
Marcus W
17. toryx
I'm with carandol @ 8. I can easily skip a summary without it causing me any pain or suffering. I do, however, suffer mightily when characters remind themselves of what happened in the previous book or several pages written to explain exactly how the magic system works in the given world for the 8th time.

On the other hand, I'd never thought of the anguish of the author who has to write said summaries. So I can certainly sympathize with that. But still, as a reader, I'd rather a summary existed that I could skip than a lot of reminder exposition that I cannot.
Gabe Karl
18. Kaim82
first part reminds me of myself a lil, I discovered the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson by the second book the Well of Ascencion hardcover, I was attracted by the cover never realizing it's a second part, so I picked up the first book and Elantris (I lost it in a bar, don't ask), also every time I am in a bookstore I happen to browse through books that are already out and I always tend to read the summary in the back or in the jacket cover .... also thanks for sharing how you read ... now I have a new idea, I will do an inbox for books that I am going to read so that I will be able to read them all, remember when you told me about burning my tv and limit internet time? I am still working on it but will not burn my HDTV :) thank you very much again hope I will be able to tackle Neal Stephenson books and some classics like the Tale of Genji and Sherlock Holmes before the end of 2010, cheers!
John Patrick Pazdziora
19. mrpond47
carandol @ 8 -- Oh, goodness, just reading that gave me the shivering heebie-jeebies. You're perfectly, utterly, absolutely right!

relogical @ 11 -- No one does 'em like Adams. Again, we must bow to the prowess of the master! Synopses are best written after lunch...
20. Spearmint
My particular un-favorites are the ones in the middle books of the Chanur saga, which include information that you not only failed to deduce from the previous volume, but on subsequent readings realize you could not have deduced from the previous volume because Pyanfar didn't know any of it either.

It's rather frustrating to have the author casually revealing the underpinnings of the previous book in the summary as if you should have known all along, when the information in manifestly not present in the text. On the other hand, you can't accuse Cherryh of telling you stuff you already knew...
Chris Tierney
21. chris.tierney
I did enjoy the "what has gone before" in the second book of the Illuminatus! trilogy. It included bits that weren't actually in the first book, like the self-destructing mynah birds.
Sandi Kallas
22. Sandikal
I liked how Brandon Sanderson handled recapping in the Mistborn trilogy. He has summaries of previous books in the back, so you can refer to it if you need to, but you don't have to endure awkward insertions of back story in the current narrative.
Anna Victoria L
23. AnnaVi777
Having just joined this site, and finding many authors and posts that I wish to comment upon all at once, I find myself wholly and unbelievably overwhelmed. Your points are valid and understandable, but there are many who would disagree. Yes, to many people a synopsis would only suffice to take away what little charm the book written by such an author as to write one would have, but it could also be helpful for those whose memory is not as keen as they would wish it to be, or for those people to whom it may be necessary to remind of important events so as to remember the novel in its entirety. While I do agree with you on most points, I myself am one with a weak memory on some points if not reminded of the major.
Michael Mair
24. Nightwind
One aspect I have not found above: It may be very hard to avoid disclosing secrets in summaries.

If, as an author, you are telling the story as it happens to the characters in the story, then the reader does not know which pieces of information are true or false, important or just a nice distraction from the important and so on. Giving a summary means that you have to abandon some of the "unnecessary" pieces of information -- this can lead the observant reader of previous volumes to realize much earlier what is really going on. On the other hand, trying to avoid that may lead to a synopsis that utterly confuses the new reader.

8: I agree. However, in-character recaps can be interesting and / or fun if they do not try to give "the story" to a forgetful or new reader. Especially if they add a new point of view or provide an entirely different emphasis, e.g. by either stressing or cutting away emotions accompanying what has happened. The fun part usually comes in if a character misrepresents what happened by emphasizing one small part or reduces a grand adventure to a laconic comment.
mm Season
25. mmSeason
21. chris.tierney – Bits that weren't there before would make it all forgivable, yes.
Ursula L
26. Ursula
While I wouldn't say that I like synopses, to the point of seeking them out, I don't mind them.

First of all, I like spoilers. I'm much happier to spend the money on a book if I know enough about it that I'm sure that I'll like what I'm getting. That's part of the reason why I like - even if I haven't read the book, I can enjoy reading about a book, finding out what other people think about it, and then be guided towards things that I might not have picked up on my own.

I also much prefer it when series are clearly labeled as series, and when there is good information about which series is which, and which set of books by a particular author belongs in which series. Many publishers do a dreadful job at this, which can be confusing.

For example, when Bujold's The Spirit Ring came out, I was confused because I knew all her earlier works were part of the same series, and didn't realize, when first reading it, that I shouldn't be trying to fit it into the Vorkosigan universe as I read. At that point in my life, I wasn't as sophisticated a reader as I am now, and a big "Not Vorkosigan, She's Doing Something NEW!" would have helped a lot.

The synopsis at least makes clear that the series is a series, and hopefully, if the author writes in several universes, which series it is. If you consider series writing a form in and of itself, in the same vein as how a novel is different from a short story, a well-done synopsis is a sign of respect for the series format, and for series readers who may not be able to get their hands on books earlier in the series right away.

Particularly for a series that has been going on for quite a while, the local library may not have all earlier volumes, or the local bookstore may not have every previous installment available.

The publisher can't ensure that each bookstore will have all the earlier volumes available. But they can give enough context to a latter volume that a potential reader can enjoy it even if they don't have access to the earlier volumes.

This is probably related, too, to what type of series (going back to your earlier classification of series types) that it is. For some types, a brief blurb to let the reader know a little basic series context can help. (The back cover often can provide this, rather than needing a synopsis.) For others, a bold-print warning "don't bother to read this until you've read volumes 1 and 2!" may be better.

For some series, a synopsis letting you know what happened, if not how it happened, is helpful if you can't get the earlier volumes, and might (on a practical level) be the difference between readers buying the book despite not having access to the earlier volumes, versus not buying it because it makes no sense when they start reading it at the bookstore.
William S. Higgins
27. higgins
Jo, you are spoiled to have established a career in an era when novelists publish their works between the covers of books.

Once upon a time, SF and horror and mysteries and, to some extent, fantasy appeared in monthly magazines. Stories were frequently published in two, three, or four parts. Which meant that someone, often the author, had to write one, two, or three synopses. Also, the author needed to think about putting breakpoints at the appropriate word lengths.

Be grateful that you were spared these tasks.

The synopsis problem is not confined to ink-and-paper. In US television, lengthy serialized (or semi-episodic) stories have become more and more common in primetime during recent decades. You will doubtless recall my account, elsewhere on the Net, of the popular TV personality Previous Leon, whose name introduces a machine-gun burst of brief clips revisiting essential points of the plot.

I have often daydreamed of editing together all the Previous Leons for a series, and watching a whole season in twenty minutes or so. NOW READ ON...

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