Books Need “Previously On” Segments, Too

A few years ago, I read The Magicians. I didn’t love it, but it was sort-of-almost interesting enough that, when The Magician King came out a couple years later, I figured I would read that, too. But I couldn’t remember very much about what happened in the first book, so I reread it before moving on to #2. I didn’t love that one either, but again: sort-of-almost interesting. Fast forward a few years to the release of The Magician’s Land and, God help me, I did it again. I reread the first two books so I would have a chance of understanding what happened in #3. (It, too, was very sort-of-almost, but that’s mostly beside the point.)

Ultimately, I read a book I didn’t really like three times, and a book I can’t even remember now twice, all in service of being able to continue a series. It my own dumb decision, but I think it points to a lesson that applies beyond my own stubborn brain:

Books in series desperately need “Previously on…” segments.

Television has this down. You can go months between episodes of a show, or years between seasons, and pick back up again pretty smoothly. You know whether Nova and Ralph Angel are getting along, what the Tailies are up to, whether Chidi and Eleanor have finally gotten together, which Winchester brother is currently possessed by a demon, and so on. Most “Previously on…” or “Last season on…” segments are at the very least serviceable, and they let shows keep you involved and engaged over time. They also let television writers return to characters, subplots, or themes from earlier episodes/seasons without disorienting viewers, allowing for more creative and flexible storytelling.

There isn’t a sustained, reliable, and successful tradition that solves this problem for book series. And as series expand but authors remain human (needing at the very least a few months between books), that can be a big problem for readers.

Sure, authors often embed subtle or not-very-subtle versions of this into an early chapter of each book in a series. But while I appreciate that effort, it almost never actually works. Either it’s so subtle you don’t even pick up on it or it’s so obvious that it feels schematic and forced, breaking the flow of the story.

Another solution I’ve tried is looking at book reviews or summaries online. But book reviews usually try to avoid spoiling, which is sort of what you want for this purpose. And summaries, while helpful, fail to put you back in the mood of a series. One of the things I love most about books in general and series in particular is the way they can immerse you in a fully-realized world packed with interesting characters and structured by compelling stories. An online summary, however comprehensive, can’t really manage to do that because it isn’t written by the author. It lacks the voice, the spirit, the mood of the thing.

So here’s my proposal for an effective solution: authors should write short—let’s say 3–5 pages—”Previously on…”s that re-immerse the reader in the world of their series, refresh them on what happened in the last book, and set them up for the next installment. Ultimately, this would be good for readers (no more coerced rereading) and for authors (who could more directly shape how readers encounter each book in their series).

And maybe it’ll keep me from rereading books I don’t like—or even ones I do!—so many damn times.

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