Welcome back readers! To both you and to me! I have returned from my near two-week vacation feeling quite a bit better and ready to dive back into the world of writing once more, so let’s both get to it! Most of the recently relevant news was covered yesterday, so for now let’s just dive right into today’s topic!
This one’s another reader request, and it’s quite a good one because a lot of books, especially those that have mystery elements or storylines where characters are trying to piece things together, run headlong into it. Here, let me give you a quick example: Let’s consider a story with three primary characters, A, B, and C. A and B are in things from the beginning attempting to solve a murder, but C is a character that comes from a different approach/angle, and so doesn’t enter the mystery until about a third or halfway through the book.
At which point, character C asks A and B to catch them up on their side of the mystery. C has their own information to share, of course, but they need to know what A and B know and are working with first.
The question being … how do you present this? If the audience has been with A and B since the start of the book, then they should know all of the information C is asking to be presented. But now there’s a reason for them to summarize it once more … Does the author go for it? Do they gloss it over?
What are they supposed to do here?
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You’re asking “Surely this can’t be that difficult, right?” And well … most people think that. But truth be told, I’ve read a lot of books where the creator reached this point and … Let’s just say that the following pages were yet another slog of stuff that was already known and obvious.
I actually stopped reading one author who became really bad at this, so bad that every time their protagonist made a decision, the narration would recount everything in the book that had led to that decision thus far. Even if that decision came just pages after the last decision that did the same. By about halfway through the book, this constant “recap” of the story so far was totaling around a page or two each time.
The result was something that became frustratingly tedious to read, and made my eyes gloss over repeatedly. Not something any author wants to hear about their book, for sure.
But as we’ve outlined above, sometimes our narrative places us in a position where we need to in some way convey what came before. And in fairness, it’s not actually a bad idea to do this in a lot of story types. Sometimes the audience needs reminders of what has come before, refreshers to remind of the stakes or clues or what-have-you.
But where is the line? How can you retread information you’ve already given the audience without boring them, that they already know?
Buckle up, because there’s a lot to this one.
Okay, so before we dive too deeply into some of the nuts and bolts here, there’s a factor that’s incredibly important to this question of retread. Two actually, though they’re intertwined, and both fall under a similar “umbrella.” These questions are “What is your audience?” and “What is your genre?”
Both are vital in asking this question because both influence exactly how much retread you’re expected to make. One, because the genre of the story can determine how often the question will come up—And if it only comes up once, halfway through the book, well what’s the harm in offering a quick summation?—and the second because some audiences will expect regular retreads while others will roll their eyes and exclaim “I know this already, get on with it.” A mystery is going to frequently be bringing up clues and questions about the plot each time a new clue or possible breakthrough is discovered, for example, while more straightforward thriller isn’t going to be quite as concerned with repeating all the little minutia of the plot as long as the world is saved.
Basically, once again this is a reminder that audience—who and what kind of reader is buying your book—and genre—the type of story you’re telling—are going to impact how often you retread what the audience already knows.
Have an extreme example: Look at episodic storytelling, specifically in television, which sometimes has to invent whole scenes just to “recap” any audience members who might have missed the prior episode(s), or even has a recap of “previously on” at the beginning to remind the audience of what’s happened.
So yes, keep genre and audience in mind. Some audiences out there don’t mind being hit with a retread of everything each chapter. Some absolutely will. Some genres of story are going to make such retreads more “common” in occurrence while others won’t have the same necessity. So that’s worth keeping in mind when looking at your story.
However, just because some genres will make it more common doesn’t mean that a writer can have free reign and excuse to deliver retreads. For example, one book I recall being unimpressed by had this as a constant sin. Yes, it was a mystery, but if felt the need to retread everything the characters knew quite frequently … even when there was nothing new to add. The characters would sit down, summarize what they’d summarized the last time they’d sat down and … that was it. They’d just summarize and restate what they had the last time they’d done exactly that.
Now, that book had other problems with its presentation of information, but let me make this clear: Excepting specific circumstances which I’ll get to in a moment, you should not be regularly regurgitating summaries at the audience with nothing new added. Even then, a constant bombardment of what the reader (and characters) should already know can be dragging, but at least if you’re adding something new to the mix there’s a reason for the reader to continue on. Without even that, what’s the point in them reading the recap?
Now, I did offer a specific circumstance as a counter to that, and so I want to talk about that before we forget. The thing with informational recaps and retreads is that they’re a slow part of pacing, and so you need to keep that in mind. Even if you drop it into the middle of an action scene, the information that a reader already knows is going to be like the flat part of a road where the “driver” stops and looks back a bit. You can make it short, but you can’t change the fact that without something new it’s going to stay flat.
Thing is, you can use this. Retreads and summations often make great “lows” after a high-stakes bit of action. For example, I actually do this in Fireteam Freelance. The episode Apatos (number nine) has the characters reeling after a massive loss and a narrow escape, and sees them summarize their current situation and options.
All of which the reader already knows, but having the characters present it plays double duty in that it shows how the prior events have impacted them and gives the audience (and those same characters) a bit of a breather before things ramp up into the last third of the story.
In other words, it’s used as a narrative device to give the audience some breathing room and show the impact of what’s happened, even as the characters tell the audience what the audience already knows or has figured out.
Mostly. Even then there’s some new stuff buried in there. But point being, careful use of a retread can actually work to strengthen aspects of your narrative. To use another example, in both Colony and Jungle there are a few moments where the characters summarize what they have so far not just as a “recap” to the reader, but to show their own frustrations at so much of what they’re doing being dead-ends. A tactic that works more in a story genre where dead-ends are a thing, but not only does it helpfully catch the reader up on smaller details they might have missed critical to the overall plot or mystery (like the diameter of Pisces in Colony) but it allows the characters to show their determination and frustration.
You can even go further and be tricky with this. Colony has a recap where the recap is wrong. Deliberately so. The character skims over something they’ve read before, and the numbers offered are different than the last time.
Point being that a retread doesn’t have to just be a recap. You can use it in various ways, and in fact the more clever you are with your usage, the more likely a reader is to read through it because it stops simply being “repeated information” and starts being something unique.
Okay, so that’s a little bit about usage and some ways to use or not-use a retread, but for many who are reading this post, the real golden question is something a bit more direct: How? As in “How does one present a retread in the narration or dialogue of the story being crafted?”
I kid. Mostly. The truth is that there are a lot of ways to do it, and the how is mostly up to the creator, taking into account both what they want to do with it, how they want their audience to react, and how much they expect their audience to remember from the last recap that occurred (if any).
For example, in more than one book I’ve come across (and even written) characters have met back up and needed to catch one another up while the reader is far too close to what’s recently happened to need a retread. So, as a show of trust to the reader (and sympathy) they’ll get something like the following:
Jan spent the next few minutes explaining to Ali everything that had happened over the last three days.
Obviously that’s a bit rough, and would usually end with something current, but you get the idea. Rather than spending a page retreading what was already known to the audience, the author just tells them what happened. “People caught up. Moving on.”
Now, some of you might be looking at that and my use of the word “tell” and saying “But wait, isn’t tell bad?” to which I will refer you to, for an in-depth discussion, a prior post, and for the short, simply say “Not always.” And here is a case where narratively it works well. It might be a bit clunky if not carefully written out, but that’s still preferable to ‘Here, let me spend a page or two catching you up on things the reader already knows.”
As I said before, I’ve done this myself. Colony has the three main characters reuniting and catching one another up in this manner, save that it has the narration telling the reader the various concepts they shared before jumping back to dialogue just in time for the characters to hit the new stuff that the readers are going to be excited to learn as well.
But this is only one way. You can “tell” a summation. You can get a little bit more detailed and have the narration mention a few specifics, just as a way to note the most important details in passing. You can really hit any scale from “the author trusts you remember all of this” to “here, let the author remind you of details that you might have missed out on.”
It’s up to you. None of these approaches is “wrong.” Using tell narration to just inform the audience of the recap happening isn’t “wrong.” Nor is having your characters sit down and touch bases in a few pages of dialogue. Both can be right, and both can be wrong. Once again, it comes back to knowing your audience, your genre, and your story. How often have you told them what you’re about to repeat? When? Was it half a book ago, or only a few chapters?
Adding to that, how much detail do they need at the moment? Do they need specifics, or is it enough to remind the audience of a few general bits before moving on? What about the current pacing? If a writer does feel the need to dive into specifics, is the story in a spot where there’s even time for that? Either from a narrative perspective or from what is currently happening in the text?
After all, there’s no shame in character asking another for an explanation of what’s going on, only for that character to shove them out of the way of a massive explosion and counter with “Does this seem like a good time for that!?”
Point being, to sort of sum all this up, that there isn’t an easy answer to this question. Retreading ground a reader might or should already know is simply a matter of careful practice rather than a yes or no answer followed by a straight “do this like this.”
The truth is, any writer will often come across moments where they need to retread moments from earlier in a book. And when that happens, the only wrong answer is one that messes with pacing, audience focus, or some other structural part of the book. Outside of that, anything is fair game.
That doesn’t mean one approach might be better or worse than any other, but it’ll be up to each author to figure out which approach works best for their story in that moment. For them to consider the current pacing, the current mood and retention of the audience … all of it. Then, from there, determine how best to redisplay the information already presented.
Consider the genre. Consider the audience. The pace. The narrative direction thus far. Will a retread help or hurt it? At the end of the day, that’s the most important question. An author needs to do what is best for the book. Sometimes it takes a bit to figure out what that is.
Actually, one last thing before we end: If you as a writer are worried about your retreads, my advice would be to do your best and then see what your alpha readers say. Do they react? Even when prompted? Do they suggest a better way? Or do they slide right past it without a comment? Sometimes the best way forward is to just bite down and go, then see what happens.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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