Jun 26 2012 3:30pm

Reader Vertigo: When Series Authors Don’t Fill Us In Well Enough

The Glee Project Season 2 posterIn My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

It’s practically sacrilege, but at times I want to ask, “Why can’t paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and SF be more like TV?”

Every week the producers of reality shows like Top Chef provide brief video recaps of the previous week’s episode. And, on shows as diverse as Mad Men, Revenge, and The Glee Project, those recaps tend to include snippets from earlier, but related, episodes. In fact, as far back as the 1960s, when Batman aired in two-part episodes, the second episode, which IIRC began with Batman and Robin imperiled by the villain of the week, always brought viewers up to speed.

That same courtesy is often not extended to readers of the above-mentioned books, most of which in these categories—at least those I read—are episodic in nature to varying degrees. They are also published six to twelve months apart. It’s one thing for an author to create a historical or contemporary series with family members, soldiers in a regiment all wounded at Waterloo, or fighting as Marines in Fallujah, but the books in those series are most often more or less self-contained. Even so, Nora Roberts’ family trees à la her MacGregor series are always appreciated, because they not only include names and relationships, but also book titles.

Nora Roberts’s MacGregors family tree








On the other hand, the types of novels I’m talking about are those where world building exists, where werewolves, vamps, demons, and the fae are “out” or closeted, where an intrepid character fights nephilim and/or other underworld creatures out to destroy the planet, where warriors fight on planets far, far away...or ours, just hundreds of years in the future. To those authors I’m not too proud to say: Please Give Me a Crib Sheet!

Some authors, such as Christine Feehan and J.R. Ward, provide glossaries up front or in the back of major terms, but where are the brief series recaps, along with where the last book ended? Yes, back cover blurbs or jacket copy may be helpful, but often aren’t written by the author or her editor, but instead someone in the marketing department, and their one or two sentence summaries don’t quite cut it.

Many books in these categories begin with action scenes, which immediately engage readers, but without short term backstories at the very least—those  thumbnails can jog my memory quite nicely about the longer term story arcs—I suffer from a disorienting quality I call “Reader’s Vertigo.” That vertigo doesn’t dissipate entirely until the author gives me what I need. This can happen via an infodump that catches me up but detracts from the narrative flow, or with small nuggets of information that fit into the narrative less clumsily, but leave me still somewhat in the dark until that last nugget is shared.

Lethal Rider by Larissa IoneOf the four episodic books I most recently read, I was current for three of the series. One of the three provided a glossary, which I scanned to get up to speed for overall worldbuilding—thank you, Christine Feehan. Another gave me just about everything I need. So, kudos to Larissa Ione, not only for her glossary, but for leading me into Lethel Rider in chapters one and two by setting the scene with most of the necessary synopsis information about the Lords of Deliverance, just as she had previously done with Immortal Rider. And she did it without infodumping. I wish I could say the same about the other two episodic books, for which I needed to visit the authors’ websites, Amazon, and Goodreads after trying to start cold on page one.

In terms of following an overarching storyline, the problem is particularly bad when the author pursues a storyline not from the previous book, but from a storyline at least two books back in the series. The third of those four books I mentioned—I can’t share its title as it won’t be published for a few months—would actually have found a spot among my all-time favorites. Instead it earned a B, and some major grumbling.

Another recent read, and one I can name—Gail Carriger’s Timeless, the fifth and final book in her Parasol Protectorate series—lost points with me for the same thing. Overall I thought the book wrapped up the series nicely, but suffered reader’s vertigo occasionally when Carriger wrote about something that happened prior to Heartless, the fourth book. Asking me to recall the previous book’s plot is one thing; asking me to remember what happened before that is asking entirely too much.

As for the fourth book, well, it was actually the first I’d read of the series, which meant I was totally lost. Without any sort of glossary, I knew before I started reading that I’d need to visit the author’s website, then supplement with Amazon and Goodreads to read about the series in general, and the book[s] that came before. While reading I also kept a browser window open so that when previous events about secondary characters were referred to, I’d be able to do a google search to know what the hell was happening.

Unless you’re a reviewer, I know you don’t start an episodic series at book six, but back when I was reading Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, I can recall doing the same thing...to refresh my memory about a character and what she did three books earlier. Had hers been the  only series about a female protagonist kicking ass while living in a world of weres and vamps, I suppose the vertigo would have been less severe, but it was one of half a dozen series I was into at the time. Harris’s series featured tremendous creature proliferation as it continued. The lack of a crib sheet at is one of the reasons I gave up on Sookie.

Darkness Becomes Her by Jaime RushSome of the series I’ve read recently handle all of this well; others less so. Jaime Rush did a good job with the brand new Darkness Becomes Her, sixth in her Offspring series, as did Patricia Briggs with her latest Alpha & Omega novel, Fair Game, published in March. Granted, it’s only the third in the series, but Briggs has a reasonably good track record with her Mercy Thompson series, although with that series overproliferation is beginning to set in. I guess that’s bound to happen the longer a series runs, but I’d hate to feel the need to give up on it like I did Harris’ series because reader’s vertigo takes hold.

What I don’t understand is that for all of the series I follow, the authors began with a bang, setting up their invented worlds quickly and with ease. Why, then, do so many of them fail to set the scene as well in subsequent outings? It’s not as if they expect us to read their series one after another; if there were that expectation, the series would need to be released all at once. Obviously, they don’t, so here’s what I’d like to see at the start of any episodic novel:

  • A thumbnail sketch of the series
  • A brief synopsis of where the series left off
  • A list of characters or a character tree with book titles if possible

And at the end, a glossary of terms. They needn’t be as detailed as the dozens and dozens of pages worth of appendices Feehan provides for her Carpathian novels, but a little somethin’ somethin’ would be nice.

Jessica Sims (aka Jill Myles), could you do that with your new Midnight Liaisons series? Keri Arthur, book three in your Dark Angels series is about to be published, so I’m too late there. You did a decent but not entirely perfect job keeping me up to speed with your Riley Jensen series, but just to be on the safe side, could you help me out as well with the fourth book’s release?

As for you, my fellow readers, how often, if at all, do you suffer from reader’s vertigo? Is it worse because of the number of series you follow? Do some authors keep your vertigo at bay, and if so, how? When have you craved a crib sheet, or perhaps given up on a series altogether because of creature overproliferation? Is it better to be caught up before chapter one begins, or you marvel at an author who nimbly catches you up within the initial narrative?

Finally, is there such a thing as TMI? Does Christine Feehan, for instance, go overboard with her 60-page appendices?


Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on goodreads, where she spends much of her time of late, follow her on Google+, or on Twitter @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. evilqueen21
OMG! I totally agree with everything you said! Thank you for venting it out way better than I ever could! I was just whining about this to fellow bb's who I have to turn to get a verbal refresher for my scatter brain. I've previously even attempted to search on cliffnotes for a book in particular, but as I expected it didn't pan out, (apperantly not to many HS'ers are writing book reports in the uf/sci-fi genre ;) I think for me it's a bad combination of having a horrible memory and reading so many books/series (I average about 5-6 a week) it's too hard to keep them straight. Hell if publishers are worried about page count in the actual printing I'd just be happy to have the authors put the overview/synopsis of each book on their website so those that need a refresher can just look it up. That wouldn't be interfering in set page counts and would be doing a huge service for us that suffer from Reader's Vertigo!
Laurie Gold
2. LaurieGold
I feel your pain, Evil queen ;)

My book memory is pretty good, but the more urban fantasy and paranormal series I read, the worse my reader's vertigo. Glad to know it's not just me!
3. wsl0612
Laurie & EQ21, I agree 100%, I too read at least 5-6 books per week and I don't have the memory space available to recall all the actions and inactions of each character. (I have too much space devoted to remembering all those passwords I'm supposed to keep secret!) I think a "previously on" page would be a great idea for series' authors to start up.
4. dick
I recently started reading Harris' St.Cyr series with the fourth book. Was I vertiginous? You bet. My solution was to stop reading and set out to acquire the entire series so I could read them in sequence, which I did. Even catch up summaries don't work for me, but I'd only do what I did for the Harris series if the book I began with really caught my attention. Otherwise, I'd simply dismiss the whole thing, because, after all, there are lots of books out there, and who wants to be dizzy and sick?
100% agree! I am surprised you mentioned Patricia Briggs - her Alpha and Omega series (which I tried and didn't like at all!) suffered terribly from her first book, since the series began in a short story in an anthology - and there was no catch up in the first book so the reader felt dropped into the middle of a new series! That said, not remembering from book to book has helped me because I have less expectations and when the author changes her own world rules (hello JRW!) it does not bother me as much because I don't remember the rules to begin with! A family tree or couple of pages of "previously" would be so helpful in most books. Even MJD, whose Betsy series isn't that good anymore, starts each book with a few catch up pages!
Laurie Gold
6. LaurieGold
I actually read the A&O short story when it came out as a collector's edition a few years ago, and liked it so well I immediately read book one. So our experiences there were quite different. I can say, though, that book three did not give me vertigo and it's been a long time since I read book two.
7. miller
I totally agree with you Laurie! Lately I won't even start a new series unless I can go back and start with the first one! I read so many authors that I can't keep the worlds and characters straight. I like evilqueen's idea of the authors putting a synopsis on their website.
Laurie Gold
8. LaurieGold
I am actually not so enamored with the notion of needing to go to an author's website for a synopsis. If I'm reading on vacation, for instance, or just reading in bed, the last thing I want to do is go online. That falls under the category of "outside research" IMHO.
9. parawriter
I read way too many series. I really, really love series, so I'm not going to stop. I try to memorize the basics of the world, plot, and characters, and do pretty well. It would be great if the authors/publishers reminded us of these things, because when the books are released too far apart, I end up skimming through the previous one. I like the idea of a synopsis on websites/facebook pages as well.
10. Tifisu
This has been a complaint of mine for years. Since I read between 20 to 30 books a month its really hard to remember all the characters and plots. I love series stories but unless an author puts out subsequent books every month it's hard to remember the stories and characters. Some of my favorite authors only put out one book a year. A brief synopsis of each earlier book in the series would really help readers to refresh their memory no matter the genre.
rachel sternberg
11. rae70
small synopsis would be fine, i just hate in some series where you are just bombarded with the same info over and over (ie. christine feehans dark series). i have come to feel its just a plot to up their word counts in their books.
Jessica O'Brien
12. JLOBrien
Lorelei James has 13 Rough Rider books (Kissin' Tell being number 13) and after that many books..I was SO glad she put up a family tree on her website. Plus with most of her McKay characters starting with a "C" or a "K" I was like whoa. The family tree on the website is helpful, but she also does a good job with a brief catch-up in each new book of as many as she can.

I just finished Shiloh Walker's Ash Trilogy, while I loved it, I was a little murky on some of the central character's relationships at the start. It got better though.

I love series. Elite Ops, Rough Riders, Blacktop Cowboys, Wicked Lovers.

My only issue is I have Obsessive Chronological Disorder...I MUST read in order and if the next book is new..I have to wait awhile.

Great post!
13. lm7418
Oh, I HATE glossaries. I love a family tree, but glossaries imply that the author doesn't have enough confidence in her own writing or readers to assume they would be able to infer the meaning from the context. Why else would I need to be told who the Scribe Virgin is, for example?
C Hunter
14. huntece
Honestly I love when the plots or characters get really complex and refer back to things that happened a couple books ago. I find it wierd that often major things will happen and then 2 books later its like it never happened. Plus when you are trying to remember all the different character`s backgrounds kinda reminds me of a family reunion where youre trying to figure out who youre related to :P
Helen Wright
15. hww
Reading any series can be frustrating. If you start in the middle you must go get every book that preceded it. If you have a Kindle or Nook you can download immediately and have 3 or 4 or 8 books to read one after the other. Believe me, if you read an 8 book series one after the other it is a lot of fun. Does the author screw up in continuity? Is the whole series holding together? Can you stay up all night reading? Of course! And you reread every year or so. I love series!
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