Thursday, August 12, 2010

Keeping Readers in the Loop

cup-of-coffee I usually like to go to independently owned coffee houses…but there come times when I really, really need a cup of coffee and Starbucks is the only thing around.

I popped in last week and instead of asking for a “small coffee” (I never look at their menu because it makes me confused), I got a little daring and asked for a small chai tea latte.

“A short or a tall?”

“A…well, the smallest size you have.”

“That’s a short. If you ask for a small, you get a 12 oz. tall. Medium is grande and venti is large.”


She rang me up and said, “Here’s your treat receipt!” And then went off to make my drink. What the…..??

Once I figured out that was a coupon to come back later that same day, I realized my drink was ready…and they were asking me something else.

“Would you like a splash stick?”


“I’m sorry—what’s a splash stick?” But I felt dumb for asking. Apparently, everyone else knew what a splash stick was.

She explained it was a device to plug up the sipping hole in the lid while I walked back out across the parking lot. She looked a little impatient by now.

As I left, I started thinking about how I feel when I leave Starbucks—confused. (Although that quickly morphs into hyper because I down the caffeine pretty fast.) I think they’re just used to their regulars over there—customers who visit every day and know the routine and the lingo.

It really doesn’t make me happy to feel like I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t want my readers to have the same experience. I’m currently working on the third book of my series and I don’t want to make assumptions that my readers know what I’m talking about when I bring up people and places from previous books.

I think it’s easy to assume our series readers are regulars and know all the characters as well as we do. And that our readers will catch on to inside jokes from previous books in the series…or be acquainted with the series’ backstory.

I’ve read series books both out of order and with large gaps of time in between books. When characters aren’t really introduced, I’ll usually try to figure out who they are by the way they relate to other characters—but if I still don’t get it, I’m giving up…who has the time? I’d rather have a small tag that won’t bore the regular readers of the series but will fill in the newer readers: John, Mary’s oldest son, stomped into the room.

If there’s an inside joke or a character idiosyncrasy that cracks up the regular readers, then the new readers should be filled in to give them the opportunity to “get it” when the joke is made.

If there’s backstory from previous books that directly affects the plot, then it should be briefly worked in (probably through dialogue or some other pretty innocuous way). That would serve to both fill in new readers to the series, and to remind regular readers of background, too.

We can write each book in our series as a standalone and play it perfectly safe—but then we do risk boring the readers who have read the previous books in our series. It’s a little bit of a balancing act.

How do some of your favorite authors fill in new readers while keeping regular readers from getting bored? How do you do it, if you write series?