I recently read the first two books in the Dune series, Dune (1965) and Dune Messiah (1969). An interesting feature of the Dune story is that the books only cover key events in the adventures of Paul Muad’dib — in the first book: Paul’s adolescent exposure to Dune, the attack by the Harkonnens, Paul’s transformation into the Kwisatz Haderach, the spectacular defeat of the Emperor. Then the story jumps forward twelve years, years which are presumably full of exciting action sequences that we never get to see, because they only serve as exposition to get to the next interesting part of the story.
There is also a rich backstory for the characters and the story universe. Through the story we get hints at how Paul was trained as a child, of the actions of the Bene Gesserits, of a long distant galactic colonization. This backstory is both detailed and vague, providing room for new elements to be pulled into the story as needed. For example, the Bene Tleilax (or Tleilaxu) have little importance in the first novel (which was originally a serial), but become central to the plot of the second novel (also originally a serial).

Contrast this with a more contemporary science fiction story, such as The Matrix. While the Matrix universe is rich in backstory, the individual characters have almost no backstory at all. In particular, one doubts that Neo was ever a child, that he ever had parents or went to school. He is simply a character who, like many others in his world, is searching for a way “out”, for no clear reason. As for the action of the story, it is mostly exposition: first Neo learns the truth of his world (by escaping the Matrix), then he learns his role in world (by visiting the Oracle). Finally we get some adventure, Neo becomes the One and defeats his nemesis all in one long explosive scene. End of part one.
In the second Matrix film, a new part of the backstory has to be developed: the assorted “rogue programs” who also reside in the Matrix universe. The entire second movie consists of plot devices to get to the climactic scene, which turns out to be yet more exposition — by the Architect — on how the Matrix universe works. There is seemingly no story here at all, the action is just a slow setup for yet another movie where (hopefully) something important will happen.
So here are two approaches to telling a thematically similar story (the Hero’s Journey), one of which is, in my opinion, far more engaging. (This is not meant to be a novel versus film argument.) In one sense, the second Matrix movie represents the time between important actions, the equivalent of the twelve years that are intentionally elided from the Dune story. But in another sense, having the events of the second and third Matrix movies fall so close on the heels of the first movie diminishes the story of the first movie; when does Neo have time to be the hero he has become? When will he use his powers? If he doesn’t use his powers (his powers within the Matrix) then what was the whole point of having them?
In contrast, Paul Muad’dib is allowed to use his powers “off screen”. And not just Paul; all of the characters, friend and foe alike, get a chance to act behind the scenes.
I feel I’m not quite making the point I wanted to make. I’m trying to avoid talking about sequels, the way that a successful book or movie can spin out into a series of books or movies. Sequels have their own special features, they have more than just a basic backstory (hidden story), they have an explicit background story (the previous episode), and the interstitial backstory (what happened between episodes), all of this in addition to the original backstory.
So what is important about sequels is the way they divide a story into episodes, and the space between those episodes. The story made up of these episodes is an overarching story; now, the question is, how big should this overarching story be? Should it consume the entire backstory, as I feel The Matrix does? What if the story is small in comparison to the backstory? I think both cases are subject to historic trends. There are also trends in how much interstitial backstory is created between episodes.
Take the Harry Potter novels, for example. This is a story that leaves very few gaps in the action, every important event in Harry’s life is detailed here. The story is also constructed around the revelation of the backstory leading up to Harry’s orphanhood. If there is any doubt as to the importance of the overarching story vs. the backstory, look at the verbosity of these books. No background element is so small that it doesnt get at least a paragraph of exposition.
Take another example, the original Star Wars trilogy. Here we have a sophisticated backstory which remains largely untapped after three movies. But then look at the new Star Wars films — their sole purpose is to expose the backstory which supported the original trilogy. If you ask me, more interesting things happen at the other end of the story, some time after the Jedi victory. The production of the two trilogies span the change of trends, from large backstory to large, uh, forestory.

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