Short Story Month continues. Are you excited yet? I hope so! Now that you know, thanks to Heather’s last post, if your story idea is more suited to a short story or a novel, we take this discussion into the grey area between the two by talking about serial fiction.
Serials come in many forms, but the best known is the Serialized novel. This is when a single story is divided up into smaller parts and published in regular installments in a newspaper or magazine. These were first made popular in the Victorian area by Dickens, Dumas and others. Sometimes these were finished novel, and at other times the writer crafted the story as it was being released to the public, perhaps using reader feedback to improve it.
There are also true serials; these are stories structured a bit more like episodes of a TV show. Each installment has a single story, but all the characters and world building are interconnected. The first installment introduces the main characters and gives a feeling for the setting while providing a small, yet satisfying storyline that also sparks reader interest in coming back to this world again. And Again! That often means a bigger story arc is revisited during the collection of stories, called a “season” like TV shows are.
There are many examples of successful serials, such as the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and The Sex and the City franchise. Both serials and serialized fiction are growing in popularity with readers. You can find them on Amazon or Wattpad, and there are publishing houses and websites dedicated exclusively to them. Writing either type takes a special kind of writer, but short story writers are often masters of the true serial form.
There are wonderful advantages to writing serials:
You can take every episode in a new direction. Explore opposing viewpoints of the same events. You can kill off characters or rapidly change their character arcs. In fact, the more you shake things up, the better your readers will like it!
You have the luxury of being able to revisit the same world building and characters as many times as you wish. The story can go on for years, evolving and taking new directions while filling many seasons of serials.
The pressure to finish the big story arc isn’t hanging over your head the way it is with a novel. A serial writer can go on chasing the same villain forever, as long as the smaller stories are exciting and there are enough clues to the larger plot mission to make the readers want to stick around for the ride.
And some disadvantages:
Slow, atmospheric writers need not apply! The market is competitive for all writing, but the pressure to create a knock-the-reader’s-socks-off opening episode for a series is huge. You must have memorable characters and a setting that feels real from the first installment. Being unforgettable is critical, because the reader needs to feel they can pick up the story after a break without missing a beat.
Action is the king of all serial fiction, and only the tightest writing works. The hook needs to come in fast. Each story installment must have some resolution to the current problem while also leaving something unresolved to encourage the reader to read the next installment, namely it needs a cliffhanger.
The serial format is not good for a writer challenged by deadlines. One of the most important aspects for building a serial readership is getting the next installment out quickly and when you’ve promised you would. If you establish a plan of releasing once a week or once a month, you need to keep with it until the season is done.
The best serial writers have the long-range vision of a plotter with the creative jump-off-a-cliff-without-a-parachute bravery of a pantser. The plotter side needs to keep track of the clues and aspects of the bigger story arc, while the pantser side needs to just go wild with new characters, situations and twists that even a die-hard reader of the series wouldn’t see coming. It’s only through constant innovation that great TV shows stay on the air and serial fiction needs the same level of creative originality to stay fresh and maintain fans.
So, have you ever tried to write a serial? I have! Do you have any other tips to share? I’d love to hear from you.
For more on marketing series fiction and to hear about some success stories check out this post on Writer Unboxed.