Thursday, December 6, 2012

Serials (With No Cereal Pun!)

I promise not to make any bad puns about cereal while writing about the writing process of producing serial fiction. 

Some of the best stories of the past were first published in serial form. Great Expectations was first published in this way. For those unfamiliar with the term, publishing in serial means releasing short bits or episodes of a story at a time, such as in a newspaper or literary magazine. Some of America's popular comic strips run this way, with a contiguous plot throughout the months or years it takes to complete the story. Over the past 7 months or so I have gained considerable experience in writing in this genre. It is very much like, and also very much unlike, typical fiction writing.

Serial fiction is very easily composed in short bits of time. With my serials The Song of the Troll and Crook Q I would typically write an episode in about thirty minutes or so, and instantly publish it to this blog. I did this several times a day, especially during my first Marathon Week. (Who would like to see another of those, by the way?) When writing novels and longer works of fiction published all at once, the tendency is towards fewer, longer sessions of writing. This summer for a period of a few weeks I would add two-thousand words to my novel in a roughly ninety-minute section. Many authors mention spending a few days camped away in a library writing furiously and producing whole novel drafts. Ray Bradbury says he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days because he had to rent the type-writer for a dime each half-hour. Wayne T. Batson says that he penned nearly a third of the final installment of his The Door Within trilogy (The Final Storm) in such a way.  

The passage of time upon your readers is of considerable importance when writing serially. Great Expectations was published over a long time, sometimes with gaps of months between installments. Dickens took the interesting approach of keeping the time of year in the story approximately matching the time of year his readers were experiencing, sometimes causing months long gaps in the story as well as the storytelling.
I like to make the comparison to telling a good joke. As a semi-professional humorist, I can say with certainty that most of a good joke is in the delivery and timing, not even in the content (funny facial expressions are helpful, too). Every joke ends with a good punchline, which both leaves the hearer (reader) feeling fulfilled and hoping for another good one.
This leads naturally to a sort of sectional writing, focused on brief episodes that end and begin with intense action or feeling, a constant cliff-hanger, and incessant high adrenaline feeling. This is O.K. for serial fiction because the reader has a few hours at least (sometimes weeks) between posts so they won't feel that their emotional strings are being pulled to hard (and if they do, they like it!). It lends itself expertly even to longer pieces because you get that sort of can't-put-it-down feeling that makes you read one more page, one more chapter.... (you know, the sort of thing that Peter's Angel makes you do). And if they do dare to set it down, you know they will be back shortly, and nothing but your story will have been on their mind in between.

Serial fiction lends itself to a relatively small cast of characters, as well, or at least a very familiar set. In The Song of the Troll I accomplished this by having essentially two main characters and maybe two secondary characters at most (neither of which talked or was talked about much). In Crook Q I accomplished this by having a familiar cast to work with so it wasn't hard for readers to keep track of who was who and why they would do what they do.
In my opinion, serial fiction does not lend itself easily to multiple plot lines. Now, of course, I did exactly that, but that is again because I had familiar characters. Also, the two could be treated as separate stories all the way until the moment they conjoined into just one, and so it was no longer such a problem. The reason for this is because of the time in between reading sections. A story will feel disjointed if one week is on Crook Q, one week on Phil, then back to Q again. You can't keep the adrenaline/emotion high on your reader for two weeks if they also have another character to read about. I fixed this by posting both each day, as well.

Serial fiction? Great for blogs. My glory days of 100+ pageviews a day proved it. And putting a binding on serial fiction isn't hard either. It's the other way that's hard. You have probably seen the novel that was "serialized" (by which they mean at apparently random points the story stops and you pick it up again later). That doesn't work as well because it wasn't designed to leave you feeling done in the middle of a scene or chapter. And it wasn't designed to keep your attention by constant installments.
The short of it? I kinda am feeling the supremacy of serial fiction these days, especially as attention span shortens.


  1. Very interesting thoughts! I've considered writing serially sometime, and this gave me some good things to think about. Thank you!

    1. Our pleasure! Always glad to write at others' request (guarantees interest, it does!).

  2. I've started a serial before, and been really wanting to get back into it, deepen it, and start writing new 'episodes' more regularly; so this was helpful in getting me thinking about it again, thank you!