Elizabeth: Serial Storytelling

serial_imageWheaties.  Frosted Flakes.  Cheerios.  Oh wait; wrong kind of cereal.

Today we’re talking about serialized fiction – stories that are released to readers in installments over time.  I am also including serials – stories that are written as they are released over time – in this definition, although the two are technically distinct kinds of stories.

Serialized or episodic storytelling is nothing new.  If you watch television, you’re already familiar with the concept, and if you watch broadcast television, rather than binge-watching shows from Netflix or something similar, you know what it is like to have to wait from one week to another to find out what is happening in your favorite shows.

During the Victorian Period, Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers popularized the serial form, though serialized stories existed long before that.  In France, Alexander Dumas was a master of the serialized story, stretching The Count of Monte Cristo out to an impressive 139 installments.    Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Wlikie Collins’ Woman in White are just a few of the well-known works that began as serials.

Magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, Issac Asimov’s Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and many others have, at one time or another, provided a vehicle for serialized stories.  Today, sites like Jukepop.com, Wattpad.com, and others provide access to serialized content, as does Amazon’s Kindle Serials, a specific dedicated platform.   There are also specialized apps like Serial Box and Simon & Schuster’s Crave that allow readers to get serialized stories delivered right to their phones.

So, how does serialized fiction compare to traditional stories?

Tension

We’ve talked here on the blog before about the role conflict and escalating tension play in storytelling.  A story released in serialized form has tension built-in due to the enforced waiting period to find out what happens next.  The format also provides incentive for writers to focus on escalation and pacing to keep readers coming back for more.  The challenge is to keep a reader’s interest, without resorting to plot devices included solely to create tension at the end of an installment.

Waiting

While having to wait for the next installment of a serial helps raise the tension, it can also be frustrating.  If you love what you’re reading and you’re invested in the plot and characters, you want to keep reading rather than wait for a future installment.  If you’re like me and forget what you read shortly after you read it, then reading in serialized form means that you may miss (forget) bits of the story or have to do some re-reading to get your head back in the story once new content is released.

Wandering Off

A hazard of serialized stories is that if your attention and interest are not firmly captured, it can be all too easy to wander off and move onto something new.  This is something to keep in mind both for readers and writers of serialized fiction.  Additionally, not all styles of stories lend themselves to the serialized form and not all readers have the mindset for time-released stories.

Engagement

An interesting aspect of serialized fiction is the potential for reader engagement.  For those serialized stories that are being written as they are released, rather than completed stories that are released in installments, reader comments and feedback can be used by the author to determine the direction of the story.  The apps I mentioned above have built in features that allow readers to “participate” in the stories – either by voting or providing feedback.  They also provide a sense of community for readers, who can interact with each other about what they’re reading.  Fan-Fiction serials lend themselves particularly well to this type of engagement.

Savoring

Serialized stories give you the opportunity to savoir what you read.  While waiting for the next installment, you can mentally play “I wonder what happens next?”   You have the time to think back over the story and tune into layers and nuances that you might miss when reading a story straight through from beginning to end.   I read a couple of books this past weekend and I’m fairly sure my enjoyment of them would have increased if I had taken a bit of a pause to let things sink in a little before racing toward the ending.  That’s one reason why I re-read books so often.  The first read through is a race to find out what happens, subsequent readings are to catch all the things I missed the first time around.  Reading stories in serialized form is more conducive to savoring the stories the first time around.

Incomplete

Serialized fiction can be very enjoyable, but there is always the risk of a story remaining incomplete, either because the author chooses not to finish it or is unable to finish it for some reason.   If you’re unwilling to commit to a serialized story for fear of it remaining unfinished, then you may want to wait until the complete story has been released.  Of course that presents its own challenges, as you have to keep away from any story spoilers or discussions.  Not likely to be a problem for stories out of the mainstream, but if you are reading a serial from a popular author it can be a potential problem.

Visibility

For an author, serialized fiction offers an additional level of visibility that a novel does not.  Traditionally a book gets a burst of attention for a relatively short period of time when it is released, but there is not a lot of ongoing exposure.  A serialized story, on the other hand, has a chance to catch the interest of readers each time a new installment is released (assuming it is publicized, of course).  That provides a longer period of time to attract new readers, as well as a way to keep readers engaged.    As a reader, I like the idea of only having to wait a week or month for the next installment of a story from a favorite author, rather than months or (more often) years for a fully completed book.

I’ve been considering the idea of serialized fiction, ever since I started my Cassie McColl Mystery during our Friday Random Word Impov sessions.  The story, which is a true serial since it is written on-the-fly each Friday based on the day’s random words, has reached eleven installments.  It has been a lot of fun to write and a completely different experience from novel writing.

What are you feelings about serialized fiction?  Have you read any or written any?  Do you have any recommendations?

11 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Serial Storytelling

  1. I really like the idea of serial writing, because I tend to write linearly (I start at the start and generally proceed to the end in that order — sometimes with a divergence to the end, but writing the ending rarely changes the beginning for me).

    However, I am always afraid that I’ll have a brilliant idea that I can’t shoehorn into the past (ret-conning). Also, pacing is a problem with me, and escalation. And I’d be terribly afraid if I was contracted to write a serial — what would happen if I needed to go over the number of installments? Or even worse, if I didn’t have enough to full the contractual obligations?

    But, the pressure of a deadline seems like a great creative spur. People are waiting for me, so I damn well better come up with something. Plus, in theory, people would be cheering me on, telling me how much they liked what I wrote (-:. (Yeah, right. Today’s internet? I’d be damn lucky to get 50 percent of my comments to be positive; more likely, I’d get a lot of flack.)

    I think I’d like to try it. It’d be like a public first draft, I guess. If I did it on one of those websites like Wattpad, I could always go back when I was finished, and do it up right — changing the story and getting rid of the false trails and sludge.

    It does sound like a worthy experiment. Where would you like to publish?

    • Michaeline – sounds like we are having some of the same thoughts (and worries) on the subject. I like the idea of reader feedback/interaction, and the pressure of a deadline tends to work well for me, but I worry about running out of steam (or ideas) before getting to the end of a story.

      I’m going to look more deeply into the apps and sites I mentioned above to see if one would be a good fit for me. If not, I might consider just using my own website as a vehicle for publishing a serial to begin with, just to get some experience. Will keep you posted.

  2. I absolutely love Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper serial, which is now on its third book. They publish the story on their website, weekly, for free, and when it’s finished they usually leave the whole book up for three months. Then they take it down, edit and self-publish it. Interestingly I read that their sales have not been hurt by offering the story first as a free serial. I have bought both the two finished books and I fully intend to buy the latest one (One Fell Sweep) when it’s finished.

    I’ve been busy building my own story world, so I haven’t been reading much new fiction, and an instalment of OFS is my Friday treat. They missed a week last Friday because they’ve been embroiled in edits of one of their traditionally published books, and it left a small, Innkeeper-shaped gap in my weekend.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about serial fiction thanks to Innkeeper. I think one of the great strengths is that there is no scope for filler or linking scenes. Every scene has to stand on its own merits and must move the story on. I also read the entire book much more closely than I would if I had the option to read it all at once, when it would be tempting to rush ahead and find out what happens next. I heard the authors had the option to do a traditional publishing deal for Innkeeper and opted not to, and while I’m in awe of their productivity (their self-publishing is in addition to two best-selling traditionally published series), I can see the attraction. I think it gives them the scope to experiment creatively (the covers, in particular, are stunning), to learn as they are writing what really hits the spot for their readers, and to maintain a regular connection with their readership in between traditionally published releases. I think the last of those is an incredibly powerful reason for offering free serial fiction.

    I *think* I’d like to experiment with it myself some time, but I’d have to get a lot better at outlining than I am right now.

    • Glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience with the Innkeeper serial. Also interesting that you’ve read the serial and then bought the completed book. That’s one of the questions that came up in the research I did. Some felt that publishing the serial episodes for free takes readers away from the actual book purchasing side, but sounds like that doesn’t always have to be the case.

      Sounds like yet another reason for me to read some of Ilona Andrews’ work.

  3. Does serializing *require* that you write one episode, publish one episode? I would think most writers would get stuck in that place that Michaeline is talking about, where you realize at some point that you should have included something in an earlier episode. I’m just wondering if it “counts” as a serial if you write, say, three episodes ahead, so you have some wiggle room for revision if you see how your story is shaping. I would never be able to do this if I couldn’t go back a little bit.

    Also, about Wattpad—I haven’t checked it out, but I thought it was also a platform for exposing your work, whether in serial form or completed work of whatever length? I’ve read that some authors feel that they’ve really built their audience by posting their work there, although these have been mostly YA authors, I think. But that report sort of ties into what Jilly is saying about Ilona Andrews publishing her/their work online first. Anyway. Serialization: it sure worked for Dickens!

    • You’re right Kay, Wattpad isn’t just limited to serial fiction, it is a platform for exposing a variety of work. Sounds like an interesting platform to build audience, though I need to look at it in more depth to truly get a complete picture.

      As for serializing a story – it doesn’t sound like there are any hard and fast rules. Having a few episodes “in the bag” sounds like a reasonable thing to do. After all, you never know when something is going to come up to impact your writing time and, to your point, that allows a little wiggle room for revising.

    • (-: I have often thought, Kay, that just writing the book and dribbling it out in drabs would be a good way to go. But then, you don’t get the cheerleading experience that a lot of serializers enjoy. (You don’t get the ulcer-promoting pressure, either . . . or the sense of failure when your story putters out in a corner. Oh, the plusses and minusses!)

      I haven’t checked out Wattpad either, but I keep hearing about it. Somewhere, I heard one guy used it as a wonderful springboard for his career — he told his readers from that beginning that he was trying for publication, so they didn’t turn on him when he stopped giving them free story (because he’d sold his story to a real publisher! What a success story!). It does seem that Wattpad isn’t a serial thing, per se, but as you say, a platform for any kind of work. It seems that the community can be quite brutal, but also quite adoring. But this is all third-hand information.

      The consequences are definitely something to consider when using some sort of non-trad publishing.

      I do read one of these sites that lives on free contributions, but it’s . . . um, erotica. There are serials as well as short stories, and things are tagged according to special interests, so it’s easy to find something that might be my cup of tea. The quality varies widely, and just because something gets five stars doesn’t mean that I’m going to find it good, so in that way, it’s a little hard to find a great read. (-: I hardly ever read the serials because that’s just not how I consume my erotica.

      Although, thinking about it more seriously, I’d be less likely to read a long serial online. I just feel it’s a huge pain in the butt. I have to fire up the computer each time, get online, find my story, find my place in the story . . . . That said, I used to think that Kindle was a waste of time, but now it’s turning into one of my favorite ways to enjoy a book. I love writing notes to “argue” with the author, and being able to easily search for terms and passages to share with people I’m discussing reading or writing with.

      I would like to dip into the Wattpad thing, with maybe some little throw-away story that isn’t my best work, but is an entertaining little beignet in itself. I would also test the self-publishing waters, probably with Amazon, before the end of the year is over.

      (-: So, I guess I better get writing!!

      • Replying to myself . . . but one of my past NaNos might be the perfect thing to test the Wattpad waters with. It’d take me a couple of months to get rid of the swearing and more-obvious plotholes. What do you guys think? If it’s not my best work, should I use Michaeline Duskova, or should I do it under a different penname? It’s really not for real; it’s just an exercise in marketing, really.

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