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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?