In literature, a serial is any work (often fictional) that is published in small, consecutive installments. Think of them as the literary form of TV episodes.
It’s not simply breaking down a book and publishing it chapter by chapter. Rather, each installment can be read as though it’s an independent story, with common elements tying them all together. You can enjoy and understand each part without needing to read the whole thing.
The rise of mobile media has made serial fiction popular in today’s digital age. You no longer need to wander around shops looking for a copy of the magazine where the serial you’re reading is being published.
Now, the process is as simple as signing up for a newsletter, following an author, or logging in to a particular website. Payment is also more streamlined, with a lot of options. You can pay per installment, per month or year, or through membership.
How to Write Serial Fiction
If you’re looking to start your own serial, here are a few tips on how you can make sure that it hooks your reader from the first installment:
1. Outline your overarching plot.
One of the best advantages of writing a serial is that you don’t have to worry about the whole story. You can focus on one part at a time.
But one drawback is that you can easily lose track of your narrative. Your story can quickly lose coherence and quality. When this happens, you risk negative reviews and low readership.
By creating an outline, you’re giving yourself a guide that you can follow as you write your serial. It’s a handy tool to keep track of events, characters, and other details. You can always change any details along the way; it’s just helpful to understand the general direction you want your story to progress to.
2. Keep your stories progressing.
Keep in mind that each installment is also a mini-story of your overarching plot. Your readers need to see some development in each of them that will drive them to read the next part.
So you can’t just write an installment that only discusses events. There should be some tension that sets your characters moving. You can’t have an installment that’s “passive”.
For example, if your serial is a murder mystery, an episode can’t consist of your protagonist (perhaps a detective) just discussing the details of a murder with a colleague (unless it provides them with an epiphany in the case). They need to get out and find clues, speak with a witness, or get taunted by the killer— anything that takes them another step forward.
Adding these small plot points in every installment prevents your readers from being bored. It signals them that there’s something happening, or that something will happen soon.
It also ensures that your stories are paced well, instead of suddenly jumping from plot point to plot point without establishing how the story gets there.
3. Don’t info dump.
An info dump is when you take a lot of background or expository information and “dump” it on your reader, rather than revealing it at relevant points throughout the story. It rarely lets your readers understand your story better. In fact, it’ll just annoy them or they’ll forget all the info after a few pages.
Serials need to be paced well because each installment can only contain so much information before it’s unreadable. You can’t fit a character’s backstory into one chapter. Even if you did, it’s not as effective as doling it out through meaningful events and dialogue.
Stick to revealing details a few bits at a time. Maximize these reveals by doing them when they’re relevant to what’s currently happening in your story. For example, a great way to reveal an antagonist’s motivation and backstory is when they’re at the peak of defeat or victory. The importance of the moment and finally knowing why the antagonist acts that way drives the information into your readers more deeply than just revealing it normally.
Plus, when you info dump, you’re depriving yourself of the change to reveal information in later installments to create tension. Sometimes you’ll even run out of important information to disclose. This means you’ll either be sparse with information in later chapters or improvise new information.
Doing these two things can create an imbalance of details from your earlier chapters and your recent ones. Improvising new information can also create inconsistencies within your story, which leads to tip #4.
4. Prepare to improvise.
It’s rare for any writer to stick to their initial ideas and thoughts. With all the editing and rewrites, our finished works are far from what we thought they would be when we started them.
Then there are the gaps that we forget about or don’t notice until we’ve finished our stories. For example, the Harry Potter series never did explain where magic comes from and how it operates. Does it use energy? Do you always need to use a wand? I have so many questions about this.
When you notice that your story’s already diverged from your initial outline, or that you’ve left holes in your plot, then it’s time to improvise.
When you start in a new direction, you’ll have to evaluate how the turn affects your plot and what details need to be changed. Short of overhauling the entire story, you can concoct new details, characters, and events that will fit your story’s new direction.
But for plot holes, the best way is to fill them in as if they were never there. To do so, you’ll need to add details that don’t change anything in a major way but still add substance to your story. They should blend in without disrupting your story’s flow.
So if you discover that you’ve never explained one of your character’s scars, the backstory you add should be compatible with your character’s portrayal. If your character was a soldier, then you could reveal that their mysterious scar came from a battle wound. You can’t suddenly say it was from cooking unless you’ve hinted at the character having a different profession in the past, or that they have an interest in cooking.
5. Create memorable characters.
It can be tough to create a cohesive setting in a serial. The format limits how much information you can squeeze into each part. And you can’t just dump everything into one installment just so your readers will immediately know what kind of world your characters are living in.
The alternative is to flesh out your characters and make them relatable and memorable, making it easier for your readers to invest in your characters. As your serial progresses, they’ll keep wondering what happens to their beloved characters next!
Because serials need to show progress in every installment, your characters need to show incremental changes. They can’t remain static for long. If they do, your serial stops moving forward.
6. Keep it regular.
Serials naturally build suspense because of their format. Your readers will want to learn what happens next. Capitalize on that reaction to keep your readership high.
By keeping a schedule, you constantly build on your reader’s anticipation. It’s why most tv series, manga, anime, cartoons, and other kinds of formats deliver on a scheduled basis.
That anticipation keeps your stories on their minds and refreshes their interest on a regular basis. Make your readers feel that they can’t wait for your next release!
When you publish far in between, your readers lose interest and may even decide to drop your work. Worse, they might feel like you’re leading them on and they’re not getting a worthy enough payout in investing their time in you.
It’s one of the reasons why I decided to drop The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s been a decade since the last book’s release and the only thing fans have heard about the next book is that it’s “in progress.” It’s not a serial, but still a good example of why you shouldn’t lead readers on without any rewards.
Why Write Serial Fiction?
If you’re wondering whether you should try writing serial fiction, here are a few good reasons why you should try it:
1. It keeps you on a schedule.
What’s often hard about being a writer is writing regularly. This makes the quality and quantity of your work inconsistent. It’s one of the main reasons why writers fail to finish their writings. As you struggle to keep a writing schedule, your writing hours dwindle until you eventually stop.
Serials are published on a regular basis, whether it’s daily, weekly, or monthly. Your readers and your publishers hold you accountable to deliver at uniform intervals because they have a vested interest in the advancement of your serial.
The longer you stick to a writing schedule, the more it becomes a habit. When it does become so, you’ll find it easier to complete your other writing projects.
2. It helps you write realistic characters.
Serials thrive when the characters in them are well-rounded and realistic. Your characters need to evoke emotion from your readers. Whether they love them or hate them, the fact is that they’ll be eager to read what happens to your characters.
You’ll need to constantly flesh out your characters so they’ll stay relevant to the story. It’s a great way of improving your skills in writing a dynamic character.
3. It’s a great way to experiment.
A serial’s format gives you time to evaluate your story in between installments. This gives you fresh eyes every time you revisit your storyline, giving you a better chance of discovering gaps and new options to take advantage of.
As every installment can be read as a complete story, you can test these new options more easily than in a traditional novel. If your experimentation doesn’t achieve your desired result, you can simply revise that particular installment, or adapt your changes to your overarching narrative.
Given that preferences are turning toward bite-sized entertainment, it’s easy to imagine how serial fiction’s making a comeback.
Numerous platforms catering to serial fiction are popping up and practically all of the largest publishers are already testing the waters. Even Amazon’s gearing up for it.
Many of the best writers of the past era started out by publishing their works as serials. Here are a few examples:
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1881)
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
This was in an era where mass media was restricted to newspapers and magazines. Today, you have the digital world to help you better market your works and reach a larger audience.
Even if you start without monetizing your works, you still gain an understanding of how the writing process works. In a lot of cases, that’s more valuable than monetary gain (though, earning money does sweeten the deal a lot).
The worst that could happen is you receive negative feedback, which you can always use to improve your writing skills. So what’s there to lose?
Have you read any serial fiction? Share your experience in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: Pros, Cons, and Tips for Success
- The Self-Publishing Roller Coaster: How To Navigate the Ups and Downs of Writing
- Your Guide to Kindle Vella: Amazon’s Intro to Serialized Fiction
- Best Writing Websites for Fiction, Nonfiction, and Bloggers
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!