When an author tells me that he’s stuck on a novel, or is completely bored by it, I suggest he consider writing serial fiction.
Serial fiction can be quick-fix to get you back into a writing groove. You receive feedback fast: write the first 5,000 word episode, publish it, then assess the response you get.
But what’s serial fiction? A serial is episodic fiction; you publish an episode at a time, until you’ve told the story.
Writing serial fiction: questions
Questions authors ask about serial fiction include:
- How long is a complete serial? As a rule of thumb, a serial might match the number of words in a novel in the genre you’ve chosen, but length is up to you.
- What if a serial doesn’t sell? If it doesn’t, it still gives you benefits: you build readers (and fans, we hope) and you add to your publishing catalogue. You could look on your serial as a marketing exercise and an experiment.
I’ve had a couple of students who gave up on a venture into serial fiction. However, the majority found that their serial helped them to sell more books and gain confidence.
Serial fiction has a lot in common with writing short stories
You could look at writing a serial as if you were writing a collection of short stories. I often write collections of stories and publish them individually. After I’ve written five, I combine them to a collection, then publish the collection. Each story in the collection sells the other stories—and your novels as well.
The big difference between a collection of short stories and serial fiction is of course that in a serial, each “story” is part of an over-arching plot.
You’re already familiar with serial fiction; many TV shows use this format. They have an over-arching plot for each season.
In many ways it’s easier to write serials than it is to write novels. A serial avoids the “sagging middle” which plagues many novels (and novelists.)
Let’s look at some tips which will help you to get started.
1. You may already have the start of a serial
If you’ve been writing fiction for a while, chances are that you’ve got several novels on the backburner. You’ll get to them one day. Here’s your chance to use this material.
Think in terms of word count. A novel will run to 60,000 words in many genres like romance and mysteries. Written as a serial, you’d write ten episodes of 6,000 words, or six episodes of 10,000 words.
While you’re reviewing your older material, look for characters you enjoy. Your plot is what your characters do, so if you have a character you love, brainstorm situations in which to place the character.
2. Think in terms of episodes: each episode is a story
Each of your episodes has its own story. When an author tells me: “I tried a serial, but readers disliked it,” that often means that the cliffhangers annoyed readers. Yes, you need to keep your overall plot in mind, but it’s vital that readers enjoy each episode. If they don’t, they’ll feel short-changed.
So, write each episode as you’d write a short story: give each episode a satisfying ending. Of course you want readers to read the next and future episodes so rather than abrupt cliffhangers at the end of each episode, consider using open loops.
Open loops are psychological tricks: hooks and unanswered questions. You can and should use open loops right throughout all your fiction to keep readers reading. Although open hooks are cliffhangers, they’re subtle. You might open a loop in the first episode, which you close in the third. Next, you’d open a couple of loops in the second episode, then close them in the third and fourth.
End each episode by beginning an intriguing scene after you complete the episode’s story. Readers will need to buy the next episode to find out what happens next.
My own mantra for serial fiction is simple: forget the plot, it’s all about the main character. If readers enjoy your main character, you’re golden.
3. Define your serial’s story question before you start writing
Look at your story question as the overarching plot which you’ll resolve in the final episode.
Assessing your genre helps you to create a story question. In any form of romance fiction, the story question is always: do the hero and heroine get together? If you’re writing a mystery or a thriller serial, the story question is either: whodunnit, or: will the hero catch whoever did it?
You’ll find that as long as you know your story question, you’ll have an easy time with the over-arching plot.
Although you can plot your serial from go to whoa, I’m by nature a pantser, so I’m happy to start writing as soon as I have the story question and main characters.
Writing serial fiction is fun; it builds your fiction skills
My writing students love serial fiction, especially if they’re nervous about publishing.
One author told me that her serial gave her confidence that “I can DO this”. It took her two years to publish her first novel. After publishing her serial, she’s managed to publish four novels.
You can too.
What would it mean to you to sell more fiction?
Here’s everything you need.
Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.