It was popular during the Victorian Age, lost for decades and then “found” again. Noted for cliffhangers, this storytelling device was precursor to today’s Golden Age of amazing television dramas. Now it’s enjoying its own fresh day in the sun.
I’m talking about serial fiction, of course. Or maybe I should call it “serial storytelling,” since the practice spans not just episodic novels but web comics, comics and other wonderful formats.
Many if not most of the great Romantic novels were published this way—section by section—over the course of several months. Dickens released his stories this way and published the works of other great authors like Elizabeth Gaskell in this format as well.
Readers of the day anticipated the arrival of literary magazines the way you or I would the new season of Game of Thrones. Yet the rise of moving pictures and then, television, seems to have curtailed this original form of episodic storytelling for a very long time.
Even this New York Times article admits that serialized storytelling has not seen a heyday like this since the time of Dickens himself.
It remains to a new generation of writers to bring it back. There are platforms, of course: Kindle Serials, JukePop, SerialTeller, Tuesday Serials, Starter Serials, Figment, Amazon WriteOn and Wattpad. But there are plenty of ways (and in my opinion, more freedom and better presentation possibilities) by sharing your work in your own way on your own space.
(If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a total iconoclast when it comes to how the work looks on the page. And most of these sites don’t make much effort to help you make your words look as good as they sound. Just saying …)
My journey with serial fiction began in 2012, when I serialized a novel, Rise of the Tiger, on a custom-designed WordPress site. The visibility of that project landed me a gig in 2013-14 as the showrunner of a follow-up collaborative web show, Aurelia: Edge of Darkness about the city featured in the novel. In 2015 I returned to my roots, but this time in graphic novel form with the steampunk murder mystery The (Re)Invention of Alethia Grey. In November, I’ll launch my third serial story project The League of Marvelosities—this time with square pages and quilted illustrations.
To date, I’ve published 74 episodes of serial fiction in one form or another, not counting all the episodes of AURELIA: Edge of Darkness, with eight more upcoming episodes in the works. Every episode has contained artwork, whether by a guest artist or (now) handmade by me in traditional media.
I’ve learned a few things about serial storytelling over that time. Here are my top “big picture” tips:
Tip #1: Embrace uncertainty.
Let’s face it, putting work out into the world as you make it is very uncertain. I’m fairly sure Dickens and company didn’t do this. Likely they wrote their novels first and then broke them into pieces for publication. But as the Scrappy Storyteller, I’ve always preferred being in the moment, taking risks and sharing what I make as I make it.
If you’re hoping to micromanage every last detail — you’ll have a long wait to finish a project you can serialize, if you don’t already have one. And if you’re willing to live in the moment, you’ll also need to live with the decisions you made. I promised myself a long time ago that whatever I said on page 20, I would stick to on page 120, even I no longer liked it. That promise has stood me in good stead. I’ve developed faith in myself and my decisions.
Tip #2: Select your platform carefully.
Earlier I mentioned a bucket list of platforms for posting your serial fiction. Some of these platforms offers reader critiques and some protection against plagiarism (although with the web you always run the risk). Many others are glorified WordPress sites—and not even well made or well designed ones at that.
I’ve always preferred hosting my own work on my own site, because I really believe in worldbuilding. From a world builder’s perspective, hosting your story on someone else’s site, including Amazon, is taking it out of your galaxy and into someone else’s. It will always feel a bit alien. (My best advice is to open a free WordPress site, slap on a template you like, and get to work. You’re better off getting going than planning for a long time—and never executing.)
Tip #3: Live with your platform choice.
No matter what platform you choose, your email notifications (whether a MailChimp newsletter or simple notifications of a new post) will likely be tied to that site. When readers sign up for that site or notification method, getting them to move later will be that much more difficult.
Case in point: when I once had to move Rise of the Tiger from its original site to its final one, I lost subscribers who were really enjoying the story because I couldn’t get ahold of them to re-connect their subscription. So make an informed decision early and stick with it. That’s your best chance for building your audience.
Tip #4: Interact with your audience.
Audiences don’t simply show up and keep showing up. Serial fiction readers often want to build a relationship just as much as consume your story—so be sure you make yourself available. Reach out to other serial fiction writers. Participate in Twitter or Facebook communities devoted to your story medium (writing, graphic novel, comics, etc.) Share the work of other creators and share your work with them. Audiences are built with time, effort and two-way communication.
Tip #5: Be willing to take risks.
With serial fiction, you can’t guarantee what’s going to happen with your story, whether people will like it or even if the whole experience will turn out totally like you hoped. And that’s okay. Having an ongoing serial adventure yourself while writing the project is part of the fun. Take risks. Try things. You’ll learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t which is part of the beauty of the whole thing. Relax and enjoy the process.
Tip #6: Treat deadlines as sacred.
Serial fiction can work well on any schedule … as long as you have a schedule. Whether you post daily or once a month, determine a schedule you can actually manage and stick to it. Getting behind isn’t impossible to overcome, but it is a lot harder once you know you’re pages behind. The temptation to quit becomes much more likely.
Better to post less often and be consistent than be terribly inconsistent on a schedule you’ve previously announced. And of course, you can promote your story and various installments between times.
Tip #7: Prioritize experience over continuity.
Wait … what? This bit of advice might sound completely off-the-wall. Why wouldn’t continuity be important? First, I should say that continuity is incredibly important. But even more than that, it’s important that your audience has a fantastic time going on this journey with you. The anticipation of what will happen next, the speculation about possible outcomes for characters, the thrill of cliffhangers: all of these (and many more small, multiplying experiences) are what make serials ever so delightful.
From a psychological perspective, these elements stick in the audience’s mind far longer than whether Jonny’s shirt had the same brass buttons on it two pages in a row. Do try to be as accurate and consistent as possible. But more than that, take us on a really great ride. We’re experiencing this story in real time, not in one sitting.
Tip #8: Don’t wait to get started.
Thinking about serializing your story is one thing. Doing it is another. If nothing else, I encourage you to just get started — and the rest will take care of itself. You’ll learn your preferences, what does and does not work, and what you should do next time to improve your quality of work and the size of your audience. But you can’t learn any of this, or make an impact, if your work isn’t out there.
In future installments of this series, we’ll be looking more at the mechanics of serial fiction and tips for marketing it and making the experience really over-the-top in future posts. I hope you’ve found this one helpful.