Around twelve years ago, I picked up the first three Harry Potter novels and devoured them. It was Prisoner of Azkaban that stuck with me the most, and I spent a lot of time after I was done reading thinking about the details and mysteries revealed in that book. What else did I have to do? There were no more books to read, after all.
Around ten years ago I picked up the Wheel of Time and read everything that had been published up to that point. I enjoyed it, and I picked up each new book enthusiastically. And when I was done, I had vague, positive memories and no ability to distinguish between the storylines of the different books.
There’s something magical about a series of stories. Nothing earns obsessive love like an unfinished arc story. I have theories about that! But first, a tangent!
At one point, long ago, I read somebody wise discussing why audiences bonded with mysterious male characters.* We had to work to understand them, their motivations, secrets and histories, and the more work we invested in a character, the more we cared. I took notes! This was an interesting tip!
I think the same thing is true of serials. And series novels. (Let me know when ‘series’ doesn’t look like a word anymore. I think I’m already there.)
An enforced break between parts of a story means the audience spends time thinking about the story. They invest themselves in it. They care. They really want to get more! (And in some cases if they can’t get more on a timely fashion, they make more.)
This is awesome.
One of my favorite authors only ever writes standalone novels. I love her stuff with a passion, but after I read it, I’m done. I don’t spend time thinking about her next book because I have nothing to think about. Another book will come out. It will be good. It will probably have an awesome Kinuko Craft cover. That’s all I know.
Another of my favorite authors has written 35 books in the same setting. Each book is a discrete story, but the characters evolve and grow over time. I’ve spent some time anticipating the direction of the character growth, but I don’t really know what direction the setting is ultimately going, only where it’s been.
Even though I’ve spent a lot more time rereading Discworld books than I have Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire books, I’ve spent far more non-book time thinking about the latter two series. I suspected Snape was motivated by love by the end of Azkaban and I knew it by the end of Goblet of Fire. And just ask me about R+L=J and Sansa and the Hound in ASoIaF sometime. (Have not read Dance with Dragons yet, no.)
A well-written story with sequel hooks and mysteries will grab my mind and not let go for days.
I don’t think it matters if it’s a serial or a series.
Wait, you want to know the difference?
Can you remember what happens in each book, where it begins and ends for each character? Or is the whole story a mass of events, perhaps chronologically ordered?
Discworld is entirely a series. Harry Potter is a series, until the last couple of books where it develops a serial flavor. ASoIaF and The Wheel of Time (which I haven’t read since my binge a decade ago) are decidedly more serial. Classic serials also show up in newspapers and daytime television, media that lend themselves to an endless exploration of a setting and the lives of a set of characters. Of course, the other sorts show up on TV enough but I don’t really watch enough TV to have any idea what’s what these days. Somebody can help out in the comments, maybe.
I’ve encountered a number of people who believe that there’s a fundamental difference between serial fiction and serialized novels. This has both interested me and made me knit my brow together. My observational experience is that while, certainly, the feel of a soap opera and the feel of Harry Potter are different, they both prompt audiences to say, when they get together, “How about that last story, eh? What do you think will happen next?”
Maybe I’m too focused on potential audience investment, and not enough on that feel? But for my own purposes, I don’t think it matters whether something is serial fiction or a serialized novel or a set of serial novels.
Still, it seems to be important to some other writers, and one day if I work hard, I’ll understand why.
I think I’ve stated elsewhere what made me decide to put up a serial. (I mean, other than the possibility of attracting passionately interested readers, because that’s really the goal of all writing.) I’m not a clever blogger, so I wanted to put something of myself on the internet that would entertain in the only way I know how. And I wanted to experiment with having deadlines, and getting reader feedback while the story was still in production.
But I’m writing quite a bit ahead of schedule. I didn’t think writing each section right before I posted it was feasible for me. I like to let things sit a bit before doing an editing pass, and I needed a buffer against both discouragement and distraction, because I’m the mother of a little boy. I now have more of a buffer than I originally planned because apparently deadlines make me work even harder than I anticipated. But the story is still ‘live’, as far as I’m concerned. And planning it all out in advance, as I have, has simply made it possible for me to stick to my schedule far better than I ever have before. It’s the planning it all out that makes me feel like it’s a serialized novel, even though since I’m not finishing and polishing it before posting it, I guess I fall right in the middle.
I know that a lot of people who dislike planning a story out. It robs the story of energy, takes away the thrill of discovery. I’ll… I’ll have to write a post about my experience ‘pantsing it’ at another time. For now, I’ll accept that everybody works best in a different way.
So, let’s see. What are the benefits and burdens of posting as you write? You get a deadline. You get possible instant reader feedback (although probably best not to count on that). You get an iron-clad excuse to not get trapped in a revision loop. You can make sure your story fits with current events perfectly, if that fancy takes you. You can even abandon storylines that nobody’s interested in. What else am I missing?
I’ve also come across discussions of the goal of each serial posting. These vary just as much as the kinds of fiction:
- Each post should be a good jumping-in point for new readers
- Each post should be a complete bit of story
- Each post should hook into the next
I haven’t seen a discussion of the length factor, but I do think that figures in. At a thousand words three times a week, it’s not going to be possible to make each posting a good jumping-in point. 5000 words twice a month, on the other hand, could be a complete short story. Everybody seems to have a different ideal.
A confession: I’ve always had trouble with chapters. Maybe it’s because I read too much Terry Pratchett, and he disdains chapters in most of his books. Maybe it’s because the idea of what a chapter should be seems varies as much as the ideas of what a serial fiction posting should be. I admit I’ve never understood the point of chapters if you’re supposed to try and end a chapter in such a way that the reader doesn’t want to put the book down. Are they just a tool for deceiving yourself/your parent about when you’re planning on putting the book down? A legacy from an age of reading aloud when the readers needed some break point? Or are they supposed to be a discrete story chunk? I have no idea!
Ahem. Sorry about that.
I think it’s possible to construct a whole story, with a beginning, middle and satisfying end, with a sense of structure and pacing, and then write and publish it as a serial. At the end, you’d have something very like a novel, although the pacing structure might be a bit different than the standard modern novel’s pacing and structure.
I also think it’s fine to not plan nearly as much, to jump in and start writing and discover where the story is going, as long as you are good at two things: drafting in a readable form and writing on a regular schedule. I think publishing that as a book will be much less like a novel, and much more like a month of recorded soap operas. Still, soap operas are addictive for a reason.
I also think you can write a whole novel in advance, and dribble it out to readers. Although at some point, readers are going to want to know why you’ve chosen to torment them in that way instead of just giving it to them all at once. I mean, if it’s all written. You’ll probably want to come up with an answer for that. They won’t like, “I enjoy watching you squirm!”
Even though that’s probably the truth.
An outline and Roman numerals didn’t stop this post from getting crazy and disorganized. This is why I make sure I outline and edit and sit on my scene drafts! And now, just in case: series series serial serial series series.
Check in Monday for the first post of Nightlights! Or possibly late Sunday night, if you happen to be up. 🙂
* I think the actual discussion involved a double standard regarding reserved male and female characters, and probably came from Neil Gaiman or one of his fans in association with the reaction to various characters in Neverwhere. But I’m almost certain the aspect I mentioned above also came out of it.