Adventures in Serialized Fiction Writing
by Zachary Bonelli
In 2000, I sat down to write a novel. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I had the concept of ‘novel’ in my head. I think I sat down to write whatever happened to flow out of my mind and onto the page. Anyway, I started writing about this guy who was travelling between alternate reality versions of Earth. What started out as random vignettes turned into a fully realized novel.
I struggled for many years to complete that novel to no avail. I straggled behind and slacked, focusing on other areas of my life for many years. The ideas piled up, and I wrote them down as notes, occasionally as small vignettes, and the “novel” remained stalled.
Last year, when I began working anew, I came to a very important realization. My novel was not a novel, at least not in the traditional sense, but a sequence of short stories, internally consistent and coherent individually, but which tell a bigger, more epic story when you add them all up together.
This was not a traditional novel, or even a trilogy of novels, but a series. The short stories I had come up with were not chapters, but episodes. Those names are not arbitrary. Episodes of a serial have important distinguishing features from chapters of novel.
Chapters & Episodes: Distinguishing Characteristics
1. CompletenessIn a novel, a chapter does not necessarily tell a complete story. An episode does. An episode has a rising arc of action, conflict of some sort, and a resolution. Chapters may accomplish these too, but they don’t have to. A chapter usually only produces momentum toward one of them, and it doesn’t have to even do that.
2. MarketingChapters are never marketed to readers individually, only as part of a complete story. Episodes are sold individually, and may be collected up into groups, though it’s not necessity.
3. LengthSince episodes tell a complete story, it’s difficult for an episode to be as short as a chapter. Depending on your style, a chapter can be as short as a couple hundred words. Even expert writers will have a hard time telling a complete story at that length, and since episodes are marketed individually, they will need to be at a length that will be palatable to readers. At the time of this writing, the minimum price for an ebook on many vendors, most importantly Amazon, is $0.99 USD. At this price, I recommend your episodes be at least 4,000 words long (that’s about 15 pages) at minimum. Optimally, I would recommend an episode be about 8,000.
4. TimeIt is unusual for each chapter in a story to be separated by an enormous section of “missing” time. Perhaps the author skips over a couple of hours of the characters’ lives that would be uninteresting to the reader, or occasionally a couple of days of time, but temporality remains largely consistent (unless the whole point is that it doesn’t, ala The Time Traveler’s Wife).
In serials, each episode of the adventure can begin presuming that any number of major events occurred since we saw that character last. The scene movements and transitions inside the episode follow the rules of chapters in a book, telling a coherent story by leaving out only uninteresting bits of time. But episodes themselves have the potential to be more “distinct” and “separate” from one another than chapters in a book are from one another.
Many serials utilize this technique, but many others don’t. Nonetheless, it’s a technique that’s very difficult to do with chapters of a novel.
It took a lot of energy for me to realize that I was writing a serial at all. However, recent technological advances have made production in the serialized format more practical than ever, and we are poised for a resurgence of this style of narrative.
Now is a great time to experiment with the format, come up with something new and original, and discover what style works best for you.
Zachary Bonelli is the author of the ongoing Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions series. It is currently in the middle of its first sequence, Embarkation. He is active on the Google+ Science Fiction Writers community, and muses about serialized fiction, and randomly as well, on his blog.
Insomnium, Zachary’s second serial, is due out this October. He is currently attempting to raise money for the series’ cover art on Kickstarter.