Since my last blog post I’ve been doing a lot of reading into how one goes about reaching an audience for their episodic stories . . . and I’ve learned that there are no clear-cut search terms to help navigate the topic, and no clear definition of what this form of writing actually is. And part of the reason, I think, is due to the digital age we live in, where eBooks and self-publishing have expanded the possibilities open to authors today.
At its simplest, episodic or serial fiction is a narrative presented in separate installments over a period of time. But that’s about as specific as defining a novel as a book with words in, and this vagueness of meaning seems to be frustrating readers in various corners of the internet who perhaps didn’t know exactly what they were buying into when the author described their work as ‘episodic’.
Below I’ve attempted to collate my own understanding of the two main types of serial fiction, and the challenges faced by both readers and writers using the form.
The Serialised Novel
With the availability of e-publishing, a lot of authors are now experimenting with serialising their novels. This means the author has written (or is in the process of writing) one complete story which can be broken up and sold as stand-alone segments. Sometimes these segments have been designed with serialisation in mind, ending on a cliff-hanger to keep the reader hooked waiting for the next installment; sometimes the installments are just normal chapters released for sale separately over time. This means the author can charge a small amount, say 99p, for each individual segment or chapter, potentially making more money than if they’d just sold the complete novel on its own. As a plus, readers might be persuaded to also buy the completed novel in order to have the story sections collected together.
Ultimately, a serialised novel can be presented equally well as a novel or as a series. But it has a relatively short run, to the length of an average novel in its genre.
From my Googling efforts and conversations with friends and family, I get the impression that most people, when talking about ‘serialised fiction’, are referring specifically to serialised novels. This frustrated me no end when I was trying to find advice tailored to the kind of serial I like to write, which is:
The Episodic Series
I would liken this form to a television series. The individual installments are more likely to stand up on their own within an episodic series, much like how you can watch a single episode of Supernatural or Game of Thrones without having seen the rest – you might not get to grips with all the character background and world lore, but you’ll be able to follow the plot that’s presented directly in front of you for the course of that episode. (You won’t understand why it was important that so-and-so’s dad killed so-and-so’s aunty five years ago, but you’ll understand why the character you only just fell in love with was horrifically murdered in this episode with nary a warning. And then you’ll curse George R. R. Martin and resign yourself to watching the series from the beginning.)
In this sense an episodic series is often longer and more likely to be without a fixed end. It might be composed of wildly disparate settings and characters, but be tied together by an underlying motif or intertwined plot. An episodic series also has the potential to be divided into seasons, where a set of episodes are bound by one overarching plot arc. E.g. There are twenty episodes that make up Season 1 of the Jack Hansard Series.
Whereas a serialised novel is a complete story that has been broken up, an episodic series is a story that is constantly unfolding with each episode and could (potentially) continue unfolding infinitely. Y’know, just like a beloved TV series that jumps the shark and goes on way, way too long. (Lookin’ at you, Supernatural.)
Here I feel it makes sense to call the installments ‘episodes’, whereas the installments in a serialised novel could sensibly be called ‘chapters’ or ‘segments’. Crucially, I feel the key thing about an episodic series is that it would not work as a novel. I’m not saying you couldn’t edit and adapt it into novel form. I mean that if you collected a season’s worth of episodes together, it would still read as a season of individual (though connected) stories, rather than as one story where all the segments run seamlessly into each other.
I don’t claim to be a pro, and the definitions I’ve given are hardly rigid. Even my Jack Hansard only loosely fits, as not every story can be consumed separately from the rest: because I’ve restricted myself to very compact installments (4000-5000 words a piece) some stories spill over into several episodes, so that the overall series contains mini-arcs of three to five episodes long. But again, I’d liken it to a TV series, where script-writers will often create two-part episode arcs to build suspense.
Do People Read Serials?
Short answer: YES, and then some.
Nowadays it’s easier than ever to access serial stories: you can buy them easily through Amazon and other e-publishing services; read them on your phone, tablet or Kindle. Websites like Wattpad offer a free platform for readers and writers of all types of serialised fiction, and the idea seems to be pretty successful: with an audience of 45 million readers a month on Wattpad, it suggests there’s plenty of demand for this form of writing. But whether serial fiction is a good or bad idea varies from reader to reader, and probably depends on how much you enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the next installment to arrive – and how effectively authors present their work.
For instance, the self-publishing platform Smashwords has been decidedly lukewarm to the concept of serial fiction, and although serials are recognised as a viable form in their Terms of Service, there’s a handy section that declares a publication must not be an “unfinished work-in-progress”. Y’know, a definition you could easily apply to an episodic series if you didn’t want them hanging around, cluttering up your webpages.
I can understand why. In the past some authors have abused the system and annoyed readers by flooding an online shop front with images of their multiple ‘serial’ works, instead of a solitary entry for a novel. A cheap trick to get attention. Readers have also explained their dislike of having to pay for separate installments, seeing it as a tacky device to make them pay more for each chapter. Sometimes this negativity is because the reader didn’t understand they weren’t buying a finished story at point of purchase, or because they jumped in halfway through a series by accident.
So what can we do, as writers, to help readers enjoy the serialised story form? More than anything, I think we need to be clear about what we’re selling. If you’re selling chapters of a book that you’re eventually going to release as a completed novel, be upfront about it: readers may prefer to wait and pay for the finished deal. Letting them know they have a choice matters, and hopefully curbs feelings of ‘I’ve been cheated’ from those that don’t enjoy cliff-hangers or the anticipation of waiting.
If you’re selling an episodic series, I think you need to start by explaining exactly what that is, in relation to the story you’re presenting. It’s going to suck balls if the reader thinks they’re subscribing to a series of novels and then receives short stories for their money. Will you be releasing a collected ‘season’ of your episodes, so that readers don’t have to buy them separately if they don’t want to?
In particular, we need to avoid the temptation to abuse the episodic form for attention. Don’t upload all your episodes at once to spam a reader’s page. If you promise to update to a schedule, meet your deadlines. Even if you are charging a pittance for each installment, make sure it’s still worth the price, and if you use cliff-hangers keep them inventive and thoughtfully planned – not thrown in at the last second to keep your reader dangled on the line.
Now more than ever I think episodic storytelling is coming into its own. With our busy, frantic lifestyles and device-addiction, it makes sense to present stories in easily-digested chunks that can be served up during a long train commute or snatched during a coffee break. When people are finding they have less time to read, we can try to make the reading easier for them.
Was this helpful? Do you agree with my definitions of serial fiction? Perhaps you have a completely different understanding of how it works, or a better idea of how to classify it – let me know in the comments! =)