Serial Fiction for Beginners

Serial fiction is old school and the best examples I can think of is probably comic strips, soap operas and the black and white episodes of Flash Gordon, Doctor Who and Lost in Space that I never watched as a kid.

The first time I came across serial fiction was The Green Mile in 1996. I was fifteen and vaguely aware of serials from the old penny dreadfuls and the works of Dickens I’d pretended to study in school. Here was a book by a huge author published in six monthly readable chunks for something like £1.99 a piece. I’d read Carrie by this point but was still young and still deemed ‘adult books’ (basically anything thicker than my hand) as being beyond me.

I loved The Green Mile but my pocket money didn’t stretch to buying a book a month. I remember the promise of a new volume though, of waiting for the next installment. King had me hook, line and sinker. Plus there was a mouse, for crying out loud, in a prison!

scalzi human divisionIn recent years, serial fiction has made an unlikely comeback. John Scalzi, for example, is probably one of the best known authors although, personally, my favourite is Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen Vs. Series which literally has me rooted to my iMac.

Of course some of the best books are serials; Twilight, Vampire Academy, The Newsflesh Trilogy, Harry Potter and, of course, King’s own Dark Tower. Each book is stand alone but, X Files like, also has a piece of a larger puzzle which is only resolved at the end of the series. Part of the fun is reading along, guessing at the nefarious plots often over a period of years.

As a writer and author, I can see the financial gain of writing serials rather than stand-alone novels but what interests me more is the bite-sizedness of it. In January I finally started writing serial fiction (this is one top of revising one novel, planning another and trying to persuade my cats not to eat me). I had an idea for turning the vampire/zombie mythos on its head and started writing the Carrion Files . I liked the idea that you could read it with a coffee and then forget about it until the next instalment hit your inbox/RSS feed.

Okay the story premise might not be novel but I’m thoroughly enjoying writing each instalment. I can truthfully say I’m world-building as I go and have no idea where the story will end up next year, let alone next month. The beauty of this form of fiction is also that you don’t need to set the scene, it is implied, much like the chapters in a book, that readers can follow along.

In terms of length, I’ve found the sweet spot is about 2-3 thousand words and because I’ve been open about the fact this is serial fiction, I can jump from perspective to perspective quite happily. Most importantly, I’ve found I have a heck of a lot more freedom. Chapters require a narrative string that is tight but serial fiction is a lot more pliable and the whole thing is allowing me to be a lot more experimental than I usually am. I have no idea if this is something I’m going to continue but as long as I enjoy writing these snippets from a post-apocalyptic world, I shall be even if no one reads them.

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  1. I too have been enjoying The Human Division. I believe the abundance of ereaders will bring about a new interest in serialized fiction.

    There's nothing wrong with making everything up as you go. I've certainly done that myself in the past. But, I believe that the strength of serials lies in the ability to collect up many small stories into a sequence that is greater than the sum of its parts. And doing that requires careful planning.

    I've written about the structure of serial fiction on my blog (, and I'm also writing my own serial, Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions.

  2. Verrry interesting, Lesley! I have thought about publishing my next novel as a serial just because it's so #&%$!ing long, but you make clear that *writing* a serial is a whole different game. You seem to be doing The Carrion Files more as a set of linked shorts. To me the essence of a serial is the cliffhanger. Would you agree?

    Me personally, I prefer to gobble long novels all at once (I even held off from reading The Green Mile until the final instalment was out!), but I can definitely see the attraction of the "bite-sized" serial instalment. And it's superior to a plain old short story in that you can get involved with the characters over the long haul.

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