Do you have a character that you just can’t stop writing about? They might be a detective solving crimes, a zombie that just can’t die, or a traveller on an epic journey around the world. These kinds of characters, and their adventures, make for a great serial.
Serials are short instalments of a larger story, all tied together through the characters and often through an overarching “meta-story”. Think of it like a good TV mini-series: each episode has a beginning, middle, and, well, cliff-hanger (we’ll just call that an ending), but the overall story that’s revealed over the series, and the character development, keep people addicted season after season.
Because there are really two levels of the story, writing a serial is different from writing a novel. In some ways, it is even harder than writing a traditional novel or short story, and it can be great practice to stretch your writing skills in new ways.
The 5 Steps to Writing a Good Serial
- Choose a genre with good readership
If you can, choose a genre like Romance, which has voracious readers. According to the 2016 Smashwords survey, romance fiction accounts for 50% of their sales. If you write what people want to read, they will be more likely to pay for it.
- Plan in advance
Before you start, decide how long your work will be, and how many episodes. There is no magic formula: you can write a novel of 60,000 words and divide it into six instalments, or a short story of 6,000 words divided into eight episodes. It’s up to you.
Key tip: outline first! Taking the long view is even more important in serial writing than traditional fiction. Having a sense of where your series or collection is going to go will help you set up threads early that will pay off later. These intelligent twists and turns will hook your readers and bring them back for your next episode.
- Test your idea and yourself
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting hooked on a story, only to find out that it has no ending. Imagine watching a good movie on a plane and landing when there are 10 minutes left! The same is true for serial fiction: once you start, FINISH. When you commit to your readers, you need to follow through.
Test yourself to make sure that you’re as committed to your story as you hope your readers will be. Write the first three or four instalments and decide if it is something that you want to continue writing. If you are hooked on your story, your readers will likely be hooked too.
- Get writing!
One of the benefits of serial fiction is that you can take your time to develop the plot and the characters. Use that time. Not every plot has to wrap up at the end of every episode. You can start with one plot, pick up another, and go back to the first one (or tie it in) in a later part of the story.
Don’t leave readers hanging, though. We have all read stories that end abruptly, and as readers, that leaves us feeling let down. Each episode should resolve something; it doesn’t have to be the plot you started in that episode, but it should give the reader some sort of satisfaction. It should stand on its own and also make the reader want to read the next one. Add inside jokes and references to previous episodes to reward your reader for taking the journey with you.
Beginnings, middles, and ends: in the traditional novel, it’s pretty straightforward. However, in the serial novel, it can take on a lot of different forms. The beginning of one plot can start in one episode and end two down the line. There can be two or three plots happening at once. There can be an overarching plot with many subplots.
Characters themselves can have their own beginnings, middles, ends, fresh beginnings, and so on. They can develop completely independently of the overarching plot. Because you have time, you can truly explore the characters and their multi-dimensionality. Multi-dimensional characters are more interesting and more relatable. The characters’ role in a story can also evolve: supporting characters can become main character, either permanently or temporarily. Focussing on a supporting characters in a particular episode gives your main characters a counterpoint to work off of and gives your plot some time to breathe.
- Get it out there
Serials don’t have the same market that traditional fiction does. However, there are ways to distribute your work. Here’s a few:
- Here, with Alsina!
Alsina publishes short story serials for language learners. Serials can be any number of instalments, with each instalment between 700-1500 words. Alsina pays royalties when each instalment of the serial is read, so a series is a great way to make more money than through a one-off story on our platform.
- Your Own Blog
Blogs are essentially the 21st-century serial format. You have full control of your content and how you market it and position it, but this also means you have to do it all yourself. There are lots of free blog platforms out there (see this article for a list).
You’ve probably heard of Kindle Unlimited, which allows you to self-publish on Amazon’s platform and gives you royalties based on pages read (although their royalty model has evolved, and continues to do so). Here’s a good article by Hugh Howey on publishing a serial vs. full novel on KU.
Wattpad is an online community for people to share their work. With over 45 million people on their platform, you’ll be able to interact with your readers and get feedback as you write your work.
Writers on the JukePop platform get points for each instalment that they write, and readers can give feedback throughout the process. This gives you great editorial feedback along the way.
Plympton publishes serialised fiction via Amazon’s Kindle platform. They have lots of great partnerships and are working on a lot of innovative, non-traditional digital publishing projects.