Serial fiction is a popular way to publish everything from a short story series to a full-length novel. And serializing is a great way to build your audience. By using a variety of platforms and means of publishing, you can continually create and expand stories for your fans.
But before you can start reaping the benefits of serial fiction, you need to know how to write episodic fiction.
What Is Serial Fiction?
Any story told in segments or installments is a serial. The origins stem from 19th-century writers like Charles Dickens, who famously is credited with publishing the first serial novel (The Pickwick Papers). Since then, you can find serialized content in comic books, tv shows, and all kinds of other media.
The serial format is an excellent way to break up longer works and build interest from your fans. If they’re eagerly waiting for the next installment, you know those readers are fans!
Serial writing gives savvy authors a unique way to sell new releases through specific platforms (like Wattpad or Radish). You’ll also have the versatility to self-publish however you’d like—for example, you could publish individual episodes on a serial fiction platform, sell a compiled version as an ebook on Amazon, and offer the print version of your compilation on your own site with Lulu Direct.
Before you dive into the publishing options for your serial fiction, here are a few things to consider as you’re writing your first episode.
Unique Elements Of Serial Fiction
A regular novel will have one overarching plot that follows a common four-step model known as Freytag’s Pyramid. Short stories tend to use the same model. It looks like this:
But for serial stories, you have a story arc followed by a new story arc. It looks more like a wave:
You will not get through all four points in each episode, but the serial fiction structure can’t sustain the same plot indefinitely. You might need 10 or 20 or even 30 weekly installments to tell a story. But, at some point, you’ll have to resolve the overall story and move your characters onto a new adventure.
You also need to develop those characters so you can keep the stories going. Unless your readers really identify with and cheer for your characters, your stories will fall flat. Think about television series—they can sometimes run for 100+ episodes!
That only happens because we love the characters.
Writing Serial Fiction
As you can probably guess from my Freytag’s Pyramid/Wave example, writing serial fiction is broadly like writing regular fiction. There are a few approaches to the creative process, including how you write and the story structure, that do apply to the serial form specifically.
Planning And Organizing
You are going to need a system for organizing notes, plot outlines, character profiles, and all manner of other details. Find yourself a note-taking or productivity app that works for you and get in the habit of using it.
If you don’t carefully keep notes for all your characters and places, you run the risk of inconsistencies. That’s not always a problem, but if it happens a lot or in a way that upsets your readers, you run the risk of losing your fans.
Without a great plan in place, you’ll eventually be floundering to get subsequent installments published or you’ll fall off your monthly or weekly schedule.
I suggest making a template for your characters. Add as much detail as you can. That should include things like age, date of birth, place of birth, a physical description with all those details, and other elements that reveal the character.
Some prompts to include are:
- What makes this character weird?
- What does this character want?
- What does this character value?
You need to create a thorough character sheet for each of your major characters. Ideally, you’ll also explore the history of your secondary characters in case they prove to be a hit with your fans and you want to give them their own story! Serialized fiction is heavily reliant on the characters. If you really want reader engagement, you have to create characters they relate to and are excited to root for (or against, in the case of your antagonists).
Outline The Story
Once you have an idea and some characters, write a short outline that you can use to guide your episode development. This outline doesn’t need to be thorough, but you should be able to identify a few natural break points.
Look for moments in the story that reveal key plot elements or when something major happens to a character. Use these to end an installment. Everything that happens between those plot points is content for a single episode. Now you’ve got a sense of urgency, leaving your reader itching for future episodes. And, if you do it well, your fans will stick around after the end of the story and be the first ones to grab your next new release.
Set A Publishing Schedule
Develop a plan for publishing installments. You need to set writing and publishing goals or you’ll risk missing a publication date. Once you’ve created a cadence, you need to give your readers that next chapter on time.
To that end, I suggest you get into the habit of writing every day.
This advice might be common among all kinds of writers, but it is even more important for serial fiction writers. If you don’t get started writing on the regular, you’ll struggle to keep to your publishing schedule.
Plotting A Serial Novel
There’s one additional thing to keep in mind while you’re planning out and writing your serial fiction: will you novelize your series?
You can make money from digital serial fiction, but turning your serial story into a complete novel adds another product you can offer and usually leads to much higher profits. Particularly if you sell on your own website, you can ensure you’re not bound to a serial publishing platform.
Sending your fans to your own website has numerous benefits:
- You’ll be able to ask them to join your mailing list.
- Selling from your own site ensures you earn more money.
- You control the entire experience on your own site.
Even if your serial fiction doesn’t lend itself to a novel or book series, you could publish them as a compilation. Look for ways to offer your creative work in new formats that will appeal to your fans. And, since you’ve been building that mailing list, you can use your email newsletter to market your serial novel or compilation.
The goal is to turn a story you’ve already found success with as a digital serial into a printed book to sell. Existing fans will want a copy for their bookshelf (and to loan to a friend!) and you can market the book to potential readers who don’t follow your series.
Adapting Your Serial Fiction Writing Plan
Plan as much as you can before you publish and market your serial fiction. Do all the character sheets you can. Create maps of your locations and write short stories for minor characters. Do all the work behind the scenes you can.
Then be ready to adapt and change up that plan.
You might discover a minor character is more popular than your protagonist. Change up your plan and give that minor character more to do. Or maybe life gets in the way and you have to shift from four installments a month to two. Maybe you’re not finding an audience on one social media platform and you need to revise your marketing plan to focus on a different strategy.
The key is to keep writing so you always have new stories to publish and keep your fans interested.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.