J.A. Stinger

Words Can Inspire The World

Crafting Serial Fiction: An In-Depth Guide

A serial is a short but captivating story published in installments. And I really, really love them. When I contemplated using a serial format to continue The 1929 Series, I did a lot of research on how they're done. Like anything else, there's tons of information and opinions. Some of it's good, some not so much. But I muddled through it all and took away what made sense to me.

A serial is much more than just breaking up a book every 8,000 words and putting it out there.

I have found that if people get out of each written episode what they'd get out of a TV episode, they are happy.

If they feel like they are being drip-fed a few chapters at a time, they feel ripped off simply because it is impossible to price below 99¢ on Amazon and it undermines the episode experience. Episodes of a season are like mini books within a bigger book.

Serials aren't crafted like novels. Nailing that experience is key.

A serial should be the equivalent of a book (80,000 words), and I chose to release Purling Road in ten episodes of 8,000 words each. You could do a few more or a few less. I wouldn't advise going too short, though. It's better to launch a second season than put out 4,000-word episodes that drag on and on. Eight to twelve episodes would be ideal.

For the episodes themselves, even when compiled into a one-season ebook, don't follow the same rules as a novel. Serials don’t have the traditional three-act structure. To get a feel for how I wanted my serial to read, I abandoned novel advice and followed the guidelines of the experts—television. I binged-watched a few of my favorite shows and took notes on how they were crafted.

In every show, there is one overall problem or threat that lasts the entire serial, another that lasts the season, and every episode there are mini threats or challenges that are resolved in that episode.

In Downton Abbey, it's the survival of the house/legacy as well as true happiness eluding every member of the household, upstairs and down, that continues throughout.  

The Walking Dead is simple. Not to say the writers are not brilliant and creative and what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall in the writers’ room. But the overall threat is trying to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world.

Seasonally, the threat is surviving in what is currently home, fighting the alive and undead, and every episode that survival is threatened in one way or another. All the while, the evolution of each character is background noise and amazing. The strangest combination. For those of you who aren't TWD addicts, just know they have crafted characters so well that it's almost impossible to get rid of the main cast now.

I like Downton Abbey as an example because it shows how a serial at the opposite end of the spectrum can be just as successful. Downton isn't the running, sweating, fight-for-your life, action-packed heart-pounder that TWD is, but it has its share of rabid fans. In my opinion, it's a lot deeper and more complex too.

They layer drama like an ar-teest.

They've also done a good job with evolving characters and adding extra layers by giving each character seasonal and episode challenges. The ones that don't have major challenges aren't on screen (a point to note). High drama with high tea at all times. There is little to no fluff. There is a faster pace. There is a time gap between episodes. Downton is famous for having months and months go by between single episodes! (Also points to note.)

With such a large cast, it's necessary to rotate through them so it doesn't seem like they are picking on one character all the time and we forget that another still lives there.

Except poor Edith. Her serial, season, and episode challenge is all the same and like a running joke. The writers really beat on that girl.

So here's a breakdown of what I learned by reading, watching, and doing.

—Have an overall threat to the entire cast that can carry over for many seasons to come. (Hint, it doesn't have to be dramatic, only long-lasting.) In Purling Road, they are surviving the Depression. That's the overall theme of every season and without it, the serial would collapse. The threat isn’t spoken about in every episode—it’s simply there.

—Have a seasonal threat (or two) that will be resolved by the end of the season, while leaving the series threat intact. This can linger in the background or mesh with the overall threat.

—Have a smaller threat in each episode that is resolved by the end of the episode. You have some liberty with this. Some drama is better played out over two episodes or left hanging so you can weave back in a later episode to resolve. Get creative but always resolve.

Serial threat: surviving the Depression.

Seasonal threat: surviving the Depression when someone gets hurt and can't work for a month.

Episode threat: Bank threatens to foreclose, and everyone has to come together to save that character.

—Have a large enough cast to rotate through and bring in fresh crises/drama every episode.

—Don't be afraid to sideline main characters when others need the spotlight. I never have every character in an episode. It would be too crowded. Give the supporting cast a chance to shine. Some of them have to be in the background, percolating new problems or, preferably, scheming against each other.

—I wouldn't advise publishing anything before you have the entire season done. I did season one when I thought I was ahead enough to get away with it. It was really stressful in the end. There were times I was writing the end of an episode two days before release, paying for rush editing and uploading at the last second. Save yourself the stress. The biggest reason to not write on demand is that you are going to find so much freedom in serial format that your characters will give you gold to work with and a lot of that gold can be worked into the current season by going back, adding, and tweaking. Readers really liked season one of Purling Road, but several said I outdid myself with season two. Why the difference? Because I went back and weaved in what was revealed in later episodes.

—Try to have a singular arc to a season with the drama heightened in episode five or six so that by the last episode you have resolved everything (except your serial threat) and brought the reader in for a soft landing.

—I have not used cliffhangers in the first two seasons. My third season will end with questions. In future serials, I'd like to follow the television format even more closely with a hard cliffhanger. The choice is yours on that.

Make sure there is overall evolution in the characters’ personalities, good or bad. It doesn't have to be drastic but believable. Just so that the reader feels like the character is just a bit changed for the trials of the season. (Or a lot changed if you really put them through hell.)

On the money front: An 8,000-word episode will net you about 18¢ on Kindle Unlimited. I did a blog post about this (The Great Indie Upheaval of 2015). Long story short: ten episodes will net you $1.80 and that's more than the original KOLL payout so think of it that way. Besides, writing a serial is too much fun to worry about money. (What's that saying? Do what you love and the money will follow.)

On the marketing front, it's nice to have something to promote each week. It's work, but it's nice. It tends to prop up your other releases, especially if there is a tie-in. And you can place each episode in different categories. Die-hard readers are going to follow the season no matter what, so by placing one in short stories, the next in historical, the next in drama, you get the chance to find new readers every single week. (Always link back to episode one in the front of each episode. You never know who might stumble upon you at episode eight. Make it easy for them to start at the beginning.)

But back to genres: you can learn what subgenre you are most successful in for future reference too.

I ended up taking down the individual episodes when I released a compilation of the entire season. This is up to you. The reason was because my list in KDP was getting really long and hard to muddle through. In a further twist, I am releasing season three as a comp. No weekly episodes. The reason for that—I'm eyeballs deep in projects and simply don't have the time it requires.

That said, I have other serials I'm plotting out that I will go back to weekly release on. So, as you can see, the freedom of a serial goes far beyond the plot line.

That freedom is what appeals to me. Because you aren't sticking to a three-act storyline, you can weave and wander and open up endless possibilities. The world of a serial has the potential to be so much bigger!

To get started, I write a one-paragraph summary for each episode in a separate file of Scrivener. I usually only have three to five episodes thought out. The material is provided for the rest. Have an idea of where you'd like to start, but follow the breadcrumbs. They often lead to a feast.

When I realize something else is going to happen, I just add it to whatever episode file it might fit well in. I rearrange a lot, often pushing episodes down because so much else has popped up. I almost always have too much to work with and have to strike some events from the list. I'll start a "next season" file. Because without a doubt, some things will carry over that I can use.

There's something mental about writing a serial of ten episodes. I sit down with a word tracker and I need to get to 8,000 words. I can easily do that in less than a week, and then I'm on to the next. It feels fresh to start a new episode. It's the same time, same word count, and same mental energy as a novel, but for some reason it feels so much easier and faster.

What serials and novels have in common is that you still have to have quality writing, compelling characters, a high-stakes threat, and an interesting setting. The biggest and most important thing they have in common is hooking a reader right from the start. This is vital. And in a serial, you don't have as much time to do this because the pace is quicker. Take that first episode seriously.

It might sound overwhelming to craft something with:

  • Ten episodes of 8,000 words
  • A good-sized cast of compelling characters—combined with challenges and evolution
  • An interesting location
  • A series threat
  • A season threat
  • An episode threat

. . . All while layering and making it come together in the end.

But it's really not overwhelming or difficult. Create a crisis around a good-sized, strong cast, and they'll lead the way. Have fun!

If you know of any good serials to read, let me know. And if you decide to start one, let me know. I'd love to read it.