by Deb McLeod
(To read part three of this series, click here.)
In the final episode of my exploration of serials and serialization, I want to look at what makes a good serial and how two different serial authors work.
No matter what kind of serial you decide to write, the key formula seems to be: A strong franchise + an overarching season/series arc + a strong A story = a popular series.
Let’s look at the pieces of that formula.
A franchise is the container that holds the story. The Walking Dead franchise is the aftermath of the collapse of civilization after a virus spreads hungry zombies across the land. The characters work within that franchise framework and their stories come out of fighting the zombies and fighting one another for survival in a new and hostile world.
If you look at television franchises, you’ll see a lot of cop shows and hospital shows. Both of those types of shows have a built-in mechanism for dramatic stories to unfold week after week. Shows like “Law and Order” rely almost solely on their franchise with little delving into the characters and rarely a storyline that crosses episodes. In the later years they began to focus more on storylines but for the most part you can watch a “Law and Order” out of order and it doesn’t matter at all.
This is brilliant TV marketing as syndication is the thing; and doesn’t it make your product more attractive if you don’t have to buy and air programs in order? And don’t viewers love the fact that if they like the franchise, they know exactly what to expect each time the show airs? It’s a show that’s always the same and always different.
When you combine a strong franchise with an interesting series arc, you will pull the reader through, episode to episode. Again, looking at The Walking Dead, the series arc is all about whether or not these particular characters will survive. We watch to see them triumph over the adversity they face. And we die a little when one of the beloved characters dies too.
There is generally a season arc under the umbrella of the series arc and we watch a particular set of characters battle it out or play out a love story. The arc provides the throughline.
Then there’s the A-story that undulates throughout the series – another pull to bring the reader to the table over and over again. In The Walking Dead, the A-story is Rick. Reluctant leader, father, husband, friend, upon occasion he battles with his sanity, his guilt and the ramifications of his decisions. While there are other stories and strong character storylines that weave throughout the series, it’s this A-story that is the backbone of the series.
Serials: An A-game Author
The first author who is successfully writing serials is Claudia Hall Christian, the author of Denver Cereal (serial fiction set in Denver), an online venue for her daily serialized fiction. Hall Christian has been writing serial fiction online since 2008. Her goal is 25,000 words per month. She publishes six days a week, a chapter a week and you can get a daily dose or wait for the whole chapter or a few times a year she collects the pieces and publishes a book.
She writes true serial fiction and not the serialization of a novel. She creates chapters and submits them to her editor on Monday and they are returned back to her on Friday. She has some idea of what will happen in the books, but in the true pantser sense, she lets the characters guide the work. She says she “simply creates a playground for them to play in".
Hall Christian says true serial writing is not for the faint-hearted. I guess if you’ve been putting out 25,000 publishable words per month since 2008, you can state that it’s not for the faint-hearted. Impressive and gutsy. She calls this brand of serial writing the “A-game of writing.”
A Serial like TV
Saul Tanpepper has a different take. He wrote Gameland. Season One of Gameland has eight episodes and can now be bought in a bundle. Here’s what the author says in the intro to the series:
“GAMELAND was the brainchild of discussions between myself and my publisher, Brinestone Press, back in 2011. Together, we fleshed out an overarching storyline to be told over the course of several books. Each action-packed ‘episode’ features a group of recurring characters, has its own theme, and works out its own particular issues. Structurally, the series is modeled after popular television shows (think Fringe, Bones, The Walking Dead), with each episode roughly the equivalent of a two-hour commercial-free program. At the story level, however, GAMELAND is wholly unique, a mix of cyberpunk, horror, suspense and mystery.”
The first book of Season Two was released in January, 2014: Signs of Life (Jessie’s Game). This is a novel-length (120,000 word) book. The description says it follows Season One. I read in an interview that Tanpepper responded to reader comments and decided to publish it all at once in novel form.
I found that an interesting comment – though I’ll be darned if I can find it again. When you research serials and see what other authors are doing, you can’t help but come across reader dissatisfaction with having to wait for the next episode to come out.
If you’re considering a serial or a serialization, with the increasing popularity of TV series marathons and book bundles, it makes an author wonder which is the right way to go. My husband and I are saving up the new 24 episodes so we can watch them marathon style. They just aren’t as exciting waiting week to week.
While I can appreciate and admire Hall Christian’s model, I’m not ready to set up a website and have at it like she does. I will likely gravitate toward Tanpepper’s model. Episodic and collected into a bundle or a novel but with a strong franchise and an overall story and series arc that is plotted like episodic television.
Any last questions on serials? Any recommendations for me?
About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.