The Perils of Writing Serial Fiction

Step by-Step Writing Plan, 10K a Day, Serial Fiction, Series, Non-fiction, Speed Writing, writing, How to Write Serial fictionSerial novels have a long, rich history and were the bread and butter of such literary giants as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and James Joyce.

The growing use of smartphones and tablets has created a new market for bite-size content which can be read in one sitting.

The writing and publication of serial fiction began as early as the 17th century and reached its peak in the 19th century and lasted throughout the Victorian period.

Serial novels had a direct influence on the format as well as the content of the longer literature which followed. Published in newspapers and magazines in monthly installments, the new form of literature allowed middle class readers access to novels that would have been too expensive for them to purchase in a single edition.

Each chapter or installment of the novel had to capture the reader’s interest as a single unit as well as contribute to the novel as a whole. Writers during the Victorian age suffered the same challenges as today’s writers as they wrestled with looming deadlines and reaching a required length.

Some writers finished the entire novel before they ever submitted their first installment, while others allowed the novel to evolve with each new addition.

The later could prove to be difficult and the story interrupted or delayed if the author became ill.

Growing up, I read serial novels I’d find in my mother’s family magazines or in my grandfather’s issues of Grit.  I can still remember the anticipation of a coming installment and the excitement of opening the magazine to read the new episode.

Readers are willing to wait to read a good story.

Waiting is an intrinsic part of reading a serial novel and a major part of the fun. This particular art form is build around the element of drama and depends to a great degree on man’s unquenchable curiosity for its popularity.

Hence, a mainstay of the serial novel is the cliffhanger.  While the writer doesn’t literally have to tie sweet Nell to the to the railroad track, he does have to leave the reader wanting more.

A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, in a dangerous situation, or confronted with a shocking revelation.

The writer hopes his cliffhanger ending will ensure that his readers will return to find out what happened to the character in the next episode and how his dilemma has been solved.

Wilkie Collins summed up his formula for writing a serial novel:  “Make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait – exactly in that order.”

He is famous for the Sensation Novel, which relied heavily upon the cliffhanger. 

The writer wants to pack as much suspense as he can into the ending of the episode without falling headlong into melodrama, which would turn his drama into comedy.

Publishing a novel in installments or episodes allows a writer time to gradually build a fan base and gauge his readers’ reaction to his novel episode by episode.

If the reader reaction is negative or different than he expected, the writer can twist and tweak the story to better suit his audience.

I have been writing serial novels off and on for the past ten years, and during that time have been published online, in newspapers, and in magazines.

To be a successful serial writer, you have to know how to hook your audience installment after installment.

You have manage your plot so that it’s balanced with the other elements in the story. Often time, writers new to the genre will have the tendency to concentrate on plot above all else leaving the reader little connection with the characters or having a sense of place.

The story becomes plot-heavy, leaving the reader confused because he hasn’t be given enough information to have formed a solid frame of reference for the characters or the details of the plot.

If the reader is still interested in the story at this point, he may find himself having to return to past installments of the story and re-read in order to keep the story straight in his own mind.

This is a death knell to the serial because most readers won’t bother.

I have seen otherwise excellent writers, writers fully capable of constructing well-developed scenes in standard fiction, fall flat when they attempted to write a serial novel.


Several reasons come to mind, but the two most prominent, by far, are (1) the writer viewed the serial story as a cut-up-novel or (2) the story read more like a plot outline than a fully developed story.

I looked for online information addressing these problems to share with fellow writers, and when I found little or incorrect data, I decided to write a book which would provide the needed information.

I’ve outlined a plan which is simple and concise.

The plan looks simple on paper (or on screen). Only when the writer begins to work through the steps in the plan will he achieve that ah ha moment, and he will understand the beauty of this method.

There are many and varied reason a writer might decide to write a serial novel. My best advice is to study the format. Learn what works and what doesn’t as well as the reasons many serial novels fail to hold their audience.

I’ve tried to cover this in How to Write Serial Fiction and be Ready to Publish in Less Than 24 Hours. If you have further questions, I would be happy to address your concerns and wish you all the best.

Front Cover Finalsm, Step by-Step Writing Plan, 10K a Day, Serial Fiction, Series, Non-fiction, Speed Writing, writing, How to Write Serial fiction