Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Writing Serialized Fiction ~ Not just another Novel Idea

“Writing a serial in Chapter form is a Mistake. Should the readers miss the first few chapters, the readers become debarred from the tale. A serial should be written without seeming to be one -- with each installment standing alone, retaining a connecting link by means of the leading characters.”
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Serial is Not a chopped up Novel!

I hear it time and time again:

"If the Story is too big, why don't you just cut it up into a Serialized Novel?"

You can't just cut a Novel in half or into bite-sized chapter-ized pieces because a true serial "episode" is its own complete SHORT story -- within a larger story.

Individual Stories?

A whole story is good for Repeat Business. An entire story that promises more adventures encourages the need to see/read the next story. A whole story --no matter how short-- is more likely to catch the attention of new readers or viewers than a random hunk from the middle of a longer work.

The difference between a Novel and a Serialized Novel is:
The Plot Structure.

A Novel only has One main plot-line.

A typical novel has ONE Plot (action-driven) Arc -- the chain of events that happen while the characters make other plans, and ONE Character (emotion-driven) Arc for each of the main characters: the Protagonist, the Antagonist and the Side-Kick. (The Hero, the Heroine & the Villain.)

The overall story usually focuses on one main character's view of events while hinting at the other main characters' stories.

A Romance novel typically has either TWO Plot/Character Arcs: one for the Heroine, and one for the Hero, or THREE: One for the Hero, one for the Heroine, and one for the Villain. 
Traditionally, the main plot-line focuses on the Heroine and uses strictly her viewpoint. I have, however, read some excellent books that focused on the viewpoint of the hero or divided the book equally between the hero and the heroine.

Epic novels have way more than just the three main characters, (hero, heroine, villain.) Those tend to have multiple strong subplots populated with their own three main characters, and  are pretty much their own separate stories--all crammed under one cover, and those books are HUGE. 

Steven King tends to write Epics. He typically has one over-all plot-line PLUS separate plot/character arcs for at least three characters in each of his books; which amounts to a whole story for each character. He simply alternates between characters at chapter breaks. This of course, increases the size of the story. Instead of one main story, Mr. King has has three or more smaller stories all connected by the same events (Plot Arc) under one cover.

A Serialized Novel has at least Two whole plot-lines happening at any given time - plus a story.

A Comic book series, a TV series and an Anime series are traditionally divided by progressive Seasons with 12 to 24 episodes per (seasonal) plot-line.

Each new issue or episode opens with an intro to all the main characters (usually done via the credits,) then focuses briefly on that episode's protagonist in the opening sequence right before the commercial.

The story then dives into the action, which is either a piece of one of the subplots (with hints at the over-all plot) or a piece of the overall plot (with hints at one --or more-- of the sub-plots). Ideally, each character in a serial --including the villain-- has their own subplot story going on during the main plot.

At the same time, each individual episode is an entire story all by itself. And every episodic plot arc dovetails into every other episodic plot arc making a single cohesive whole.

The trick to lots of serial episodes, is to switch between the characters so that each has a chance to tell their own story -- one whole episode focusing on that one character.

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series had PLENTY of character to play with, and then some. Buffy had her Watcher, Angel, Willow and Xander, just to scratch the surface. Spike, the main villain, had Drusilla or some other support vampire.
In Batman, Batman always had Robin and Alfred. Batman’s weekly villain always had at least one close partner that eventually betrayed them. (You get the idea.)

With 4 to 6 major point-of-view characters including the villain, plus the viewpoint of one or two of the support characters that are seen fairly regularly - that's a LOT of Story.

Buffy's plot-line looks something like this: 

The Master Plot Arc for the whole series.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer - slays vampires to save the world.

The Master Sub-plot Arc for a season.
In Buffy's Junior year in high school, she tries to balance school, her friends, her night-time objective (slaying vampires) and her new boyfriend - who happens to be a vampire - plus deal with the new bad-guys in town, Spike & Drusilla. Oh, and there's a new Vampire Slayer in town.

The Plot/Character Arc for an individual episode - with its own character arc and plot arc.
Buffy wants to go to the Junior Prom - but can't find an appropriate date. (Her vampire boyfriend is not an option.) Meanwhile, things are heating up between Xander and Willow - and Spike is up to something, as usual. 

Interested in excruciating the details of the Buffy Plotline? 

Where do all those Extra Characters come from?

The longer a series runs, the more ‘story’ is needed, so more characters are added.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer started out with 4 major good guys, and 1 major bad guy with other minor good-guys, and bad-guys, wandering through the main plot-line. The last episode in the season’s close, brought all the main characters together for one big, final climactic scene. A few characters were lost in the finale so the next season could start with new characters.

Season 2 added Angel to the good guys side, and the bad-guys changed completely over to a brand new main villain; Spike, with new Guest villains every few episodes.

Each successive season of Buffy killed off characters then added new characters.

Why? Because they needed more story.

Serials Vs. Series

The Serial and the Series share some of the same characteristics, with one major difference – PLOT CONCLUSION. 
  • A Series completes ALL the subplots featured in that one book.
  • A Serial completes ONE major plot-line, while hinting at other sub-plots.

In a nutshell:
A Series--is a group of stand-alone stories that happen in a common universe.
A Serial--is a group of interlinked stories within a larger story.

TV Series...or are they?

The “Babylon 5" series had one massive over-all plot arc divided into seasonal plot arcs, divided into individual but connecting episodes that all added up to One Whole Story.
Babylon 5" was a true Serial.

"FarScape" had a very thin master plot arc with strong seasonal plot arcs made up of episodes that added up to one Seasonal Story. "FarScape" was a series of serials.

The original "Star Trek" did not have an over-all plot arc of any kind, merely episodes that could be viewed in any random order. "Star Trek" was a true series.

"Star Trek-Next Generation" had thin seasonal plot arcs with the occasional story that was more than one episode long. "ST-Next Gen" was a series with a few serialized episodes.

But each and every episode for ALL of these programs was a Complete Individual Story.

"No, you Can't just cut a Novel into a Serialized Story!"

In order to create a serialized novel, the story must be 
crafted to be a serial from the beginning.
  • Each episode should be an individual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end under a single overall plotline to hold it together.
  • Each episode represents a separate adventure - for your main character (like a comic book) or a separate adventure that focuses on any one of your characters (like a TV or Anime series), but each installment must be an entire story all by themselves.
  • To tie the episodes together into a cohesive whole, each successive episode should either answer a Master Plot question - or answer an earlier Master Plot question. The key here is subtlety.
  • To wrap up a season or the entire series, the serial climax brings all the characters together then ends with a final episode where the main character deals with the main villain in a grand finale.
The Plot - Thins: (In Short)

A Novel -- One whole story with one cast of characters.

A Series -- A group of complete stand-alone stories all in the same universe with one cast of characters per story.

A Serial--A group of stories all interlinked with each other, that create one big (ongoing) story. A serial normally has one main cast of characters, though the cast tends to grow as the serial grows. A long-running serial is often divided into "seasonal" plot arcs.

In Conclusion…

The plot arc for a single title novel just isn't complex enough to be cut into a serial without major work. An ordinary novel just doesn’t have what it takes (plot-wise) to live up to a serial’s standards.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the information. I've been trying to find the right plot structure for my story for a long time.

    I happen to be a huge fan of serial fiction, and I can name some that are not on your list.

    In tv series-


    In Anime (my favorites)-

    Satoshi Kon's-

    Paranoia Agent
    Perfect Blue
    Millenium Actress

    Although the last four are in movie form, still highly affective

    In Movies-

    Waking Life
    Scanner Darkly

    Thanks for the info!! -Louis