Writing in Serial – What I’ve learned

Having recently just posted the last chapter in this first part of the Rone story, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned about writing a story in serial format. I suspect I have quite a bit more to learn about the process, and I’m definitely looking forward to more opportunities to try my hand at it.

I experienced really two big challenges writing a story in serial: 1) Keeping up with it consistently, and 2) keeping each chapter interesting, engaging, and driving to the plot.

When it comes to that first challenge, a major factor is that I don’t do this as a career, and I don’t keep the kind of schedule that allows me to focus every week on writing the same number of hours. Keeping up requires being able to set aside the time to focus on writing on a regular basis. Perhaps down the road I’ll be able to arrange things so that this can happen, but for now, not a chance.

One of the solutions to this problem might be to write the entire series ahead of time, and only begin posting a serial after you’ve gotten the whole thing ready to post. I see this as somewhat defeating the purpose, though. For one thing, the structure of each chapter in a serial should be different than when it appears in a novel format (more on that later), and for another, one of the big plus sides to writing in serial is that you can get feedback on the story as it progresses, and incorporate your audience’s suggestions, ideas, interests, or requests. That’s not entirely practial if the whole thing is written ahead.

Maybe the way to approach it is much the same way that a lot of TV shows are being written – maybe half the season is written and filmed by the season premier, but the other half they work on throughout the year, so that they can make changes based on audience feedback. Perhaps that’s a way to get ahead on the writing without sacrifice the ability to respond to the audience.

The other challenge, as I mentioned, is keeping each chapter interesting, engaging, and driving to the plot. In a book, if a chapter is slow and philosophical, develops the character’s thoughts or develops the theme, it’s acceptabe because on either side of such a chapter there is action, dramatic tension, or engaging dialogue. The slow chapter is almost like a welcome break from the tension. However, when you’re writing a serial it’s a little more like a TV show or comic book – each chapter needs to contain character development, development of the theme, but also dramatic tension and some action. I look at the kinds of comments left on the various chapters of Rone, and for the most part the most positive comments were on the chapters where there was a good mix, and the ones that often got an “I don’t know how I feel about this one” type comment were the ones that didn’t find a balance.

Once again, there’s a challenge here. Not just in keeping the balance of elements, either. Finding a way to write the story so that each of those elements can naturally occur in your chapter is difficult as well. Let me make an example: If you watch through any season of Smallville, what you’ll see is that some episodes are directly related to the season’s overarching plotline, and develops the conflict between Clark Kent and whichever villain is the big villain that season. But some episodes are what we like to call “Freak of the Week” episodes, where a random psychopath with superpowers appears on the scene for Clark to deal with, to demonstrate that he is a hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

That kind of “Freak of the Week” episode really has nothing to do with the overarching plot, and if it were a novel would seem completely out of place. But in a medium like TV or comic, such a divergence is acceptable because a major part of the entertainment value is visual, and the audience is okay with a self-contained, one-episode chunk of story that doesn’t require them to know all that came before and keep up with all that comes after. It’s enough to know that Clark Kent is Superman and can deal with anything.

In a story where the only medium is the text, the audience is more likely to question the need of anything that doesn’t directly relate to the storyline. I think it’s because the mind and imagination are active in the reading process, and so the reader is more likely to think deeper about the story and question anything that doesn’t really fit in with the plot. A random encounter just becomes out of place.

So how to keep the pace of the story up while still effectively building in all the other elements of character and theme development? That’s part of what makes the process so tough.

However, I also found that there were things about writing in serial that I really like. I like the fact that I can hand out pieces of the story as they are done, rather than having to wait until I have a fully developed novel prepared before anyone can be exposed to it. I also like the concept of creating questions and feeding answers in very small doses, sometimes just creating more questions. The ability to give your audience something to talk about, but in small enough pieces so that there’s not too much  to talk about is kind of a nice thing.

Another big benefit is that it kept me working on one story, and focused on pushing toward a goal. Always in my writing I have struggled with more ideas than I can put down on paper. The hard work of taking ideas and turning them into finished projects has always been difficult – when I get bogged down in the thick of one story, it’s all too easy to jump to a new idea that has just come to me and work on that until I run out of steam on that idea, and so on. By writing Rone in serial I felt somewhat duty bound to those who were following it to keep it going until the end.

But of course, it isn’t ended yet. There’s much more to go. And I’m looking forward to writing it.

Those are just a few thoughts on my first experience writing in serial. I hope anyone out there who has ever done so will also be willing to chime in about their experiences, and share any tips as well.

7 thoughts on “Writing in Serial – What I’ve learned

  1. Re: Writing ahead vs. writing as you go

    A happy medium might be doing a thorough outline of the entire story, so you not only have a tight idea of what you’re doing, but a basic breakdown of each part and what you’re trying to accomplish. That way, writing a part might not be that hard, since you already have a good vision of what each part would be. However, it gives enough give-and-take that you can respond to reader feedback. Hopefully you’ve not written so much into the outline that you don’t feel that effort has been wasted if you discover a new path due to reader comments.

    You mention comics as a good way to see serial storytelling, as well as modern television. Both are excellent examples of such a storytelling system. Think also of a good role playing session; you involve every character in some way, move forward a greater plotline, but hopefully also have something relatively self-contained.

    Speaking of serial writing, I should go do some of that…

  2. Roleplay posts in a site like this are very, very difficult to have work — the site simply isn’t set up for it. Frankly, playing in only text is very difficult even when the site is set up for it! It works far better in person.

    It also steps outside the purpose of the blog — to sharpen writing skills, not to roleplay. Both Brandon and I have other avenues for that! 😛

  3. Luke, your suggestion for how to improve on the pace process made me think of something I just read. I’m working through a book about scene and structure in novel writing, and in one chapter he explains the concept of the “master plot” and how to approach it. Basically, the idea is like an outline, but you take each chapter and write a synopsis for the chapter, including all the pertinent details. I’ve done something like that in the past, but without knowing the term for it.

    But I don’t know how much of a difference it necessarily would make in the keeping up on things. I mean, it would be nice because it would provide direction while maintaining flexibility, but mostly what slows me down is finding the time to write. At no point during the writing of Rone did I come to a point where I didn’t know what was coming next. It was more that I just couldn’t seem to get the time to sit down and work on it.

    I do think a master plot is an excellent, perhaps critical, tool for planning a well written story. It’s a way to ensure proper pacing of events, gives you a solid direction for each chapter, and guarantees that you know where your story is going at all times.

    I agree with Luke’s assessment that this is simply not the place for an online role playing environment. Those are difficult to manage in any situation, if you ask me, but more than that, it’s just not what I want for this blog.

    Bookspirit, the prompts will be coming back. I’ve just had to devote a lot more attention to my work and schooling lately, but I intend to get back to posting regular prompts.

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