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The Hack’s Guide to Writing Serial Fiction

Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

The rise of ebooks and podcasts, and the decline of attention spans and disposable income, have made this the perfect time for you to start writing serialized fiction. By releasing only bite-sized chunks of story, you can give readers just enough to sink their teeth into each week, while still leaving them hungry for more, like your favorite TV show but without the visual element, star power, budget, and major-network distribution.

Never written a serial before? Me neither! But I’ve written a column about how to write one, which you’re reading right now. Let’s go!

What’s all this, then?

What is serial fiction? Like all fictional narratives, a serial is a way to torture and humiliate your protagonist in public. But in serials, you do it on a weekly basis. If that sounds daunting, remember that, as a writer, you are by definition a walking bundle of anxieties and resentments, so have confidence that you can dish out that sort of punishment on the regular.

How do I structure a serial?

Focus on character. Your main character has to be someone you enjoy tormenting. In return for your season-long cycle of animus toward your protagonist, you have to dangle a payoff in front of them. You need to present the central conflict early on in the series/season/cycle/whatever you call it. You can’t start off with two prologues and nine chapters of backstory like you do in your epic fantasy series.

What’s the serial writing process like?

Serials are kinda like an episode of your favorite TV show, so learn to think like a TV writer! We’re in the golden age of television, so we have a lot to learn from those folks. For example, make sure to put a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. Remember to insert act breaks to allow for commercials. Deal with the fact that one of your lead actors got drunk and started a fistfight, and now you’ve got to write him off the show. That’s right, you now have to write backstories not just for your characters, but for the fictional actors portraying those characters. It’s getting all sorts of meta up in here.

To outline or not to outline? Do it however you like, but the beauty of serial fiction is that you only have to write a few thousand words each week. Do you really want to mess with your flow by having some boring blueprint you have to stick to? Just make it up as you go along, and if you get stuck on a particular scene, make that the end of the episode. That’s a problem for Future You to deal with. Honestly, Future You should be thanking you for providing the sort of impossible writing situation that triggers the levels of panic necessary to write something that’s just good enough that you get to repeat the process next week.

computer keyboard [1]
photo by Sarah Deer

Frequently asked questions

Q: Can I take my existing novel and release it chapter by chapter?

A: No, for the same reason you can’t divide your car into a pair of motorcycles. Instead, I recommend putting all your short stories together and trying to write one long, master narrative that connects them all–yes, including both the one with the giant, robotic space elephant and the literary one where the protagonist gets a divorce and contemplates suicide.

Q: How do I end a serial?

A: Don’t have an ending in mind? Good! You’ll actually never have to write one! The ending of a serialized piece occurs at the nexus of where your number of readers drops below your enthusiasm for writing the serial. Whatever you happen to be writing at that moment, that’s your ending. I do encourage you to finish the sentence you’re writing when the time comes, but that’s not a hard requirement.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it! The great thing about serial fiction is you’re not just writing one book, you’re committing yourself to lots of labor and a series of unrelenting deadlines that extend into the foreseeable future. Good luck!

Have you written serialized fiction? Share your experiences in the comments!

About Bill Ferris [2]

After college, Bill Ferris [3] left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.