Introducing the Serial Novel

This month, Royal Editorial will be talking to you about an exciting new—and very, very old—trend in storytelling: the serial!

Cereal? Like, the breakfast food?

No, no—serial, as in something that appears in multiple instalments over time. (Sorry. That’s the only lame cereal/serial joke you’ll see here, I promise.) You’re probably familiar with the concept from webcomics, manga, podcasts, or the last thing you binged on Netflix.

It can apply to novels, too.

What does a serial novel look like?

A “serial novel” is a story broken down into bite-sized instalments published one at a time. Imagine publishing each chapter of your book as soon as you finish writing it, without having the next chapter written yet—that’s serialization in a nutshell.

This style of novel was extremely popular in the nineteenth century, when the format brought us such classics as A Tale of Two Cities, Anna Karenina, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There have been some absolutely masterful stories told this way, keeping readers hooked month after month as they scoured magazines for the latest developments in their favourite stories.

These days, the magic of the internet has made serialization easier and more accessible than ever. Think of webcomics, Japanese cell phone novels, Wattpad, fanfiction.net, or even your favourite TV show. These formats all work by providing you with high-stakes one-at-a-time episodes that, if done well, keep you coming back week after week.

When to serialize

Sounds pretty easy, right? Write two or three thousand words, stick it up on your blog, and repeat every Tuesday until you have a completed novel. Well, not so fast. While serialization is an excellent choice for some writers and some stories, you should know what you’re getting into.

Key considerations for writing the serial novel

The basics of storytelling still apply when writing serial novels; you’ll want engaging characters, a sensible plot, vivid imagery, etc. But there are a few extra considerations you’ll want to keep in mind:

Cliffhangers are your friend

If you cringe at the mere mention of cliffhangers, we understand. Few things are more frustrating than getting to the end of a story only to have the tension amp up to a thousand without any sort of resolution.

But the practical side of us knows that, used responsibly, cliffhangers are a great way to keep our readers hooked.

Ideally, each instalment will offer a satisfying conclusion to some minor conflict while presenting a bigger problem to be solved next week. And since serial novels tend to be published fairly quickly, you can take solace in the knowledge that your audience won’t be on tenterhooks for long.

Keep in mind that this takes some trial and error. There will probably be times when you take the cliffhanger a little too far, but never fear, because...

Immediate feedback allows for course correction

Many serial publishing platforms allow commenting on each instalment as soon as it’s published. So if your readers complain about that cliffhanger, no worries—just make your next one a little softer. Or what if they think your love interest is a giant jerk? Again, no problem—now that you know, you can give him a great Save the Cat moment and get the audience back on his side.

Not enough action in the last scene? Add a swordfight in the next one. Villain’s motivations unconvincing? Give ’em a monologue. Nobody cares about your main character’s aunt’s ex-husband’s guinea pig farm? Have him retire quietly to the countryside, making room to focus on the stuff your readership is really connecting with.

One caveat to this amazing opportunity: if you change your story too much, you may end up killing your passion for it. Always keep one eye firmly on what you want from your book, even as you take cues from your readers. You don’t have to—and shouldn’t!—tailor your book to address every complaint or desire. At the end of the day, your story is uniquely yours, and that uniqueness is part of what will keep your readers coming back.

There’s something else that immediate feedback is good for, though…

Serialization and instant gratification

Let’s be real: we all need an ego boost every now and again. Sometimes it’s nice to just look at those positive comments chapter by chapter to remind yourself that, yes, your story is worth telling. It’s a pick-me-up you may not have access to if you’re publishing a whole novel in one go.

But attracting readers to provide that feedback and validation isn’t always easy. The absolute best way you can build and maintain a devoted readership is to...

Publish on a consistent schedule

Once you’ve built that audience of excited readers and commenters, you’ll want to keep them. The golden rule for maintaining serial readership is simple: consistency, consistency, consistency.

When publishing in serial format, it’s important that your audience know when to come back for more, be that three times a week on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sunday or once every month. If your reader checks back with your story expecting an instalment and nothing is available, their trust in your schedule may deteriorate, and they’re likely to be less religious about checking back for updates. Eventually, you could lose your readers altogether.

The takeaway: make it as easy as possible for your reader to actually read your story. That means taking away the guesswork by publishing on a consistent schedule.

Bonus: writing in serial will help you build a focused, consistent writing habit, which is an essential skill for any writer. There’s nothing quite like knowing people are waiting on your next chapter to keep your butt firmly in that chair.

But sticking to a schedule can be hard, because…

You will probably write yourself into a few corners

The nature of publishing as you go means there’s no going backwards to patch up plot holes or smooth out character inconsistencies. Once you publish an instalment, the internet remembers.

In many cases, you can technically go back and edit previously publishing instalments, but there’s no guarantee that your readership will reread for the updates. Each instalment only gets one shot at a first impression.

This can (let’s be honest, will) lead to some situations where you’ll wish you could go back and tweak things. But when publishing in serial, the focus is on writing forward, not back. If you’re the kind of writer who gets stuck rewriting the same chapters over and over, maybe serialization is just the push you need to shut out your editor brain and keep that forward momentum.

There’s more good news: you’ll be forced to come up with creative solutions to problems that you otherwise may have “fixed” an easier way. For some writers, this challenge is a great way to keep their stories fresh and innovative.

I’m convinced. But where do I actually publish my serial novel?

Great question! There are tons of options. Be sure to check back next Monday when we take a deep dive into one of the most popular serialization platforms! (See what we did there…)

Katie King