5 Tips on Writing Serial Fiction

The opportunities to tell ongoing stories — serial fiction — have never been better.

If you’re thinking this is a good time to jump in, you’re right. No one’s buying six-book sci-fi series from unknown writers? Self-publish and build your own audience. Or better yet, break it up into a weekly ebook. Got an idea for a web series. The tools to create and distribute have never been better (or cheaper). Now is your time. Seize it.

Here are five tips that I learned creating EOS 10, a scifi radioplay and podcast.

  1. Plan. Plan more than usual. I don’t outline, normally. But having a beat-by-beat list of where your season or series or collection is going to go will strengthen your narrative and keep you on track. You’ll be able to set up threads early that will pay off later, and your fans will love it. Joss Whedon planted ideas in Buffy the Vampire Slayer years before they ever showed up on screen. Thing big, think long — even longer than you think you have to. What if your podcast ends up going five seasons? What will happen then? What if your publisher decides your trilogy should be expanded to seven books? Fire up your imagination.
  2. Take your time. Not every plot has to wrap up at the end of every story unit. If your story or episode has an A plot and a B plot, you can pick up that B plot and turn it into an A plot in a future unit. The key is that you can take your time in serialized fiction — your fans are with you the long haul (hopefully).
  3. But don’t leave them hanging. Each story unit should resolve something—usually that means resolving the A plot that started in that unit, but not always. It’s perfectly okay to tell a story that spans multiple story units like I said in tip two, but you don’t want you readers to feel like your book or episode is merely a setup for something they just have to wait for down the road. It should be able to stand on its own. It should have a clear beginning, middle and end. The awesome thing is that the end in the unit can have its beginning in a pervious unit, because the beginning in the unit will wrap up in another. This is how great writers keep you coming back. And beginnings, middles and ends don’t always have to revolve solely around plot. Character changes and development can also offer the kind of stand-on-its-own story each unit needs.
  4. Supporting characters can become stars. One-off units (an episode, an issue) are a great time to elevate a minor character to a starring role, at least temporarily. It gives your major plots some breathing room (so they don’t resolve to quickly) and gives your regular, starring characters a counterpoint to work of off for a while. Here’s another trick — advance at least one of the series through lines a bit. Otherwise you end up with a kind of X-Files duality where fans divide your series into two types of units, standalone and mythology (and guess which ones they’ll like and remember best). If you’ve got a run of 23 episodes or a really long, ongoing series, that can work fine, but if you’re in a three book trilogy or an eight episode podcast, it can feel a little disjointed.
  5. Reward your devoted fans. Some are going to drop in on you now and then, some are going to pick you up in the beginning and only to drop you pretty quick. Some fans, though, are going to hop on this ride you’re creating and they’re going to stick with you until the end, even if it kills them. So make it worth their while. Little things, like inside jokes or obscure references to earlier episodes (or even other fandoms) that only the truly devoted will get will delight your most hardcore listeners or readers. The trick is to resist the urge to explain them to your more casual fans — that will only ruin it. Crack the joke, make the reference,  move on. We’ll eat that right up.