An Inside Look at Serialized Novels

Writing a serialized novel is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Do you know what a serialized novel is? Is it something you think you might enjoy reading or if you’re an author writing and publishing?

“A serial novel is a work of fiction that is published in sequential pieces called installments. These installments can be published at nearly any interval for nearly any period of time, though weekly and monthly installments are most typical.”

Source: Schlottman, Andrea. “The Serial Novel: A Brief History with 30 Examples [Infographic].” Books on the Wall, 17 May 2018, booksonthewall.com/blog/serial-novel-a-brief-history/.

Serialized Novels Were Once the Rage

Serialized novels have traditionally been published by literary magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals. They were once wildly popular. Starting in nineteenth century Britain, serialized novels, delivered in weekly or monthly periodicals were the rage. Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers is considered by many to be the first widely read serialized novel. Readers would literally wait on the ship docks to receive the latest installments.

It might surprise you to know some of the notable novels that were originally published as serialized novels. Here are a few—

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Authur Conan Doyle
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities ran as a serial in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1984, but the serialized novel was all but dead by the turn of the twentieth century.

Can Serialized Novels Make a Comeback?

There’s a psychological barrier we must get past to read lengthy novels these days. Haven’t you purchased a thick novel only for it to just sit on your bedside table unread? Theoretically, you could finish it by only reading for ten minutes a day at bedtime, but for some reason you never pick it up. It feels intimidating.
 
Part of it I think is the effects of television. Watching a sixty-minute television mystery for example instead of reading a mystery novel just feels more easily digestible. Our attention spans have become shorter. Television makes us feel like we aren’t making a huge commitment in time the way we must do to read a hundred thousand word novel. Yet we still receive the entertainment value.
 
Authors like James Patterson have given a lot of thought to writing shorter novels tailored to the reduced commitment many people will give to books these days. Patterson publishes a collection of novels called BookShots in an attempt to capitalize on the desire among readers for shorter novels. BookShots titles are typically 150 pages or fewer and cost on $5.99.

That’s one way to overcome the hurdle of low time investment in books many contemporary readers will give, but what about a comeback for serialized novels? The explosion of digital media in recent times seems tailor made for serialized novels. Instead of 100,000 words or even 150 pages, an author would need only capture a reader’s attention for mere minutes at a time by publishing novels in installments on weekly or monthly intervals.

Publishing serialized novels on a platform like KDP Select would make serialized fiction available virtually free to those who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited. And offered at low price points, there might even be a robust market for serialized fiction among those who don’t subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.

Can I Simply Chop a Traditionally Written Novel into Bite-Size Pieces?

Having done a good bit of research into serialized fiction, I have already learned that taking a traditionally written novel and chopping it into installments has never been successful. I imagine it might be difficult for readers to hang onto the plot or unifying theme by reading a novel this way. Serialized novels are a different animal altogether. We can’t structure a serialized novel like a traditional novel because it’s episodic.
 
I tend to think of serialized fiction as something like a television soap opera only in print. Remember those? I know they still exist, but they aren’t as popular as they once were. Well, in countries like New Zealand, there are still modern versions of soap operas that people are keen to watch, but they aren’t very popular here anymore.
 
To my chagrin, my mother used to watch soap operas all afternoon during the summer breaks from school when I was growing up. That was in the days before DVRs, before VCRs even, so a committed soap opera fan like mom had to literally plan her day around catching the new episodes each weekday. To me they were long, boring, never-ending stories that never seemed to culminate in any real resolution. But successful serialized fiction it seems needs to be written in a similar way.

What Successful Serialized Novels Require

Angela Booth, who had written extensively on serialized fiction says the medium “demands narrative drive” which she defines as that which “makes your story involving, and keeps it moving.” I can see how this would be critically necessary on both the micro and macro scales.
 
Angela also says episodic fiction requires strong characters who stay positive. No reader wants cardboard characters who don’t seem real whether it’s serialized novels or traditional novels. The characters must be active and have goals. Where positivity comes in, according to Angela, is readers won’t likely buy the next episode if the previous one was a downer. It seems the writing must remain upbeat for readers to find in entertaining and worth their money.
 
Finally, Angela tells us authors must make certain to end each episode with a cliffhanger, a point of intrigue that will leave readers wanting more.
 
Another article I read about serialized fiction added one additional requirement. Each installment must be a complete story, in some respects like a short story. Readers don’t want an unending stream of installments where real resolution is nowhere in sight. They aren’t for example going to wait until the very end of the novel to get that. I think that is exactly why I hated those soap operas. That’s how I saw them.
 
 
This summer I plan to write a serialized novel. I haven’t decided whether to write one using one of my current series or to create a brand new series just for the purpose. Even if it turns out commercially unsuccessful, I think it might be good fun. And, if it isn’t well-received I could always edit it to make into a traditional novel and re-publish it that way.
 
What do you think about serialized novels? Would you be willing to read them? Would you write them? Can serialized fiction make a modern-day comeback? Much like those readers in Dicken’s day waiting on the ship docks in eager anticipation of his next installment, it looks like we’ll just have to wait and see.

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