A serial is a short but captivating story published in installments. And I really, really love them. When I contemplated using a serial format to continue The 1929 Series, I did a lot of research on how they're done. Like anything else, there's tons of information and opinions. Some of it's good, some not so much. But I muddled through it all and took away what made sense to me.
A serial is much more than just breaking up a book every 8,000 words and putting it out there.
I have found that if people get out of each written episode what they'd get out of a TV episode, they are happy.
If they feel like they are being drip-fed a few chapters at a time, they feel ripped off simply because it is impossible to price below 99¢ on Amazon and it undermines the episode experience. Episodes of a season are like mini books within a bigger book.
Serials aren't crafted like novels. Nailing that experience is key.
A serial should be the equivalent of a book (80,000 words), and I chose to release Purling Road in ten episodes of 8,000 words each. You could do a few more or a few less. I wouldn't advise going too short, though. It's better to launch a second season than put out 4,000-word episodes that drag on and on. Eight to twelve episodes would be ideal.
For the episodes themselves, even when compiled into a one-season ebook, don't follow the same rules as a novel. Serials don’t have the traditional three-act structure. To get a feel for how I wanted my serial to read, I abandoned novel advice and followed the guidelines of the experts—television. I binged-watched a few of my favorite shows and took notes on how they were crafted.
In every show, there is one overall problem or threat that lasts the entire serial, another that lasts the season, and every episode there are mini threats or challenges that are resolved in that episode.
In Downton Abbey, it's the survival of the house/legacy as well as true happiness eluding every member of the household, upstairs and down, that continues throughout.
The Walking Dead is simple. Not to say the writers are not brilliant and creative and what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall in the writers’ room. But the overall threat is trying to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world.
Seasonally, the threat is surviving in what is currently home, fighting the alive and undead, and every episode that survival is threatened in one way or another. All the while, the evolution of each character is background noise and amazing. The strangest combination. For those of you who aren't TWD addicts, just know they have crafted characters so well that it's almost impossible to get rid of the main cast now.
I like Downton Abbey as an example because it shows how a serial at the opposite end of the spectrum can be just as successful. Downton isn't the running, sweating, fight-for-your life, action-packed heart-pounder that TWD is, but it has its share of rabid fans. In my opinion, it's a lot deeper and more complex too.
They layer drama like an ar-teest.
They've also done a good job with evolving characters and adding extra layers by giving each character seasonal and episode challenges. The ones that don't have major challenges aren't on screen (a point to note). High drama with high tea at all times. There is little to no fluff. There is a faster pace. There is a time gap between episodes. Downton is famous for having months and months go by between single episodes! (Also points to note.)
With such a large cast, it's necessary to rotate through them so it doesn't seem like they are picking on one character all the time and we forget that another still lives there.
Except poor Edith. Her serial, season, and episode challenge is all the same and like a running joke. The writers really beat on that girl.
So here's a breakdown of what I learned by reading, watching, and doing.
—Have an overall threat to the entire cast that can carry over for many seasons to come. (Hint, it doesn't have to be dramatic, only long-lasting.) In Purling Road, they are surviving the Depression. That's the overall theme of every season and without it, the serial would collapse. The threat isn’t spoken about in every episode—it’s simply there.
—Have a seasonal threat (or two) that will be resolved by the end of the season, while leaving the series threat intact. This can linger in the background or mesh with the overall threat.
—Have a smaller threat in each episode that is resolved by the end of the episode. You have some liberty with this. Some drama is better played out over two episodes or left hanging so you can weave back in a later episode to resolve. Get creative but always resolve.
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