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S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Three Ways Serials Can Improve Your Writing

I've written eight of the nine episodes of my Debt Collector serial. Already, I've learned several valuable lessons I'll be carrying forward in my novel writing.

Story is a Harmonic Waveform
For the non-geek among you, some visual assistance:
*waves hand* ignore the fact that there aren't nine cycles in that third harmonic 

Novelists (and readers) already know there is a rhythm to stories. Serial writing formalizes that rhythm by breaking it down into discrete cycles of story - at the chapter level, the episode level, and then larger sets of episodes (3 or 5 or 9 or whatever, depending on how the story is grouped). In a novel, this is seen as story structure, or possibly subplots and layers of story. Exercising my writing muscles with the more demanding structure of serials has built up my intuitive grasp of this rhythm even more than before.

Start Hard, Finish Strong
(let's ignore the rather provocative nature of those words)
In a longer narrative structure like a novel, there's a tendency to go soft in the middle. There is some logic to this - the reader is hooked (hopefully) by your strong opening chapters, so you have room to glide a little, fill out some backstory, take a detour, smell the figurative flowers for a while.


Yeah, there will be none of that in a serial. There's no room for it - you've got a mere five (or seven) chapters to tell an entire story (or at least this sub-harmonic of the story), so you can't waste time with stuff that isn't relevant to moving the story forward. First chapters in a novel are important because they must serve triple duty: introducing characters, building world, and setting stakes. In my Debt Collector serial, I have NINE first chapters. I'm introducing new characters all the time. Stakes are constantly being raised and resolved, somewhere along the harmonic spectrum. I quickly learned that every chapter has to be a first chapter: serving triple duty and wasting no time in moving the story forward. Similarly I have NINE last chapters, ones that need to leave the reader breathless enough that they're willing to fork out money AGAIN to get the next episode.

Which leads me to...

Earning The Reader's Loyalty
Because the story is fragmented in a serial - the reader has to potentially make nine purchase decisions to get the complete Season One (or they can buy the box sets; or wait until the season is done; LOTS OF DECISIONS!). All this means is they have to decide NINE TIMES whether they want to keep reading the story - I have to earn reader loyalty again and again. There are cheap ways to do this, such as cliffhangers that are there for dramatic purposes only, trying to force the reader to read on to find out what happens. Although there are dramatic turns at the end of my episodes, I was determined to earn reader loyalty not with gimmicks but with character conflicts and worldbuilding that latched onto the reader's mind and refused to let go. I want my readers to want to read on because they're in love with the characters and the story. I have to earn this with every episode, something that can easily translate to novels: after all, a reader can decide at any point in a novel to stop reading as well. I can't just set up the story once and trust the reader will stay along for the ride. I have to earn that readership with every chapter.

Serial writing is fast, exciting, and a fantastic way to sharpen your writing daggers, er, pens. I'll be applying all my newly pumped writing muscles to my upcoming steampunk and singularity novels. And there just may be a Season Two for Debt Collector in my future as well.

Coming 5.29.13... Promise (Debt Collector 7)


  1. I agree with the gimmick thing. I've always refused to use the kind of cliffhangers that end in the middle of the climax. In fact, there are several books (both traditional and self published) that I refuse to buy any more in the series because the first book left off in the middle of the climax - and that just made me mad. :)

    1. Laura - I've had the same thing happen to me! There are some people who LOVE cliffhangers, but I'm really not one of them. That being said, I think expectations are somewhat different for serialized stories. But still - not what I was going for.

  2. Great way to look at it! I love those overlaid waves for the various cycles you need to accomplish. Still working on it! (erm... or more accurately thinking about working on it...)

    1. I loves me some graphs. And the thinking about working on it TOTALLY counts as work. #whatItellmyself

  3. Replies
    1. Young Adult SF. About a post-singularity world. Legacy humans. Hot robots. Reverse-pinnochio boy who wants to be an "enhanced" human. Did I mention sexy androids?

    2. Also: haven't started writing it yet...

  4. Wow. I figured it wouldn't be so hard to write a serial. Now, I'm thinking it's lucky I don't write them because I don't think I could ever do what you just described. I bow to the Master -- and then run away to hide under my bed. O.o

    1. That's what I thought last year, when I watched Rashelle Workman write one... so, it took me a year to work up the courage (and to feel like I could pull it off!). I also think it takes the right story as well - some aren't amenable to the format. So never say never! ;)

  5. Aloha Susan,

    Stopping by via referral from Diane Salerni who's put me in touch with Rebecca Carlson who lives here on O'ahu, too.

    Thanks for a mind-boggling post that made sense. (If I didn't know better, I'd think you were a rocket scientist.


    Oh... :)

    PS. Glad to be #800 on your followers list... I think I should have my own telephone number now :)

    1. Aloha, Mark! Dianne and Rebecca are some of my fav people, so I'm so glad they pointed you here! I'm jealous that you're in HI with Rebecca, and love that you're a Navy husband and stay-at-home dad! (Did you know I wrote a Naval Romance?) Best of luck with all your writing and stay in touch!


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