Old formats and new devices

Serials–are they making a comeback, or have they always been around in one form or another?

Jennifer Hart discussed this at our Carolina Romance Writers yesterday. Jennifer, writing as Jenna McCormick , offers her books both in serial editions as e-books and (when the series is finished) as the entire book in print.

She is the first to admit that the serial isn’t a new format. Writers have been doing it for years. People in New York City used to wait for the ship to arrive from England with the newspapers that carried Charles Dickens’ latest installments.

When moving pictures came along, the serial followed. As a preteen, I waited eagerly for Thursdays nights to come around. That was movie night, and even more than the main attraction, the draw was the serial. The story followed the classic pattern: an over-arcing main  plot with a smaller, embedded weekly plot that also had its climax and resolution.

The trick was, it ended on a cliffhanger. We had to wait until the next week to find out how the hero (or heroine) escaped the seemingly impossible situation that ended the previous installment, only to find him trapped in another dangerous situation.

Then television came along, and with it the soap opera. What was Guiding Light but one of the longest drawn-out  serials of all time? I could argue that some prime time shows also follow the format. The cliffhanging season ender (who shot J.R.?) teases us and builds up anticipation for the next season. This can go on until the writers run out of ideas and the series ends in a burst of ridiculous and improbable denouements.

The e-reader is just another vehicle for the serial, and Jennifer has tapped it.  There is an audience waiting for a quick read and the excitement of waiting to see what will happen next.  We have a built-in appetite for anticipation, or why would we wait in line for hours and hours to buy the latest electronic gadget? Why don’t we open our Christmas gifts as soon as they arrive in the mail? Yeah, we like the buildup, the wait with the reward at the end.

That this format is also financially rewarding is icing on the cake for a writer.

She gave some caveats, and here are two I retained. First, let people know your story is in serial form and that more will follow. I once bought a book that didn’t tell me this up front and I was so mad when I got to the unresolved ending I vowed never to read a book by that author again.

Second, have your story plotted all the way through. There’s nothing worse than getting to the fourth or fifth installment and not knowing how to end it. You won’t  just disappoint your audience, you will lose credibility as an author.

I’m probably not going to try the serial route as my books don’t lend themselves to that format. But I throw it out there as an idea.

You are entirely welcome.

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