I first started playing with the concept of serials over ten years ago, when myself and several other writers collaborated to produce Moonlight City, a soap opera that aired over Geocities. (I’m dating myself, aren’t I?) I’ve always loved the idea of an ongoing story with a full cast of characters and no particular set ending.
Similar to TV shows, serial fiction is released in episodes released over a period of time. Collections of episodes following a story arc are called seasons. New episodes are released regularly, often weekly, via ebook stores.
Serials are becoming a more and more popular way to tell a story. They may seem complicated—and they can be—but starting your own is actually pretty easy.
Setting Up Plot
Unlike most types of fiction, serials are often open-ended, meaning the author doesn’t have a set beginning, middle, and end. Each season runs on its own story arc, but the serial has a plot tying seasons together.
When brainstorming for your serial, you can build on ideas that always felt too big for just one novel or a series of novels. If you’re starting completely from scratch, make a list of themes that you’d like to explore with different characters over a period of time. Look at current popular TV shows. What works and what doesn’t? Because your serial is a long-term investment, you don’t want to choose something that can be wrapped up in a season or two. TV shows like Lost and How I Met Your Mother spanned several seasons, telling a story that required a lot of time.
To test your plot, create a six-episode outline. If you find yourself generating more ideas for future episodes, your plot will probably work for several seasons.
As a rule of thumb, your serial should have at least four main characters with wildly different personalities. This will create conflict that will organically drive the story forward. If your serial only has one main character, you need to create supporting characters who—even while trying to help—inevitably make your main character’s life more interesting and difficult.
If you’ve been writing fiction for any amount of time, you probably understand character arcs. In your serial, each character should demonstrate growth periodically—perhaps more often so than in other types of fiction. Creating an arc chart for each character is super helpful while outlining seasons.
Determining Episode Word Count
Currently, there is no set word count for serials. Existing serials vary from 1,000 words to 20,000 words per episode. Your serial’s total word count will depend on its genre, your writing style, and many other things.
Like TV shows, your serial episodes should stick to a standard length. Many serial authors prefer to keep them to the same length as a short story—between 1,000 and 7,500 words. Some serial authors see their sagas as more like a series of novellas. No one can tell you how long your episodes should be, but you should choose a length and stick to it.
You can, however, amend the length. The freedom to experiment is the most rewarding part of writing a serial. If, after Season One, you decide that you’d rather your episodes be 6,000 words long instead of 3,000 words, go for it!
Choosing a Pricing Structure
Currently, most serial authors price their individual episodes at $0.99-$1.99. Many authors determine their pricing based on their word count. Serials with longer episodes will naturally fall into the $1.99 price point, whereas serials with shorter episodes should stay at the less expensive price of $0.99.
When pricing your serial’s seasons—collections of episodes—take into consideration the total length of the season, how many episodes are in it (most serials produce six episodes per season), and the value. If, for example, your serial has six episodes per season at $0.99 each, it would cost your readers $5.94 (before sales tax and other fees) to catch up. You want to provide value, so should price accordingly. Using our example serial, a season might be priced at $3.99.
A good strategy to try is to make the first season permafree. This gives you the chance to bring in new readers while offering them a taste of your work at no risk. As of today, Sandpaper Fidelity Season One is permafree. I made Episode #1 permafree for several weeks. It had such good results—it got me into the top 30 on the Amazon bestseller list—that I decided to try to duplicate those results with the first season. If readers like the rest of the series, Season Two and Episodes #25-30 are relatively inexpensive (and Season Three comes out in January).
This is another area where you are free to experiment. Give each price point at least a full thirty days to determine whether it’s the one for your serial.
Creating a Release Schedule
Every successful serial has one thing in common: a regular release schedule. Most serials release new episodes weekly, and begin a new season every three months. Some serials release new episodes every week, with no breaks. While serials have a relatively fast production time, it’s easy to get burnt out when you are constantly releasing new episodes. If you have other writing projects, releasing a new episode every week indefinitely may not be the solution for you.
Keep in mind, also, the production cost. Each episode needs a cover, formatting and, at the very least, proofreading. (Episodes should also be edited for content and continuity.) It may not be feasible to release fifty-two new episodes a year.
Writing a serial is a fun and rewarding experience. I’ve learned a lot about the craft of fiction just from writing my serial for a year. Your readers will appreciate the long-term relationship with your characters. Serials also provide a foundation for your writing career, helping you build visibility as an author.
Do you like reading serials? Have you ever thought of writing one?
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