[GUEST POST] Jay Sherer Lists 5 Essentials of SciFi Serials


Jay Sherer is the author of the illustrated time travel series, Timeslingers: Season 1. (Now available in print!) His short stories have appeared in various small-market online magazines and two science fiction anthologies (Infinite Space, Infinite God I and II). He’s currently working on Timeslingers: Season 2 while also penning a Depression Era superhero comic book series called The Standard (with ridiculously cool art by partner-in-crime, Nathan Scheck).

5 Essentials of Sci-Fi Serials

The classic newspaper serial story is dead. I saw it take two in the chest before toppling off the top of the Empire State Building. On its way down it shouted something that haunts me to this day… I’ll tell you about it in next week’s episode.

Newspaper serials may be MIA, but serial stories are alive and thriving in many other mediums (e.g. television and comic books!). As a sci-fi serial story writer, I’ve learned a lot about how to make the format work, and conversely, how to fall on my face. Here are my top five principles of serial storytelling:

  1. Leave Them Hanging

    Curiosity, anticipation, and suspense become a writer’s power tools because a serial story relies on the audience’s willingness to return…over and over and over. In contrast, episodic stories, like the television series Star Trek, rely on characters and situational drama. Fans want to see Kirk and Spock overcome new and different challenges each week. For the serial story audience, that’s not enough. There’s a bigger picture. The Borg can’t be defeated in a single hour.

    Hence, the cliffhanger. Each serial story segment must have a compelling cliffhanger. A casual fan of episodic stories can miss a week or two, but that won’t fly with a serial story audience. Skipping an episode would result in confusion. Thus, the serial’s author must end each episode with a situation so full of promise that the audience has to come back.

  2. Drive Fast

    Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is brilliant, but it’s also…verbose. Is the writing fantastic? Absolutely. Does it draw you into an intriguing world? Certainly. But, it takes its time. It meanders. It drives slowly.

    Serial story writers don’t have that luxury. Describe a tree for a whole story segment and watch the audience start to squirm. Imagine an episode of 24 where Jack Bauer talks politics with the president for an hour. Would it fit? No. We want to see Jack driving on sidewalks and exchanging gunfire with terrorists, not enjoying afternoon tea (unless it’s radioactive chemical tea!).

    I’m not suggesting that a serial story can’t take a breather now and again, but any pauses should be brief and infrequent. Serial stories need to put the pedal to the metal.

  3. Avoid The Soap Opera Trap

    Now we have a fast-moving, cliffhanger-laden serial story. Nice. But there’s another pitfall we need to avoid: writing a soap opera. “Hey, wait!” one might say, “isn’t a soap opera a serial story?” I reluctantly concur and admit that I am splitting hairs.

    But here’s the thing, I believe that all stories (serial or otherwise) should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. 24 and Heroes provide excellent examples. Both are serial stories told in seasons, each of which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

    Sometimes it takes serials more than one season to unravel (e.g. Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc.). But they still ended. The run-on serial story, in my opinion, becomes laborious. Resolve the conflict, end the game, and then start a new one.

  4. Start in the Middle

    A core principle of dramatic writing comes from the Latin phrase: in media res, or “into the middle of things.” The basic theory? Shove the audience into a conflict and let them figure out what’s happening rather than spoon feeding them with unnecessary (and likely pejorative) setup.

    Great serial stories adhere to this principle. Scenes are tight, the pacing is swift, and back story is kept to a minimum. The audience should feel off-guard and anxious from the beginning of an episode until the end (no serial has done this better than 24, by the way).

  5. Forget Complexity

    So, how does any of this relate to sci-fi? Here’s where I may get grief from hardcore science fiction fans: I don’t believe that a good serial story can really tackle anything approaching hard sci-fi. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be very, very difficult. Why? Well, in order for the audience to comprehend hard sci-fi there has to be a pretty heavy dose of world building. A writer might need an entire story segment to describe a foreign planet, or maybe even two story segments to provide intricate details about how an FTL drive works.

    Those rich details are necessary for hard sci-fi, but could tank a serial story audience’s attention span. Serial story fans need heavy doses of constant conflict. They’re looking for the adrenaline rush of rollercoaster ride, not the intricate plotting of a factory tour (and that’s not a dig at hard sci-fi, just a metaphor to make my point).

Let me ask you this…what’s your favorite serial story? I mentioned a few here, but there are many, many more. Does your favorite serial story adhere to the principles I’ve presented here? I can think of one excellent serial story that breaks a couple of the principles…can you guess which one?

16 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Jay Sherer Lists 5 Essentials of SciFi Serials”

    1. I know! It seems to be a lost art these days. But, the nice thing is that they’re still out there. There are Web serials, comic books, and television shows. I read an article recently that talked about how much pressure television shows have NOT to become pure serials. The networks want more “episodic” shows because they don’t want the story to end. The article specifically mentioned Battlestar Galactica. The studio put a lot of pressure on that creative team to make episodes more stand alone (what I call “episodic”). That was in season 3, and fans ended up hating it. So, a lot of hybrids exist. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  1. Thanks Jay for this excellent post. You’re absolutely right – these five tips are essential to writing a compelling serial. In a way, it follows the Da Vinci Code format, which drove millions of people insane with its cliff hangers, fast narrative, fascinating premise (for some), etc. The same can be said for The Hunger Games – short chapters, killer cliffhangers, fast pacing, light but effective world building.

    I think that the only tip left missing here is that most compulsive serials are based on a unique and fascinating character. You mentioned Jack Bauer, for example. What would The Hunger Games be without Katniss? I’d imagine that any seriously successful serial would have a similarly unique and captivating central character that comes to define the series as much as the action/plot does.

    1. Thanks, Phil! I appreciate the feedback! You’re absolutely right, serials need to have compelling characters that people love, which actually brings up another challenge for serial authors…keeping the character(s) relevant and dynamic over the course of time. That’s a tough job, but when done well it’s very impressive!

  2. I read some serial comics that I enjoy (Fables, Girl genius), but my favorite source of serial stories is actually Korean television. They don’t have endless seasons (though some of the historical epics do have over 100 episodes) and so they are able to some really interesting things. Plus they do cliffhangers really well; not all cliff hangers need to “oh no, are they dead?”. Some shows are better about the whole “Drive Fast” part than others, and there aren’t many hugely sf/f shows (that I’ve found among live-action shows), but they are still a great example of serialized story-telling.

  3. Some favorite serial stories of mine:

    * Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    * The Cugel the Clever Saga
    * Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, etc..
    * The Sandman Graphic Novels
    * Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run.
    * League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
    * The Filth
    * Firefly
    * The Elric Series
    * The Amber Series

  4. There’s still one show that’s an excellent (and very popular) show on television right now that’s a serial, but it breaks some of my “essentials.” If nobody mentions it by tomorrow I’ll mention it! Thanks for all the comments!

      1. That’s an excellent guess, and I’m betting (based on what I know of the books) that the show does break some of the rules, but the serial show I was thinking on is “The Walking Dead.”

        It does an excellent job of “starting in the middle” and “forgetting complexity” (they refuse to tell us how the zombie infestation started!), but for the most part it drives pretty slow and only occassionally ends on a cliffhanger. Of course, the writers do such a good job with the characters and the conflict that it makes up for those other points. It’s a really good show.

        I haven’t seen “Game of Thrones” yet, but I’ve read the first two books, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out on TV.

  5. Nice list, Jay, which I can’t help but apply to modern Marvel and DC superhero comics, since they were once (looong time ago) a true mass market serial juggernaut of sales and now … not so much.

    Leave Them Hanging: For sure, the cliffhanger is a staple of the comics industry. (Digressing from superheros I always thought one of the main reasons for Walking Dead’s huge success as a comic was Robert Kirkman’s mastery of and total commitment to a serial structure and pacing – pretty much every single early issue ends with a cliffhanger, a dramatic reveal or an OMG moment, which all the preceding pages kind of exist to bring into being).

    Drive Fast: An instruction that not enough modern superhero comics adhere to, I suspect. They acquired a fascination with ‘decompressed’ story-telling a while back which has resulted in comparatively slow story-telling – a potential problem when you’re asking readers to hand over $3+ for just 20 or so pages of stroy once a month.

    Avoid the Soap Opera Trap: Aside from actual TV soap operas, superhero comics have become pretty much the most soap operaish thing around, I suspect? Their entire reason for existence is the endless complication and recapitulation of the lives of a static, if vast and occasionally rotating, cast of characters. This is what the hardcore superhero comic fans want, apparently; maybe not so much what the wider public is after. All endings are temporary, and subject to later retcon, because the whole business model fundamentally requires that this costumed superhero soap opera is never going to end, or even change in any fundamental or lasting ways … if it did, what would happen to those precious merchandise sales and movies?

    Start in the Middle: Good advice for most writers in most media, I think. Superhero comics struggle with it – whatever their writers’ best intentions – because their entire industry is based on ‘backstory’, but there are nevertheless some talented creators around who construct scenes brilliantly.

    Forget complexity: Superhero comics don’t attempt hard sf, of course, but they’re burdened by a different kind of complexity: that of narrative. Their world-building consists of the gigantic history of story and character interactions upon which any current story is nowadays founded, and the spider’s web of interconnections dictated by a shared universe. It’s a particular kind of complexity that, again, appeals to the long-term fan but maybe not the general public.

    So … superhero comics: failing serials or a special case that’s adapted to the commercial realities of a changed world?

    And, contrary to the impression the above might give, I actually like quite a few superhero comics!

    1. Brian, I love this comment. I, too, really enjoy comics (superhero and otherwise), but you’re absolutely right, they have tended to “break the rules” over the years. I find the massive storylines that DC and Marvel have created almost unreadable. Now, granted, I LOVE when they greenlight a series that’s “out of continuity.” Serials like “Batman: The Long Halloween” and “Batman: Hush” and “Batman: Year One” are so good (wow, I guess I really like Batman…), and they get to stand alone so that the writers aren’t dealing with the “soap opera” of continuity.

      But, like you mentioned, I’ve become really selective about what I buy because I can’t shell out $3 per book if the story is ultimately going to fail. I end up waiting for the trades to come out (which is technically cheating the pure serial system). There’s something about writers who can “humanize” superheroes that’s really compelling, though.

      Thanks for the comment, Brian, great analysis of that market!

  6. Great post! In my opinion, Battlestar Galactica was an example of a serial story gone on too long before the ending. I wasn’t aware that the studio wanted the show to become more episodic – that makes a lot of sense. It got to the point where I just stopped caring about the characters and all of the urgency was gone. After multiple experiences like this, I’ve come to the conclusion that television really stinks as a storytelling medium. ESPECIALLY American television, where if a show is popular they add more seasons ad nauseum.

    When I think about it, the only shows that I end up liking in the long term are episodic – set up the characters and scenario, then provide the problem and conclusion in single episodes. Otherwise, I end up angry at the writers for messing up the characters that I like.

    1. I hear you on that point. What I’ve found is that I’m not a huge fan of episodic television, because the stories can’t really be all that deep. However, you’re completely right about the pure serial shows that just can’t cut it. The same thing happened to Heroes (which also was pressured to become episodic). That’s why my favorite model is the 24 model. They just reset the game every season! Thanks for sharing, Caitlin!

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