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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?