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Thoughts on the Structure of Episodic Fiction

January 15, 2008

One of the things that I’ve been hearing about again recently is serialization. I’ve been predicting it for a while, but with Amazon releasing the Kindle and the eventual release of an e-book reader for the iPhone, the age of serialized novels appears to be approaching (although there are still problems, such as DRM).

The question, then, is what does that mean for those of us who write?

Originally, I thought that it would just be a matter of releasing a chapter at a time. I’ve changed my mind, however. The reason is that a chapter in a book is usually determined by a set amount of time or a location. Instead, what is needed is something closer to an episode.

How would an episode of a written story work, then?  Well, the first thing is that it should probably be a bit longer than your average chapter.  The average chapter is about 2500 words, but if that is all you are able to read at a time, then 2500 words just won’t cut it, readers want something they can sink their teeth into.  It will take some time to figure out a good length, but I imagine that it will be anywhere from 5k to 10k words (although this is just a guess).  This makes an episode start to sound like a short story, which is good, but not entirely accurate.

Since the work will be released serially, it is important that something be accomplished in the story.  There is little worse than reading something and thinking to yourself “that could have been skipped”.  So an episode should have a beginning, middle, and an end.  It still differs from a short story in two ways, though.  The first is that it there is an overall plot that connects the episodes, so you really have two arcs, the overall arc and the episode arc.  The second difference is that the episode does not need a strict conflict that must be introduced, developed, and then resolved.  Instead the point is that the character(s) should grow through the course of the episode.  In addition, although it would be ideal if each episode could stand entirely on its own, that is probably infeasible, and shouldn’t be too much of a problem, so long as they are interesting enough to motivate a first time reader to check out the earlier episodes.

I don’t think that serialized fiction will require any drastic changes to the way we write.  We will still break stories down in similar ways (scenes certainly aren’t going anywhere), but I think that we will need to focus on balance in our storytelling.  Too much description and nothing gets accomplished, too much action and it seems shallow.  It will be up to the individual writer to figure out what works for them.  No matter how it works out, though, it certainly is an exciting time to be writing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2008 9:40 am

    Or should we say that “the age of serialized novels appears to be [returning]?” Think Dickens and Dostoevsky, and more recently, the appealing think about Stephen King’s Green Mile experiment was that it seems to have forced episodic structure on him, with a more felicitous result than is his readers generally experience, in my humble opinion.

    The Kindle opens fascinating possibilities. Although it is a fine way to read an entire book, it may be even more superior as a way to read short-form writing: nonfiction, stories, essays and zines. I am currently working on a nonfiction book and have had great success excerpting chapters as “articles” for, among other things, the purpose of “beta testing” the content.

    I am a little resistant to the idea of reading serialized fiction a chapter at a time with intervals that are not suited well to my reading patterns, but perhaps that is just me.


  2. January 15, 2008 1:53 pm

    Quite right about it being nothing new. Hopefully there will be the possibility of new authors being able to achieve the same standing as Dickens and Dostoevsky.

    The Kindle looks very interesting. Again the problem remains of DRM, which has serious potential to stagnate the industry (unless the pricing is right, of course, but even that has its problems).

    The interval part about serialized fiction could be a serious issue, as I do think that it is not just you who has a problem with long waits. So far, the usual answer to this seems to be that people who do not want to read a story piecemeal will be able to read it all at once (which is how I watch TV shows). I don’t find this answer particularly satisfactory, however, as it amounts to saying “just wait”.

    Another way to look at it is that anyone who reads books in a series already does this, although on a different scale. The idea is that once there is enough content out there the problem would be choosing which stories to read, rather than waiting for the next episode to be released.

    Authors will be forced to plan more and perhaps wait until they have most of the story completed so that there is not so great of a gap between episodes. Also, if an episode is well written and long enough, I imagine that the problems with the gap will be less than with a traditional chapter.

    In the end, though, I’m sure several solutions will grow organically, and they will probably be more elegant than anything that I can predict. Thanks for the feedback.

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