The Complete Guide to Writing Serial Fiction
Examples of serials (historic and modern) and everything you need to know to write your own.
I can’t be the only one who enjoys picking up a chapter here and there of an awesome web serial. It’s agony to wait a whole week to find out what my faves are going to do next or to stew on a bit of intrigue until the next installment goes live, but I love it!
Serial fiction is a booming subset of the publishing industry that doesn’t get enough serious attention. It’s been around nearly as long as the modern novel and is just as influential. When done right, serial fiction can benefit the author, publisher, and reader at the same time by offering a more flexible and dynamic story experience.
But what is serial fiction, and how can you start writing it? Here’s what you need to know.
What is serial fiction?
Serial fiction derives its name from the word series, which, as you probably already know, is defined as a group of things or events of a similar nature that happen one after another in a regular pattern. The “thing” in this case is a story.
That being said, serial fiction, sometimes just called a serial, is a larger fictional work that is broken down into smaller installments in order to be published regularly over a longer period of time. These installments might be individual short stories pertaining to a larger overall plot, or the individual chapters of a novel or novella.
Installments are published on a regular schedule, usually once a week for larger publications but sometimes as often as once daily. Some serial fiction works are written with the goal of being a novel by the end of their run on their serialization platform, while others are simply meant to be an exercise for the author in keeping a schedule and writing an ongoing tale with no fixed ending. Some serials run for hundreds of chapters, making them ideal targets for people who like to binge read stories like some people do TV shows on Netflix.
The history of serial fiction
Serial fiction originated in the 17th century. At that time, printing was becoming increasingly easy, making literacy more common among everyday folks. Still, book publishing was costly and time-consuming; you only wanted to print what you knew for a fact would sell.
What wasn’t nearly as time-consuming and expensive? Magazine publishing. Fiction authors caught on to this quickly and started pitching smaller stories to be published in these magazines. This was a win on both sides - writers could deliver their stories on a smaller scale and earn faster, and publishers could see how interested the public was in the story with minimal investment.
Serialization hit a boom in the Victorian era as printing and distribution methods advanced. This is when you started seeing famous names like Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many others getting in on the game.
Eventually, though, the rise of the radio and television series slowed down the world of periodicals and serialized fiction. The focus shifted to producing audio dramas that could be played over this new technology, such as an infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel War of the Worlds. Though most dramas didn’t have the same disastrous effects, they did engage listeners far more than standard periodicals by allowing them to perform other tasks while they listened, and removing the barrier of illiteracy from the audience. Because of this, traditional publishers shifted back toward standard novels and kept their focus there until the advent of the internet.
In the modern era, serial fiction has made a resurgence with web-based self-publishing platforms like LiveJournal, Wattpad, and Archive of Our Own (otherwise called AO3). It’s most popular among fan fiction writers or writers who create unauthorized stories within the worlds of established media. Recently, though, serialization has boomed back into popularity with the creation of webcomics and novels, whose weekly or even daily installments are hyped on social media.
Why serialize fiction?
As mentioned, serial fiction has lots of benefits for authors, publishers, and readers.
For authors, serial writing gives you the benefit of instant gratification. Instead of having to create an entire novel, send it out on query, get a deal, go through revisions, and then release the book, you can simply write your story one chapter at a time and release it to your audience. You can see the reaction to - and profits from - your work immediately, which can be great motivation for creating the rest of the piece.
For publishers, serial fiction gives your readers a reason to keep coming back for more. It’s a great way to both attract new readers and retain existing ones, as it offers more value and potential than a one-off issue. It’s also, as I said, a great way of gauging interest. If you’re seeing a sudden spike in subscription and feedback with a certain story, you should probably keep posting that story; people are liking it! On the other hand, if it’s not getting a lot of traction, you can easily stop printing it and move on to a different piece without losing a big investment.
Reader feedback can influence the course of the story, making it a collaborative effort between writer and audience. It’s also a great way of introducing yourself to new and different stories. Most literary journals will publish a few serials at a time that you can follow and try out.
Popular serial stories
Because serials have been around for so long, they’ve made quite the cultural impact. In fact, some of the most beloved classical novels of today were once serial fiction! There have been too many serial fiction stories to name them all, but here are some of the most influential.
The classics of serialization
When I say the classics, I’m talking about serials that ran back when serial fiction first became popular. They were weekly or biweekly stories in some of the most popular newspapers and journals in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Russia - powerhouses of literary innovation. Some of these stories changed how we view fiction as a whole, by proving that the novel format was not only popular with the public, but could also tell philosophical, interesting, and complicated stories that appealed to more than just socialite women with nothing else to do.
Here are some of the most influential serial fiction classics from the 19th century.
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In 1836, publishers Edward Chapman and William Hall were faced with the potential cancellation of one of their most popular serials, “Cockney Sporting Scenes,” due to the untimely death of the illustrator whose work was the focus of the publication. They decided to shift focus to the text of the story and hired a young journalist to fill it out. The stories, telling the tales of Samuel Pickwick and his companions as they traveled around the country, were an instant success and skyrocketed both the publication and the author to public phenomenon status. That author? None other than Charles Dickens, whose writing of The Pickwick Papers launched his now-famous career and who worked on another little title alongside his serial: Oliver Twist.
- Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sir Doyle had been writing Holmes’s story for a little while when he was invited to bring the detective to The Strand Magazine in 1891. That was where the detective and his partner Watson really hit their stride. Their fame and public adoration grew so much that, when Sir Doyle decided to end the series in 1893 with The Reichenbach Falls, there were public demonstrations in the streets of London to bring the character back. Sir Doyle would continue the series until 1914, and leave a massive cultural legacy that spans through today. Strangely enough, Sir Doyle didn’t even like Holmes!
- The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Everyone loves a classic tale of adventure and chivalry, and this was especially true in France in the mid-1800s. Alexandre Dumas started publishing the story of the Musketeers in Le Siecle in 1844. He was a master of cliffhangers and suspense, taking the real-life adventures of D’Artagnan from his half-real memoir (published in the 1600s) and spinning it into a serial about a band of cavaliers loyal to the throne who went on remarkable, dangerous adventures. Dumas became so successful that he ended up having to hire assistants to remain as prolific with his stories as he wanted to be; how much those assistants contributed, we’ll likely never know.
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Seen by many as an evolution of what a novel could be, Anna Karenina was first published as a serial in the Russkii Vestnik in Russia, from 1873 to 1877. It told the story of a high-class woman from St. Petersburg and her illicit affair, which caused her to fall from grace. Tolstoy was a fan of looking at the small scale while he commented on the large scale; Anna Karenina is a sprawling story that, when it was compiled into a single bound book in 1878, covered 800 pages all about the lives and lies of Russian aristocrats during a time of complete socioeconomic upheaval in the country. It’s regarded today as a masterwork in political and social commentary and one of the best novels of all time.
Though not yet as thoroughly engrained in the cultural memory as the classics, modern serial fiction is seeing a huge renaissance. With the introduction of self-publishing platforms and the rising popularity of the webcomic, serials are returning to popular media with the authors at the wheel. Yes, there are still plenty of big players in the game (and I’ll talk about one of them in the list below), but currently, serializing is a superpower offered to readers of all backgrounds and skill levels.
Here are some of the most popular modern serial fiction series.
- Worm by John C. McCrae. This serial updated twice a week from June 2011 to November 2013, running an astonishing 1,680,000 words (which he describes as comparable to 26 novels worth of content.) The story follows Talor, an introverted teenage girl with superpowers, struggling with the dilemma of “having to do the wrong things for the right reasons.” A follow up series, Ward, ran from November 2017 to May 2020.
- The Wandering Inn by pirareaba. Are you looking for a serial that will keep you busy for months, possibly years? According to the serial’s wiki, the Fantasy / LitRPG series is over 32,000 pages / 9.3 million words long. The main character is transported from our world into a fantasy world, where she runs an inn. It’s more slice-of-life than most fantasies, which focus on grand quests.
- Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe. With nearly a billion views and more than 5.6 million subscriptions, Lore Olympus is one of the most popular webcomics on Webtoons. It follows the story of Hades and Persephone, along with many other popular Greek mythological figures, in a modernized retelling. Author Rachel Smythe had been fascinated by the myth of The Taking of Persephone since she was a child. Her gritty, stylized retelling has earned her a place as a #1 NYT bestselling author, though her dedication remains to the ongoing serial project.
- A Practical Guide to Evil by ErraticErrata. Top Web Fiction is one of the most popular serial fiction sites on the internet, having been around since 2008. It’s completely free to use and is community-run, meaning only the best of the best get popular, and that’s exactly what A Practical Guide to Evil is. This YA fantasy story follows Catherine Foundling on her journey through the Kingdom of Callow - not on the heroes’ side. Written by user ErraticErrata, it’s been an ongoing project of political intrigue and dramatic anti-heroism for many years. There’s more to come as well, as the author mentions having many “other projects on the backburner.”
- Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Playing with Fire. Written by the amazing team of Lauren Baukes, Vita Ayala, Sam Beckbessinger, Zoe Quinn, and Esla Sjunneson is a new take on a classic Marvel “hero” given to audiences by another popular serial fiction site, Serial Box, and Realms. In it, our jaded super-strong hero explores the dangerous Hellfire Club to solve the mysterious death of a friend. The series, a prose introduction to the normally comic-bound character, was released like a podcast.
- The Green Mile by Stephen King. King, no stranger to the New York Times bestseller list, originally published The Green Mile across six paperback volumes, with a new one releasing monthly, from March to August of 1996. It tells the story of a death row supervisor, and an inmate with unusual and extraordinary abilities. A film version starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan released in 1999.
How to write serial fiction
Serial fiction has lots of benefits, but it’s not as easy as slapping a short story down and winging it as you go. If you want to write and maintain a successful serial, you’ll have to get down to basics, make a plan, and stick to it. Everyone’s creative process is different, but here’s what I would recommend if you’re interested in writing serial fiction.
Plan your whole story first
It’s definitely possible to go into a serial without a plan. Some of the best pieces of serial fiction spawned from a one-off short story or idea, and have been going on for years without any hiccups in production.
If you’re planning to maintain the story as a serial, however, it’s probably a good idea to know where you’re going with it. Having a plan for your serial can make writing future installments easier, especially if a story arc stretches out for a long time. This can help you plan out your upload schedule, ensuring consistency. Your readers will thank you for that.
When I say to plan your story, I don’t mean down to every little detail. One of the lovely things about publishing in serial form is that you can incorporate audience feedback, meaning that characters you initially planned as cameos might become incredibly important, or one-off items might spark a lot of interest and make for a great powerful object reveal later on. Instead of trying to micromanage your story, create an overarching outline that goes over the major events, or “beats,” of your plot. You can do this in a few different ways.
No matter what outlining method you use, I’d highly recommend starting with a set of character profiles. Character profiles are the basic information you need to remember about your major characters - think of it as a mini Wiki page. The profile should include:
- The character’s full name, including titles, as well as any nicknames they might go by.
- Their basic biographical information (age, race, gender, etc.)
- Their social role or job.
- Their affiliations (family ties, political organizations, religious groups, etc.)
- Their code of ethics or personal rules.
- Basic descriptions of their personality and core values.
- Their major flaws.
You should have a profile for your protagonist, antagonists, and any recurring characters. This makes it easy to quickly remember how you wrote them previously in later installments, which keeps your writing consistent.
My go-to method for outlining stories is a plot diagram. These are the things you probably did in high school for a classic novel or two; they’re a line with a peak in the middle. Plot diagrams have at least five labeled parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Separating your story out like this can give you a good idea of where things are meant to go and when.
Plot diagrams can be extremely restrictive, which can be a problem. If your readers really don’t like a particular character, who’s key to progressing the story, then you may end up scrambling to rearrange your diagram to meet your readers’ expectations.
The bookend outline
A bookend outline is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin - it’s an outline that covers the beginning of the story, the end of the story, and the main characters, and…that’s it. This is good if you’re wanting to leave the middle of the story up to the interpretation of your readers, and allows for a lot of flexibility.
Unfortunately, that flexibility also means that you’re going to have to handle the murky middle of your story - which often is the hardest part to write as you connect all the dots - on your own. This might lead to some frustration and writer’s block unless you’re very good at improvising.
Synopsis outlines are another go-to of mine. They’re extremely basic, answering the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the story in a series of bullet points to map out your chapters. This is a great method to use if you already have a strong idea of major plot points you want to use and just need to organize them into an actual linear plot.
Like plot diagrams, synopsis outlines can be restrictive, making adapting to your readers a little more difficult. They can also become outdated quickly if those bullet points end up not actually making sense with the story, which might mean significant shuffling later on.
Set a schedule and stick to it
An important part of the serial format is the release schedule. Most serials release new chapters weekly, though you could choose to go bi-weekly (every two weeks) to give yourself more time, or daily if you’re particularly ambitious and have lots of pre-prepped material to publish. You’ll also need to consider the day that you’re going to publish. Many serials are published either on Monday or Friday if they’re on a weekly schedule. There’s no really binding reason for this; they’re the beginning and end of the week, so it makes sense, but there are no rules saying you can’t pick any other day and be just as successful.
Once you’ve picked a schedule, make sure that you plan accordingly. I recommend planning a few months out if you’re a biweekly poster, a few weeks to a month out if you’re a weekly poster, and at least two weeks out if you’re a daily poster. This gives you time to get everything - the drafting, editing, revising, and social media planning - done without rushing. It also gives you a cushion of time in case a situation arises that results in you not being able to publish.
Once your schedule is set, stick to it! Consistency begets audience growth and retention; people like to know exactly when they’re getting their next piece of content before they become invested and decide to stick around.
Keep your readers engaged
In a normal novel, it’s fine if the pacing starts out slow because readers can be assured that the action is available in the next chapter, right there in their hands. With serial novels, you don’t have that luxury; your story has to be gripping and engaging from the first paragraph. If your chapter is uninteresting, or if multiple chapters happen without progressing the plot very much, your readers can quickly become bored.
There are a few ways you can keep your readers involved:
- Treat each part as its own short story. Give it a mini-plot of its own - a proper beginning, middle, and end - independent of the overarching plot. That way, each section is dynamic and satisfying to read on its own.
- Don’t answer every question you pose in the same chapter. Okay, we know that A was stolen, and we’re where we need to be to get it back, but who took it, and why? Leave your audience curious about where the story is going so that they’ll come back in the next part to see.
- Have multiple plots moving. Maybe one chapter focuses on the A plot, with hints to B, and the next chapter focuses on B. You can alternate evenly, or have B plot take attention only occasionally, to break up slow sections of A. Be careful not to overcomplicate things, though; your audience might not appreciate having to track 40 different characters to make sense of the story.
Be prepared to improvise
Feedback is one of the key benefits of serial fiction. You can see in real-time what your audience likes and dislikes about your story. Unfortunately, that might mean that your audience decides they really don’t like a particular character or plot point that you intended to make extremely important. That’s where the ability to improvise comes in.
Try to stick to your original outline where you can, but if you find you need to change something, then change it! Stick with the change for a few chapters to see if it’s working, and if it is, then you can sit down with your outline and adjust it to match your current story.
If something doesn’t work? Don’t panic. You can change it again in the next chapter. You might even try asking your audience directly what they want to see next!
Where can you publish serial fiction?
You have your outline, you’ve set a schedule, now where are you going to put it? Serial fiction outlets abound on the modern internet, which is both a blessing and a curse. You’ve got plenty of options with tons of unique features, so how do you pick the one that’s right for you?
Here are some questions to consider:
- What do I have to invest to publish here? Is it free or is there a fee?
- What do I get back for publishing here? Can I monetize my content? Can I grow my audience?
- What is the readership like here? Who’s reading what?
- How long has the platform been around? Does it change often?
- What kind of schedule does it allow for?
- Are there any extras that come with publishing here?
Once you’ve considered that, you can look at the various platforms available to you and compare them to find the right home for your work. Here are some of my top recommendations for publishing serial fiction.
- Royal Road is a serial fiction community that caters to both fanfiction and original works. It’s free to publish on, although they do offer a premium author subscription that gives you access to more features such as collaboration, importing, and epub file exporting. They offer a donation system that allows your readers to donate directly to you, which they take no cut of. Stories do have to be approved by their moderation team and must include content warnings for serious subjects.
- Wattpad is one of the most popular serial fiction communities on the internet, having been around since 2006. It’s completely free to write on Wattpad and relatively easy; they have a clean word processor and easy-to-use story formatting system with categories to help you get discovered by their massive reader community (90 million readers, according to the site!). There’s also the added perk of being eligible for Wattpad Books, their in-house publishing system that works with industry leaders to get popular stories out into the physical world.
- Radish Fiction is a website and mobile app that’s been around since 2015. It’s specifically designed for serial fiction and more specifically romantic and erotic serial fiction. The app is designed to be monetizable, with readers paying a subscription to keep reading a series; they advertise that some of their writers make more than $1,000 per month from their stories, though I haven’t been able to verify that. You do have to go through an application process to write on the app.
- Kindle Vella is the newest offering from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), one of the largest self-publishing platforms in the world. Vella allows you to post serial fiction on the Kindle mobile app, and to monetize it through their token system (readers use tokens to unlock episodes of your story). If you’re already publishing through Amazon, it may be a good idea to go with Vella so that you can link directly back to your other works. So far, Vella is only available to authors in the United States.
- Laterpress! Obviously, I have to recommend my friends right here at Laterpress. This free-to-use site lets you build your author platform alongside your story, including a mailing list and author profile page. It’s quick and easy to publish to the site, and just as easy to read, as you don’t need to download the app or even have an account to start reading. Laterpress offers authors the option to monetize their stories by setting up subscriptions or allowing readers to buy the story outright and takes only a 5% fee. They also have an Author Working Group that gives feedback on the site’s design, performance, and community directly to the creative team.
Looking for a new serial to read? Here are some examples of serials published through Laterpress:
- Chew by Naomi Ault
- The Stars and Green Magics by Novae Caelum
- Mandala by Edward Eidolon
- Salvage of Empire by David Eyk
- Fall of Avalon by JR Froemling
- The Planar Gates by Nate Gillick
- Target 10: A Space Adventure by CP Night
- Sigils & Sushi by Nia Quinn
It’s funny that the publishing world seems to have come full circle, from serials in magazines to the rise of the novel and back to serials available to readers all around the world with the tap of a finger. It makes me wonder what the authors of some classic serials would think of the enormous communities and dedicated followings that modern writers enjoy.
Serial fiction is a great way to work, especially in today’s digital reading landscape. With new content available regularly, your audience will be constantly growing and incredibly committed, and you’ll be able to keep creating while you work on building yourself up as an author.