November 7th, 2011
Anthony has been kind enough to let me hang out on his blog for a while, so as a sort of tie-in to his recent post, Serial Publication, I'm going to talk about the importance of using heightened tension in writing serialized fiction.
Serialized fiction might not be your niche as a writer, and it might not be your favorite style to read, but it's worth some discussion because, unlike traditional fiction, it can more easily garner a cult-like fan base. This is true on the most basic level: there's a definite market for trilogies and series, especially in YA fiction, which attracts the kind of readership most likely to obsess over a single concept. For me, having to wait for the next installment of a story is very exciting, and I'm more likely to actively think about that story as I anticipate it, rather than a single book that I might gush over for a month then forget about. Serialized fiction, whether in shorter increments or serialized novels, gives people something to talk about repeatedly. And if it's consistent with its publishing dates, unlike many comics, that's even better because as readers, we know when to expect the next issue and we look forward to that specific day.
An example of this would be an emotobook, which is a new medium of fiction that is published in monthly installments. Emotobooks are ebooks, so it's easy for a reader to grab the next installment on the day it comes out without having to stop by the bookstore. The individual issues are quick reads, and most people can devour an issue or single during a lunch break or subway ride. I'm a fan of emotobooks because they don't ask for a lot of my time, but they promise adventure month after month for ten months (the complete story arc is called a season, like in television.)
And when I say adventure, I really mean that. Serialized fiction needs to be fast-paced. Each issue must have conflict and resolution, or the reader will lose interest. Imagine anticipating an issue for a month, then reading it and realizing that nothing much actually happened this time around. I can think of a few comics that have disappointed me like that, and what's the result? I don't look forward to the next one as much.
There's another reason to write tension into serialized fiction, specific to emotobooks. Emotobooks incorporate expressionistic art to heighten the emotional responses of the reader and further immerse the reader in the story. The illustrators need to feel that tension in order to respond to it. When I make adjustments to manuscripts to accommodate illustrations, but there's nothing really going on, the result is some boring artwork.
As a writer, I can see how writing in tension for serials can be a challenge. Sometimes we need that first few chapters of a novel just to develop our characters and provide background on the plot. But we can't expect serial readers to tolerate four or five issues of nothing but development... even if it benefits our story. This is because readers won't like waiting around for the next installment just to hear about someone's past or family dynamic. We have to provide the incentive to wait.
There are a couple things that writers can do to accommodate the serial style without sacrificing the backdrop to their stories:
- Use flashback. Start with a high tension scene, and develop your characters through past events that lead up to that scene. It will give your readers an idea of where you're headed with the story, and it keeps it interesting.
- Develop the characters through tension. There's an old saying by Shan Yu that says, "Live with a man for forty years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge. On that day, you will finally meet the man." Our character reveal themselves through dire circumstances.
- Speed up the story and separate the slower parts into different issues. Your readers might not need all of that background information at once. Keep the action rolling and add the rest of it intermittently throughout the season.
Lastly, think like a reader. That's the best writing advice I've ever come across. If you were reading your story, would you be entertained enough to wait a month for the next installment? Would you want to see characters happy and comfortable and bored? Or would you like to see some conflict? Maybe something dangerous. Some tension. Some suspense. And of course, some emotion.
Alexis is a Content & Acquisitions Editor at Grit City Publications. She’s also a freelance writer, novelist, and book reviewer. She earned a BA in English and Professional Writing from Ellis University in Chicago.