guest post: tension in serialized fiction

I'd like to welcome Alexis from Bunny Ears and Bat Wings, who will be presenting a guest post on the subject of tension in serialized fiction. Take it away, Alexis.

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.

Alexis runs the writing blog, Bunny Ears & Bat Wings, and the book review blog, Blackbird Books. Information about her freelance writing career can be found on her writing site.

Alexis lives in the greater Pittsburgh area, with her husband and baby boy. Feel free to follow Alexis on Twitter @lexisjen and find her on Google+.

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5 Responses to guest post: tension in serialized fiction

  1. sonje says:

    But isn’t there a danger of having so much action that it all becomes normalized and therefore loses its impact? I had that experience reading the Percy Jackson books (by Rick Riordan). These were regular (YA) novels–not serialized fiction (although I guess they would have been suited to serialization). Every single chapter had some action packed episode. It got tiring, and I also lost my concern for the characters because I could see that A) they always managed to make it out of the situation and B) there was a lot more of the book to come so they must make it anyway.

    Then again, I’m a sucker for character development. πŸ˜‰

  2. Sonje: I think there has to be variety, though variety will be handled differently in different genres. I always remember the Hardy Boys books I read as a kid. They were (I know now) written according to a very strict formula, and each chapter had to end with a cliffhanger. It did get to be routine, though the fact that the books weren’t that well written was probably a factor, too.

    Each part of The Green Mile ended with a hook of some sort, but some were pretty cerebral (a small mystery that the reader had to worry at for a month before learning the answer). If I was going to write an emotobook, I’d vary it up. A hook at the end of each section, definitely, but different types of hooks. Plus, if you’ve caught the readers’ interest a few chapters in, you have to have confidence that you can give them a little line without losing them.

    Alexis: “Start with a high tension scene.” Both of my novels have started in medias res, but it is genre-dependent to some extent. Mystery stories don’t work that way (“I’m chasing this guy down an alley but suddenly he pulls a knife.” — I’ve never read a mystery that started this way, though I’m sure there’s one somewhere that does). This may be because, in mysteries, the central conflict is usually external to the detective. Like the reader, the detective needs to get hooked. πŸ™‚

    I like the Shan Yu point. I have two characters who fell in love in 13 days. Now, ordinarily, what happens in 13 days can be infatuation and/or lust, but not love. But those 13 days (or at least 12 of them) were full of stress, conflict, surprises, murder, danger, mystery, and violence. Loyalties were tested, people were shot, cops were in pursuit, unforgivable things were done, etc. So, they got to know each other pretty well in a very short time, much more than they would have if they’d just eaten meals and talked about things.

  3. Alexis says:

    Sonje: High tension doesn’t necessarily mean action. It can be a tense emotional scene or dramatic event. If you’re going to use it in the beginning (for the emotobook style), it just has to be interesting enough to make the reader think, “Wow, okay.” I agree that if it’s the same kind of tension in every issue, it loses its effect. Then it’s not tension at all; it’s only action.

    Anthony: Emotobooks don’t have to end with cliff-hangers, but enough has to happen in each issue to make the reader curious enough to buy the next installment. Hooks at the end help with that, but they aren’t necessary. Like you said, variety is key.

    I love the idea of characters falling in love in 13 days. Your whole description of that sounds great.

  4. sonje says:

    Mystery novels can certainly start with a high tension scene. You can start at the scene of the gruesome, bloody, sadistic crime and then the detective spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it.

    Or you could have the detective be chasing a guy down an alley, knife and all, and the guy gets away so the detective spends the rest of the book tracking him down.

    I actually think mystery novels are well suited to a “start with a high tension” scene model. Not saying I do it personally, but it does work.

  5. Alexis: The developing relationship moved along very naturally (it certainly wasn’t planned by me), and it was in the middle of the novel, so at that point it was just one plot line of many (and all of the difficulties and violence they go through are caused by pre-existing plot elements that the reader already knows about, so it’s not just the author throwing obstacles in their path).

    Sonje: You’re right. (Let me make some notes…) I love it how I think mystery stories are one way, and then I realize they could be an entirely different way, too. There are really no limits. Too bad I’m not about to start a new mystery story now, or I’d probably start it one of those ways.

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