This week our guest author blog post is from Holly McDowell, taking a historical look at the serial!

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The serial novel is making a comeback! Active fiction publisher, Coliloquy, is offering several new titles, and Amazon.com is releasing Dickens’ stories digitally in the same episodic installments as when they were first published. What’s up with this new trend?

Where did the serial story idea start?

Charles Dickens first made serials famous. He published The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) in monthly, 32-page episodes. He must have enjoyed the process, because he repeated it with Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, and more.

Stephen King revived the serial form in 1996 when he released The Green Mile in monthly, 96-page episodes. Public reaction? His story became wildly popular and was made into an award-winning movie.

Using cliffhangers–isn’t that messing with the reader a bit? Isn’t it mean?

Yes!

But, sometimes an author has a good reason. The legendary Scheherazade used cliffhanger endings to save her life. Imagine her desperation: The King of Persia was so angry about having a broken heart, he married a different woman every night and beheaded her the next morning. When Scheherazade entered his boudoir, she kept herself alive for 1,001 nights by telling stories that ended with cliffhangers.

So, did the authors know their story’s ending when they first started writing it? And did they listen to reader feedback?

Both Dickens and King published their first episode before the final was written. (That was brave and optimistic!) I took a look at Dickens’ collected letters to find out a little about his process. One might call it “fluid.”

Sometimes, Dickens added unplanned characters and plot lines at the last minute, in a flurry of inspiration. In a letter to a friend in 1835, he says,

“I have at this moment got Pickwick and his friends on the Rochester coach, and [...] in company with a very different character from any I have yet described, who I flatter myself will make a decided hit. I want to get them from the ball to the inn before I go to bed; and I think that will take me until one or two o’clock at the earliest. The publishers will be here in the morning, so [...] I have no alternative but to stick at my desk.” (1)

(I like this image of him furiously finishing the episode.)

Dickens added the character of Captain Jorgan to his story, “A Message from the Sea,” at a reader’s suggestion. (2) He often considered multiple endings up until the moment the final episode was due, and he altered endings to suit readers. He changed the ending of Great Expectations to suit his author friend, Edward Bulwer. (3) Author Wilkie Collins helped him brainstorm endings for Oliver Twist. (4)

Would Dickens’ novels have ended differently if he’d completed them before publishing the first chapter? We’ll never know. But needing to keep a reader’s interest across weeks of silence must have obliged him to write more urgently compelling episodes. Dickens wrote on the edge, each new scene necessary for his livelihood.

Are serial stories a good thing, or should we be angry about this offensive new trend??

I like serials because they’re fun and limitless. If the world of a story is big enough, there’s always another character, theme or situation to explore. Life presents endless antagonistic forces, and a serial can reflect that beautifully; it can be bigger than four hundred pages and a standard beginning-middle-end format. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a “book” at all.

Footnotes:
(1) The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol. 1, 1833-1856 (Kindle Locations 87-92). Kindle Edition.
(2) The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol. 2, 1857-1870 (Kindle Locations 1829-1833). Kindle Edition.
(3) The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol. 2, 1857-1870 (Kindle Locations 1920-1924). Kindle Edition.
(4) The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol. 2, 1857-1870 (Kindle Locations 5351-5354). Kindle Edition.