4 min read

Serial fiction? Serialized fiction? What?

Serial fiction (def) : Serial fiction is the practice of publishing a portion of a work of fiction close to the time the fiction was written. Serial fiction has no designated middle or ending, only a beginning.

Serialized (def) : Serialize fiction is work of completed fiction that is published in small segments. While it's most common to serialize a novel or longer works of fiction, short stories can also be serialized. The entire work of fiction - beginning, middle and end - is complete prior to release of any segments.

Ta da! That was easy.  I guess I'll see you next month...

...Oh... That's not it? You sure?

sigh... grumble...

Ok, you were right. I was being lazy and a little flip. The difference between serial fiction and serialized fiction is a major, and absolutely absurd, division in the serial community.  Both methods of publication and writing are valid. They are simply different.

Writing style

While technically, serial fiction vs. serialize fiction is about when a work is published, serial fiction and serialized fiction are two very different writing styles.

Serial fiction is written one chapter or section at a time and published one chapter or section at a time. This means that each chapter needs to carry the larger story arch as well as lure the reader to return the next week. It is a genre known for intense cliffhangers. The 'Who shot JR?' situation in summer of 1980 is a great example of this classic serial fiction style. Charles Dickens, the grand master of serial fiction, was best known for his cliffhanger endings to chapters. He had the capacity to bring the reader to a razor's edge and then break the chapter. The reader was compelled to buy the magazine to read the next chapter. If you're not quite sure of what I mean, check the audio version of Scarlet Pimpernel out of the library. Just don't listen in your car. You'll find yourself sitting outside your house of work for hours at a time as one cliffhanger leads to another adventure.

Serialized fiction publication usually falls along the chapter lines. Chapters carry the story but don't necessarily have the cliffhangers and zingers to lure the reader to read the next chapter. Unless the work is specifically designed and written to be read quickly (which is its own art form), the chapters can fall on something as banal as the number of words in a chapter. Because serialized fiction has more to do with novel writing, I will trust that you have your own stack of 'How to write a novel' books. If you need some references, let me know in the comments and I'll share my favorites.

Beginning, middle, end

Talented serial fiction authors write each chapter so that someone can enter the fictional world at any chapter. This means that characters, the location of the story, and situations are reintroduced over and over again. Each chapter should also have a beginning, middle, and end. In classic serial fiction, a chapter  begins with remnant tension from the last chapter, moves to calmer water then ends on a suspenseful cliffhanger.

And yeah, I know. Our high school and college professors told us that every chapter of a novel or long story, and every paragraph for that matter, should have a beginning, middle and end. But you know what? Most chapters don't have a beginning, middle and end. They don't. They just don't. Some chapters are split in the middle of the action. Some chapters are long continuations of a dramatic or emotional sequence. This is the beauty and charm of a novel. The author has the luxury and challenge of laying out the entire book in beginning, middle, and end format.  Serial fiction authors don't have to deal with this particular challenge.

Why is this a big deal?

The truth is that calling a serialized novel or longer work of fiction serial fiction is simply rude.

Novels and longer fiction are wonderful. They are hard work and require a tremendous amount of attention and love. They demand a ton of content editing, proof editing, and agonizing days and nights of this work vs. that word.  I personally think it's delightful if an author or publisher wants to share the book in a serialized manner.  But the novels and longer fiction aren't serial fiction. Serialized fiction isn't serial fiction.

Serial fiction authors slave day in and day out to make sure their fiction continues week after week. Sure, most authors write ahead a little bit. But at some point or another, there's a moment in time when they are up in the middle of the night attempting to get their chapter done. Serial fiction is the A-game. It takes all the writer has to give and then some. It's consistent, hard work year in and year out.

I'm not being elitist here. I think both art forms are valid, hard work, and beautiful in their own right.

By using the term serial fiction to describe a serialized fiction, you diminish the power, hard work, and beauty of serial fiction.  In diminishing serial fiction, you diminish another beautiful art form, serialized fiction. There's nothing easy about writing a novel or longer fiction. When you confuse the two art forms, you cast a shadow over both.

Don't be embarrassed.  Just stop doing it.

Thoughts and questions are always welcome. Please feel free to leave them in the comments. Also, if you have a burning desire to know about some particular topic, let me know! Next month, 'Crap, my serial fiction is stuck! 5 unsticking tricks.'

Until next month....


This is an ongoing series about writing serial fiction. The series continues on the last Thursday of every month.

This post is simultaneously posted at Tuesday Serial