On Serial Fiction and the Importance of Basic Storytelling
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
The most popular thing I've ever written was, from a craft standpoint, terrible.
This was about seven years ago, at a time in which some people were forecasting a new age of online serial fiction. It seemed plausible, enough so that there was money in it. I actually got paid for this particular piece, and in fact I made more money from this terrible thing than anything else I've ever done.
I'm currently digging through old files in search of the JukePop Serials version of The Fabulist. I probably don't have the whole thing, but there are at least a few chapters out there, somewhere. They're learning aids at this point. I picked up a few critical things from working on serials, specifically about what's essential when telling a story.
The Essentials of Storytelling
Telling a story isn't hard. It's maybe the most of human of human traits, something that informs the way we think, perceive, remember and reason. Everything people do is narrative if you break it down to its essentials. So there's nothing hard about telling a story, but telling a compelling story is another issue entirely.
There are a lot of little sayings that are meant to illustrate both the importance of storytelling and its fundamental nature. Here's one I made up for a class I did for my ESL students a few years back:
Once upon a time, there was a (character).
One day, (complication) happened.
So (character) had to (action).
Finally, the (character) had to (ending).
And they lived happily/miserably ever after.
Not only is that a story, it's a complete story, albeit a simple one. I can make it even simpler, though. Creating a compelling story requires only two things:
A character that the reader likes...
...Doing things that the reader finds interesting.
That's it. Everything else is glitter.
There's a lot of snobbery in writing circles these days, much of it targeted at self-published or digital literature. The works that are subject to this disdain are undeniably bad, but I've never really indulged in the mockery myself. Bad literature teaches you a lesson, but if the lesson you learn is "People are stupid and have bad taste," then you need to go back to the beginning.
The JPS version of The Fabulist was bad, and as I turn up passages from it I'll demonstrate why this is. Suffice it to say that it featured a lot of those elements that get singled out in "deep dives" in clickbait articles and YouTube videos. This included hastily patched-over plot holes, characters who are established and then never appear again, a MacGuffin that varies in importance depending on the chapter, lots and lots of vague and baffling lore, and an ending twist that's nearly impossible to forecast due to last-minute changes that threw off the foreshadowing.
Much of this is innate to writing serials in real time, stories that you can't retroactively change or edit and that need to have easy-to-remember plot points that would be considered too blunt in a self-contained novel. But the real takeaway for those of you who aren't interested in serial writing is the fact that none of my readers cared. Was it because they were stupid or had bad taste? No, it's just that they had a likable character doing interesting things - and a person who has those things doesn't go plot hole hunting or pick apart sentences for errors.
Story comes first - that's the main takeaway here. If your masterfully shaped prose isn't enthralling people like the output of those hacks, well...maybe instead of making fun, you can figure out what those hacks are doing well.