Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Web Serial: What

I write serials. Teacher colleagues, so do you. Listen up.

What shocked me was in realizing that I have been doing this for a rather long time without being consciously aware of it. It's only just surfaced on my radar because the genre is growing in popularity. How did I miss noticing? Excuse me, I'm having a moment.

This will be a multi part blog series. Excuse me, a serial.
1- *The History (What)
2- Teaching Now (Where)
3- My Contributions (Who)
4- Writing One (How)

As for the why, read. As to when: The time is now. Jump on board.


Literary serial novels have been around since the Victorian Age. Picture buying one chapter of a book every week until you have the complete set. Or for present day context, The Harry Potter Series. Or, you know, every anime I've ever watched and enjoyed. (Slight hyperbole, see below.)

From that website I linked:
"Throughout the Victorian period, novels in serial parts were published in abundance in newspapers and magazines .... serial publication enabled middle class readers to purchase novels that would be too expensive for them to purchase as a single edition."

"Each chapter had to engage the reader as a single unit as well as working within the context of the whole novel."

HYPER: "Damn it, ArcTan, who draws for
their own novels these days?! I mean, really!"
"Illustrations were also an important feature of serial novels and Victorian artists, like John Everett Millais, were well known for their illustrations for serial fiction."

Now who did this back then? Charles Dickens is a big name. Susan Kaye Quinn points out that even "Great Expectations" was written as a serial. The comments below her post chime in with even more big names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, also seeing a resurgence these days) and Jules Verne.

That same blog entry also points out how serialized novels are coming back. Why? Let me divert for a moment.


Serials is not just in writing. Consider television, perhaps obviously. I was stretching a little bit with anime above, as a key element in individual chapters (lessons?) should be to further the plot and leave on a cliffhanger, so that readers are sure to return (teachers, still with me?). With anime, you'll get a throwaway (swimsuit) episode, and TV has inconsequential episodes too.

Still, the idea of a stand-alone episode as part of a greater whole is HUGE now. Think Marvel's "The Avengers". If you'd seen the previous movies, you'd get some extras, but that doesn't detract from the movie as a whole.

Now, why is the serial seeing such a rise in popularity? I can think of a few reasons:

1) Attention Spans. Let's face it, we're all becoming a little Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), at the same time looking for instant gratification. (Curse you, internet!) Many may not have the attention span for an entire book anymore... unless it's broken down into small chunks. Like, you know, chapters. Why NOT publish them separately? Which leads into:

2) Packaging. I may not want to buy something for $20 - what if I don't like it? Yet I may be willing to spend $2 for the first chapter to see if I want the rest - particularly in this economy. (There's also a connection here to music and selling singles versus CDs.) We see that The Hobbit has been broken down into several movies. Same thing happened with the end of Harry Potter and Twilight. Really, what was keeping these tales from being several separate publications originally? There's no forced length for books.

3) Sequels Sell. Okay, there's an element of the cash grab here too. If you buy into the first book of the franchise, you'll come back for the rest. Moreover, if I get with you with the fourth book of the series, you'll go back to see the first! The longer this goes on, the higher the chance is that I'll rope you in. (What the execs need to realize is that, if you chop a $20 book into two parts, you don't sell both parts for $20...)

4) Blogging. A couple friends of mine have posted extended short stories on their blogs (check them out over at The Chaos Beast and Pegraelian). There's an obvious connection to points #2 and #3, but what keeps people coming back to blogs? My opinion: They're all little pieces of the whole... of the whole person, of the whole pedagogy, of the whole story. Also they evolve over time - if you're really interested, you'll have gone back to look at earlier entries. Almost like you're investing in an autobiography. Oh, snap, non-fiction!

5) Webcomics. These have been steadily gaining in popularity for over a decade, and while there will always be room for the one-panel sight gag, or the same characters punching the reset button, so many incorporate arcing story lines. Which, let's face it, is a serial in graphic form. (New television shows are doing this more now too, except the studio execs only want absolute guarantees, so if they're not seeing the returns after two episodes/chapters, fuhgeddaboudit.)

6) You Have Your Say. This is the true Web Serial. It's something the last two things have in common: YOU have the power to change the story. Yes, you. Just post a comment to that blog, or on that webcomic feed. (Some authors have even been known to even change their endings, when the audience sees what's coming a bit too soon!) It doesn't even have to be a plot speculation or a dramatic insight. Simply give a name like Doctor Whooves to that background character on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and see where it goes. As the risk of sounding overdramatic... 
"I'm a pony now.
Ponies are cool."

This changes everything.

People love when they have a part in something, no matter how small. Same way, incidentally, with students in a classroom.


So, aside from the web, where is this going? Here's a blog entry interview with a new publisher called JukePop Serials, still technically in beta. They expected a 2-3 week lag before getting submissions, as word spread; they got submissions the first day. Here's another interview with Plympton, a new digital publishing startup, partnered with Kindle. Finally, here's a site that talks about Virtual Tales, a website which used to handle e-serials - it closed down in 2011 owing to the owners still working day jobs and needing to cut back on stress.

It's in the media too; here's a news article from last month, talking about how Plympton raised nearly double its Kickstarter funding target, and is now selling through Amazon. I'm sure there's more out there if you look.

But wait, let's come back from the future. Where else are we seeing serials in the present, aside from publishing? In our careers, perchance?


For my career, I'm thinking we can see it in a teacher's 3-act lesson, or the math blogging efforts over at Productive Struggle, Visual Patterns and Estimation180, web serials with tons of diverse writers. Yes, we're going there next. Honestly, HOW did I miss the link?


  1. How did you miss the link? These days, the word "serials" tends to be associated with the old movie serials from the 40s and 50s, which were serialized filmed stories and the pre-runner to television series. Even TVTropes didn't have the web serial category until the past couple of years. Today, we don't make the connection between series and serials, when we should. A growing number of TV series are including a season-long and sometimes a series-long plot arc. But, the word 'serial' is never used to describe it.

    You missed a few other instances of serials in history, like the movie serials like Commando Cody and novels in pulp magazines with chapter by chapter installments. But, we now see web serials because we, as an audience, want more out of our fiction. Sequels weren't always the rule in Hollywood. "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" got a sequel when it was unheard of. Now, though, we embrace seeing the same characters week after week, mainly due to television. As a writer, I tend to want to keep working with an established character, though I also like working with new ones.

    With "Subject 13" over at The Chaos Beast (, my goal was to do a text version of a comic book (another classic serialized medium, though also with standalone stories). It was more, "Can I do this?" than anything else. The only real difference between Subject 13 and the Math-tans, structure-wise, is my lack of pictures to go with the text. In fact, the Math-tans convinced me to try posting Subject 13.

    I believe there are authors who are selling their ebooks chapter by chapters, for reasonable rates (under $1 per chapter). We may be reaching a point where an e-magazine filled with serial works and short stories could be viable again.

    As for serials and teaching, I would never have made that connection, but, well, it makes sense. You want to students to want to go to class, to want to see what happens next. It's easier to teach when you have buy-in from the class. Can't wait to see what the next entries have!

    1. Okay, did not know TVTropes went there... huh.

      And yeah, was more glossing over things owing to time, and in hopes of someone else elaborating. So thanks. :) In fact, serials are actually great for both an established set of main characters, and individuals. (But they're not easy.)

      Did not know I was an influence. o.O Though "Can I do this?" is always a wonderful starting point!

  2. Interesting post. Another example of Victorian serial writers is Elizabeth Gaskell--she died before she was able to finish her Wives and Daughters series (sob!). I shall be interested to see what you have to say in the remainder of your series. And thank you for linking to my blog! I've been meaning to comment on your Time Trippers post, but I um...haven't yet...I will try to do so soon...

    1. Thanks - I admit my research was cursory, and I hadn't even thought of the danger of the writer passing away. (Though being a fan of Douglas Adams, I really should have.)

      As to the linking, you're very welcome! Actually, it was in part how your story had illustrations that prompted me to try sketching my characters again. Regards commenting, I dare say it was my turn for an email yeah...