Musings On Serialised Storytelling


There is no lack of different storytelling modes going around and it is quite easy to bundle different modes together. Game of Thrones TV series and Star Trek TNG TV series might both be categorised as TV series, but one is episodic with mostly self-contained independent stories, while the other is a single story with multiple plot lines (and diminishing returns IMO).

Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and many other detective tales are mostly independent stories with very little in terms of consequences and causal chains carrying over from one story to another. Harry Potter books are complete stories, but they have a strong causal chain linking them with a lot of consequences carrying over from one book to the next.

For most episodic series, you can watch or read them out of order. Swapping one episode of Star Trek TOS with another will cause no harm to your enjoyment of the story, same thing with most police procedurals.

While I enjoy long stories told over several books—Stormlight Archives, I’m looking at you right now—I think that my favourite mode is when each episode or book is a complete story with just some worldbuilding and essential causal chain carrying over. Dresden Files and Alex Verus stories are a good example. There are a lot of consequences from one story manifesting in the books that follow it, but the books are not direct sequels continuing a single story from where the previous book stopped. Yes, you can pick a cause and effect chain from the very first paragraph from the first book all the way to the end of the series and claim it is a single story, but that is not the point.

I find these kind of serials a lot more friendly than long series. They are approachable because you don’t need to make a commitment to read them all, each book is their own story and deciding to stop reading a series somewhere in the middle will not spoil the enjoyment of all you had read up to that moment. Trying to stop reading The Lord of The Rings or Stormlight Archives in the middle leaves your understanding of that story incomplete.

Binging and rapid release cycles changed how people engage with series. I noticed that fandoms today are very different than what they were for past series. There is nothing today that approaches the amount of obsession that people had with X-Files and Lost, and I think that binging is the problem.

One of the reasons I prefer serialised storytelling over movies or non-serialised books is that you have time to engage with the material between releases. People would dissect with forensic precision and theorise all the way into absurdity between Lost episodes. The time between episodes was fun and engaging.

We need time to connect with and process stories. That moment in your commute that you somehow end up worrying about what will happen with a fictional character next week. That is what turns people from consumers to fans.

Binging, whole-season dumps, extremely fast release cycles are all akin to force feeding to me. Companies are shovelling a ton of content into the audience hoping for some ratings spike that will look good into a shareholders report and failing to create fans.

Consider the Witcher TV series. I find it wonderful. I never played the games, I haven’t read the books, all I know is from the Netflix series and watching some lore videos on Youtube. Even though I find it damn great, I don’t consider myself a fan. I watched the whole season in a weekend. There wasn’t enough time for me to connect with those characters before it was over and I was browsing for the next thing to watch.

I like the experience of slower releases. I don’t mean they can’t be weekly or even twice a week releases, what I want is for episodes to reveal themselves over time instead of all at once. Give time for the audience to breath and absorb the story even if only subconsciously.

This post is not just some random musings, I’ve been deep into research about serialised storytelling because I’m looking for how to write my next project. I’ve graduated from a film school and my favourite subject there was drinking, I mean scriptwriting. I have some experience with the techniques and tools of storytelling: plot structures, character design, worldbuilding, etc. My main challenge is my English prose skills. English is not my native language and while I am quite confident in my ability to understand said language, I’m less trustful of my skill to write good prose.

I want to make a career out of writing and the only way to improve my skills is to actually sit down and write. A novel or even a novella is too long a project for me to tackle without confidence. I’ve quit nanowrimo a couple times because of that, which is of course the wrong decision.

What I was looking for was a way to iterate quickly. Creating content, shipping it, and getting feedback on it faster than what a novella would take. Short stories and flash fiction were the obvious options, but I suspect that my main strength lies in that thin causal chain between stories, that sprinkle of lore and worldbuilding that only becomes apparent over works longer than a short story.

Which is how I stumbled upon serialised episodic storytelling. I think I could be good at it. At least, it would provide me with a fast enough mode that I could practice and get feedback on my work fast.

My research on serialisation led me to the usual suspects: RR, Wattpad, Tapas, etc. I don’t have a horse in this race, I like them all. Still, Kindle Vella is the platform I’d like to be on. Even though it is as overwhelmed and dominated by the usual genres as the other platforms I mentioned, Kindle Vella has clear path to monetisation. Remember, I said I want a career, which means I need to think about that stuff too. Unfortunately, the damn thing is only available to the U.S.

I’m trying to be a glass half-full person and use my time to create a backlog of episodes so that when Kindle Vella launches in the UK, I’m ready to dive in. If they decide to scrape the thing, I’ll simply post it elsewhere.

Circling back to modes, I’ve seen many authors simply chunking their standard novels into Kindle Vella-friendly morsels and shipping those fragments as episodes. A good way to reuse your backlog, I suppose. Who am I to judge? They have a whole novel ready and are putting it to good use, that is better than me who only have technical books out but no fiction.

I have a hunch that approaching a Kindle Vella story like an episodic TV series might be a better fit for that format. Let an episode be a complete story and lay a thin causal chain and lore between the episodes.

Browsing for Web series and TV series with short 20 minutes or less run time per-episode is a good way to check out how a series can be told in shorter episodes.

Right now, I’m brainstorming possible series. Murder mysteries are an obvious choice for this kind of serialisation, I just don’t think that I could do a full murder mystery story with a ceiling of 5k words. I don’t have the skills, it is too short for me to weave a compelling mystery and solve it.

I’m firmly in the Fantasy and Science Fiction side of fiction, so I’ve been thinking around classic series I enjoy. Taking their structures and creating something that fits that mould. Star Trek, Stargate, Warehouse 13, X-Files, and Supernatural are all series I really love and are all quite episodic for the most part.

Both Star Trek and Stargate are at a surface level about exploration of unknown places and the adventures that happen there. Star Trek has a pillar that sustain all their series: how to approach moral dilemmas. “Can we make the right decision even when it is harder and it will be dangerous?” The whole space pew pew pew is just background for the characters to face a moral challenge, one that has two clear paths forward: an easy one, and the right one. You take that out and it is no longer Star Trek. Stargate is more about adventure. Of course it has challenging ethical conundrums every now and then, every series has them, but it is not the pillar that sustains the series like it is with Star Trek.

I think it would be easier for me to write something more akin to Stargate, which is closer in terms of tone to Warehouse 13 and Supernatural. Adventurous and fun. All three series have a strong lore component that is unveiled slowly in the background. One can appreciate the stories without fully comprehending the lore, each episode is self-contained, but an understanding of the worldbuilding will reward fans more than the simple recognition of a lore fact in an episode. Also, in all those series, the effect of lore in the story grows as seasons pass because the audience is assumed to have become familiar with it. This is way better than requiring the audience to absorb a ton of lore just to start your series out (looking at you all TV series that start with a narration infodump).

I feel there is a lack of good episodic Sci Fi in the market these days, but I’m much more comfortable writing Fantasy. I’m really not sure, I might just try both starting with with cozy fantasy.

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