Serial Fiction Blues

For the most part, writing serial fiction really agrees with me. When you release a story a chapter at a time, shit has to happen every chapter.

That’s a good thing. One of the most celebrated Fantasy Epics, the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, became so agonizingly cumbersome and long-winded that the networks probably won’t make it into a gigantic TV drama. Had Jordan written it as serial fiction, he would likely have told the story with about one-third the words. Maybe less. Things have to happen. There’s a ticking clock, but it’s not a plot device, it’s the readers’ expectations.

I realized recently that while I’ve spent months working on the story, much of the action for the characters has been compressed into a handful of days. The slow pace of Martin’s dissolution in Mountain Hole suddenly shifted to a steady physical pounding as his world has gone up in flames. More than once I’ve had to remind myself that it was yesterday that our hero(ish) took a right beating.

But those are good challenges, and I’ll manage them.

Today I wrote a sentence, and it revealed a character quirk of Martin that I really like. Nothing plot-changing, but indirectly and casually revealing something fundamental about him, a window into his not-quite-like-you-and-me nature. The thing is, to make that work I have to go back and put that trait into every observation Martin has made up to this point.

I expect most successful serial fiction starts out with a much more detailed character design than I had for Martin, but even with the best of plans, something like this is inevitable. Surely in season two of Mad Men the writers had a great idea about a character that was probably too late to implement.

But for me, what is the definition of too late? I don’t really have that many readers; I could revise the previous episodes and carry the trait forward. Perhaps the occasional new reader would be more likely to be hooked. But then again I’m already behind posting backstory content (Katherine’s youth will be coming REAL SOON), and a revision like that will slow me down even more.

But knowing this possible trait, can I write future episodes without it? Or what if I go back and retrofit it everywhere and it turns out to suck? I do not know how to deal with these choices, so I’m just going to write something and hope it comes out OK.


4 thoughts on “Serial Fiction Blues

  1. Interesting you should ponder the issue of backstory. I’ve just finished a local ‘Fiction Writers’ Seminar’ that began in Jan and ran weekly until last week. I attempted to include a few scenes of backstory in my unfolding work, and was severely pummeled for it by the seminar leader. Apparently ANY form of backstory, OTHER than small snippets of on-going dialogue, are out of vogue in modern story construction. They are now considered to be boring, plot-stopping, backwards-looking story killers.
    I had a scene which was the pivotal moment of the entire novel, where the antagonist is forced to confront horrors of his early childhood and his life since, to force a confession, and the Seminar Leader proclaimed the entire chapter as “backstory” and said it should either be discarded, or unfold in snippets of dialogue in later chapters.
    So… beware! In today’s impatient “get to the damned point” world, expanding the story with backstory is anathema.

    • My backstory generally lives in self-contained, unedited squalor as “bonus content” for patrons. It is an interesting exercise to inform those little snippets and character quirks, but I’m wary of using big chunks of exposition like that in the regular narrative.

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