What do The Pickwick Papers, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin all have in common?
No, they weren’t all written by Alexandre Dumas.
They were all published as serials.
Dictionary.com defines a serial as “ anything published, broadcast, etc., in short installments at regular intervals, as a novel appearing in successive issues of a magazine.”
By this definition, you could include TV shows in that category as well. Who among us hasn’t binge-watched a show or two on a lazy afternoon, helplessly following along to see what the characters will do next?
There’s something special about a story that is not yet finished, like a live drama unfolding before our eyes. It may be scripted, yes, the conclusion may already be planned even if it hasn’t yet been realized…
But there’s still something about it that keeps us focused, something that denies our attention from wandering.
A good story, told in any medium, will do that. And as a writer, one of the benefits of creating a serial is that the readers get to see the work-in-progress and follow along as you build.
My father’s an artist. He has his own studio, and now and then I visit him to see what he’s working on.
At first the painting is just a pencil outline. I compare that outline to some of his finished paintings, and I confess I’m at a loss as to how one can become the other.
But then, day by day, I see little changes: The base colors come in. The shapes become more detailed. That apple gets just a bit of white, just enough to make its cheek gleam with reflected light.
And soon enough, it looks like the real thing. But because I saw the work before it was finished, I can appreciate the process and not just the product.
The influence of serialization as a medium did not die with Dickens or Dumas or Stowe. Plympton.com writes that
serials are compulsively appealing. So much so that every new medium for the past two centuries has used them to establish its audience…. Early serials like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger convinced millions of Americans to install bulky radios and television sets in their homes. And when cable finally established itself as a force equal to the networks, it was with a serial called The Soprano’s.
Hillary Kelly expands on the possible benefits of serialization in The Washington Post:
Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.
All of this, of course, depends on the quality of the work and the integrity of the author. Dickens’ Pickwick Papers took twenty months to complete. Imagine if he had written for, say, a year, and then thrown the whole thing away. Think how much of a betrayal that would have been to his readers.
So it’s quite clear that serialization is not for every author, nor for every book — nor, even, for every reader.
But despite the danger of abandonment, I think the old adage holds true in this as in so many other things: You will never know until you try.