Serial fiction, epics, and soap operas
How the oldest form of storytelling is flourishing in our digital age
As a long-time fiction writer who decided to dip my toes into serial fiction (on Kindle Vella and here on Substack), I’ve had a crash course in serial fiction—its history, best practices, and some of the very many platforms where it exists. In this issue of Story Cauldron, I dive into the depths of neverending stories, past, present, and future.
The history of serial fiction
Epic tales have existed for as long as humans have told stories. Long before stories were written, they were shared orally. To cite just a few examples, there’s Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the 7th-century Old English poem Beowulf. In West African culture the Griots recounted the history of their people in song, while in Japan medieval warrior epics known as gunki monogatari might be performed by the Biwa hōshi (blind lute priests). In nearly every case, the tales told by storytellers or sung by bards would go on for days, gathering the community in a shared moment of Story.
Scribes later recorded many of these tales for posterity, though many were lost when the last bards died with their stories. With the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, eventually some of these stories—and of course, many others—were written down and distributed in book form. However, books were time-consuming to print and expensive—and therefore had a limited audience.
After the Stamp Act of 1712 in England, newspapers sometimes serialized novels as a cost-savings measure because these longer pamphlets weren’t taxed as newspapers. And for more practical reasons, all across Europe printers began publishing longer stories in installments called fascicles or ‘romans feuilletons’ (which in modern parlance translates to ‘soap opera’). These were often pamphlets or loosely collected pages that could be purchased and collected up to be bound later, much like people buy individual comics today.
In 1878 the American literary journal Scribner's Monthly pointed out that the best novelists were serialized:
"Now it is the second or third rate novelist who cannot get publication in a magazine, and is obliged to publish in a volume, and it is in the magazine that the best novelist always appears first."
Serials as a specific form of fiction lasted well into the 20th century. In fact, in the first decades of the 20th century, American newspapers often published novels as serials even after being published as books.
Alas, the rise of radio and television (with their own serialized forms of storytelling) changed everything. By the mid-1940s, the BBC produced over 400 plays for the radio. And then television came around with its hunger for ongoing plotlines, and the rest is history. Radio and television soap operas grabbed the attention of those who had once devoured serial print fiction. Meanwhile, the magazines and newspapers that had once hosted serial fiction shifted to expanded news and ‘feature’ stories to fill their pages.
As they say, video killed the radio star—but before that, the radio star killed the serial novel. Or did they? Keep reading!
You might be a serial novel reader and not know it!
Here are a few titles of serial tales that you might recognize. As you can see, serial novels of the past have crossed all genres and have often gone on to become treasured literature.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1905)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1910)
Ulysses by James Joyce (1918)
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)
Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1984), published in Rolling Stone
In addition to the authors on the list above, Charles Dickens was one of the most successful serial novelists. Starting with Pickwick Papers in 1836, he published all of his novels as serials. Pickwick Papers came out in 19 monthly installments and cost a shilling each, making it affordable to working people. Dickens later went on to publish his own literary magazine All the Year Round, which itself published many other authors’ novels in serial form. (And if you’re curious, you can read almost fifty years of All the Year Round from the comfort of your own home.)
Meanwhile, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo was first published in the Journal des Débats in 1844, and took advantage of the huge popularity of serial stories. Like Dickens, this story came at a time when people were just as excited to find out what happened to Edmund Dantes as some of us now are as we wait for the next episode of a show like Outlander or Loki to drop on a streaming service.
(If all of this is fascinating stuff to you, then you might enjoy the website Reading Like a Victorian, which brings you the best of 19th century British serial fiction in digitized form.)
The unique problems of writing serial fiction
In the 19th century, as today, serial fiction comes with a host of issues specific to the format.
First, there’s the question of process. An author who composes the entire story ahead of time will likely have a different kind of story than one who writes to deadline. If an author writes as they go, this process inevitably alters the stories. It’s likely a true serial tale will have a different, less tidy structure, and may have more cliffhangers. It may be wordier, the story may meander a bit, and the characters may have more “adventures” before coming to the conclusion.
Then there’s writing to the peculiar tastes of a community or the political climate. Thomas Hardy lost a publishing contract because he refused to cut the seduction of Tess, while Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to both capitalize and build upon the antislavery sentiments of the readers of the serialized novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851-52.
And generally, as the Hartford Courant described, it was difficult being a serial author:
Dickens and Thackeray sometimes missed deadlines. Eliot said she lacked the discipline to "drill myself into writing according to set lengths." Trollope was critical of writers who began serializing their novels before they had written the ending. Sometimes personal problems, such as illness or a death in the family, interrupted the flow and made writers miss an installment.
In today’s landscape, many of the same issues plague those of us writing serially. The question of whether or not an existing novel can—or should—be adapted to a serial format is hotly contested by authors, as is the question of whether an author should complete a story before posting it to one of the online platforms.
For those interested in trying to write serial fiction, here are a few resources:
First Steps in Writing Serialized Fiction (The Writing Cooperative)
The Joys (and Perils) of Serial Novel Writing (Will Willingham via Jane Friedman)
Modern serial platforms
Hopefully by now I’ve whetted your appetite for serial fiction. If you’re a writer, where can you publish serial fiction? And if you’re a reader, where can you find good stories?
Here are a handful of the larger/more respected platforms, along with my brief assessment.
Kindle Vella is a brand-new serial fiction platform from Amazon that just launched in July. All genres are represented. Readers get three free “episodes” of any story and then use pre-purchased tokens to unlock additional episodes. A number of authors participated in the launch, but in its initial month, the platform hasn’t attracted many readers, leaving authors hopeful but also a bit frustrated. (For more information about the platform, see my previous article.)
Radish states on their home page that the platform is a home for “romance, mystery, thriller, and fantasy fiction stories” but from what I understand, it is known primarily for romance. It’s worth noting that writers are accepted by application only.
Royal Road offers a wide range of genres, although it is known for LitRPG, a genre that combines elements of computer role-playing games and fantasy literature, popularized by the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s worth noting that LGBTQ content is unwelcome here. The author Zogarth stated in an interview with Elle Griffin, “If there's even a hint of a gay or bi character anywhere in the novel, it won’t do well on the platform,” a sentiment that seemed to bear out in a review of the Royal Road forums.
Wattpad started in 2006 as a place where people could post their stories in progress, get feedback, and engage with readers, and it’s the engagement part that has endeared the platform to so many people over the years. According to Wikipedia, there are 90 million monthly users and over 665 million story uploads, so there is a lot of content to discover. Writers can post their content for free, and most stories are free to read (which is great for readers, but difficult for authors trying to support their writing activities). Wattpad features both original stories and fanfic, and it covers all of the genres. There is also a limited paid option for a handful of writers, and they tease new authors on their homepage with the possibility of a book or tv/movie deal. On a less positive note, Wattpad announced in January that it was to be acquired by Naver Corporation, and recent changes to the platform, such as shutting down the Community Forums without notice in 2020, have soured some readers and contributors.
Tapas has novels and webtoons (digital comics), largely fantasy and romance with a manga feel. It operates on a freemium model, where most stories start off free and require payment to continue, and has over a million regular readers, mostly women aged 18–24. Although started by a US-based entrepreneur in 2012, just this May the company was acquired by the South Korean company Kakao Entertainment, which may lead to changes on the platform.
Realm (formerly Serial Box) is a platform for audio serial fiction rather than print. As Serial Box, the platform only offered audio content as à la carte purchases. With the rebrand, they will be featuring only original content, some of which will be free on podcast platforms, and will have subscription plans for access to the rest of their material.
Substack & Patreon are two options to watch. Neither platform was designed for fiction—Substack is a combined newsletter/blog platform while Patreon was designed for people to support artists in exchange for various perks and insight into the creative process. However, authors are finding that both platforms offer them a way to present their stories to their fans and receive compensation far greater than many of the distribution platforms built for fiction authors. These seem like the most promising of the current options—but only time will tell.
The future of serial fiction
I’m excited that there are so many options out there.
However, the number of options suggests the space is getting crowded, and as far as I can tell, no service has managed to nail both the popularity and the monetization for authors yet. Wattpad is great if you want to put stories out there for free, but not if you actually want to earn a little money for your hard work. Meanwhile, all of the paid sites seem to either be niche (e.g. romance, LitRPG, manga) or struggling. Finding a sustainable business model that pays authors fairly while also keeping the lights on appears to be a significant challenge for these fiction startups.
However, that is not to say there’s not a space for serialized fiction across genres. I am super excited to see a number of authors popping up here on Substack. Some are publishing their stories for free, while others are asking for a paid membership, much like a Patreon, to follow their stories and help support their ongoing efforts. I’m publishing my own novels in the series The Favor Faeries here for paid subscribers, and we’ll see how it goes. (Eventually I’ll turn them into books, but that’s a ways off still.)
Some serial writers to follow
Here are some writers I know who are writing great serial fiction that spans many genres. Most (but not all) of it is available here on Substack.
Rachel Macaulay has been publishing episodes of her ongoing tale The Links since February. As she describes it, The Links is a soap opera in an email—drama you can read in 3 minutes, 3 times a week. Subscribe for romance and heartbreak, secrets and lies.
Abby Goldsmith is a friend of mine from Austin. She has been writing epic science fiction since before I met her years ago. You can start with her amazing novel Majority, which asks, “How do you defeat a galactic empire that can hear your every thought?” which is free over on Wattpad. She also has a story in the same universe, Greater than All, over on Kindle Vella.
Ajinkya Goyal has just started writing a really intriguing story called Due North. Follow the secretive, wonderous, and oddity-rich lives of the residents of Due North as they discover there is a lot more to their town than meets the eye (or, in some cases, the many, many eyes). You can find it here on Substack.
Elle Griffin will be debuting her gothic novel Obscurity in September. Because she’s a big fan of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, I suspect her novel is going to be a great read. You can follow her newsletter now so you will be the first to know when her story goes live.
Mark Starlin offers Space Traveler Fargone, an entertaining sitcom set in space, following the adventures of former space freighter pilot Fargone and his Boss’s niece as they explore uncharted space and report their findings on intergalactic social media. (It’s hilarious!) You can follow it on Kindle Vella or Substack.
Kevin Moran writes a couple of excellent science fiction stories that can be found on his Substack and Kindle Vella. In Conspiracy, his blue alien Moriarty crash lands in Area 51 and needs a way to get back home. In The Machine, Cole has to keep feeding the Machine. But what is the Machine, and what happens when he stops?
And of course, me! You can read my serial novel The Favor Faeries right here on my Substack (with a paid subscription—see signup button below with a special deal!). Not sure if it’s your cup of tea? Check out the first three chapters over on Kindle Vella for free, no downloads required.
Serial (literature) (Wikipedia)
Radio Drama (Wikipedia)
The Count of Monte Cristo (Wikipedia). You can read the text from the 1888 publication of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père, along with the original illustrations, for free at Project Gutenberg.