Everyone has their favourite TV series, or several of them. But this isn’t an article about writing for television (something I have precisely no experience with), it’s an article about writing like television (something I have some experience with).
I’m talking about telling your story, whether it’s prose fiction or a comic, as a series. The fact is that this way of storytelling is much more common on television and also in comics too (eg: many comics have several 8-10 issue length story arcs etc..), but episodic storytelling is also growing in popularity in other areas, such as in computer and video games. And, since the comic that I’m currently working on is released in this format , then I thought that it’d be the perfect time to write an article about it.
I should probably make a distinction here between an episodic series and a novel/comic which has several sequels or prequels. Episodes are usually shorter than a full-length novel or graphic novel. Possibly about the length of a short novella/long short story or so. It’s kind of like the difference between a TV series and a series of films.
There are basically three types of series, and I’ll mostly be focusing on the last two of them:
1) A single storyline split into instalments – This used to be be more common with serialised novels in magazines, but it seems to be fairly rare these days. The most notable example I can think of is when Stephen King originally released “The Green Mile” in about six instalments (which, for some bizarre reason I actually own after finding it in a 2nd hand bookshop or charity shop when I was younger. I still haven’t read it yet though).
One advantage of this type of series is that, if it’s compelling enough, your readers will probably end up eager to read the next instalment whenever it’s released. It’also seems to be kind of like writing a novel or a longer graphic novel – although there are some structural differences (eg: each episode should ideally end with a cliffhanger of some kind or another to keep the readers interested). However, new readers may not be as interested if they hear about the series a while after it’s started and have to find the earlier episodes of it..
2) A series with the same characters and settings, but different storylines in each episode – These are probably more like some TV series where there is little or no continuity between episodes (a perfect example of this would be “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “The Simpsons”. A Good literary example would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories). This has the advantage that readers can pick up the series at any point rather than having to start at the very beginning. Although they can also be harder to write, since you have to think of a different storyline or mystery for each episode and you have less space to tell stories than you would if your series only has a single storyline.
3) A combination of the previous two types of series – Most TV series usually end up doing this after a while, they have induvidual storylines in many episodes but there’s often an overarching plot too throughout the entire series. This combines the advantages and disadvantages of both of the previous types of storytelling.
So, what are the pros and cons of writing an episodic series (with different storylines and/or an overarching plot), rather than a novel or a short story collection?
I’ll start with some of the advantages:
1) The internet makes it more possible (and often free too): Whilst more traditional publishers may not be interested in releasing an episodic series (although they’re often interested in sequels for novels etc…), this is less of an issue these days now that anyone can publish anything on the internet. In fact, the internet seems to be practically designed for self-publishing a series. Although I seem to be kind of a luddite/traditionalist when it comes to books, the fact is that ebooks are becoming a lot more popular these days and they have none of the physical limitations that publishing a traditional book has, when it comes to things like book size, distribution etc…
2) It can be a great motivational tool: In my earlier article about creative blocks, I mentioned the importance of keeping a regular schedule. Well, writing a series which is released at a particular time (eg: every day, week, month etc…) can really help you to keep writing. After all, you don’t want to disappoint your readers? Although, this additional pressure can also be kind of a disadvantage too…. A good comporpmise can be to be more flexible about when you release episodes, but when you do make one, then be sure to stick to your schedule for it.
3) You don’t have to think of new main characters for every story : Once you’ve come up with the main characters for your series, you can use them in every episode rather than having to think of new characters for lots of different short stories. However, every good series usually depends on having good characters – especially if each episode has a different storyline. So, although you don’t have to think of lots of new characters
4) You have more creative freedom: Many of the best TV series often just don’t stick to just one genre. There are sad episodes, funny episodes, surreal episodes, scary episodes etc…. If you are writing a fiction or comic series, then you can do the same thing too. It keeps things interesting and allows you to have a lot more room for creativity and experimentation than writing a novel/graphic novel does.
For example: Episode 1 of “CRIT” is a fairly conventional sci-fi detective story. Episodes two, three and six are horror stories. Episode four is more of a conventional sci-fi story. Episode five is more of a suspense/thriller/locked room mystery kind of episode. Episode seven is a prequel episode…. although I’m still working on this one at the moment.
5) You can get away with the occasional “filler” episode if you absolutely have to: Try to avoid this if you can, but it can be useful if you are running low on ideas or feeling burnt out or just need a break of some kind. Many TV shows usually seem to have at least one bottle episode per series. Just remember that too many filler episodes may well end up annoying your readers, it should be a tactic of last resort.
6) It’s more appealing to busy readers: Someone who may not have the time or the enthusiasm to read an entire novel/graphic novel may be more interested in reading a shorter series. Plus, the structure of a series means that your readers will have something to look forward to every week, month etc…
7) You can make collections afterwards: If your series is successful, then you can collate it into a single book which publishers might be more interested in. Although your series has been previously published by you online or wherever [which apparently can be a turn-off for publishers], if it already has a lot of fans/readers then this could be a good selling point – since there’s already a market for it.
The only important piece of advice here if you’re making a collection of your series to sell is that you must put some extra stuff into it. The audience has already read and/or bought it before – so you need to provide something in your collection which they haven’t seen before. Whether it’s an extra short story, a bonus episode, additional scenes or even just some extra sketches or art or a preface by another writer/artist or all of these things, adding bonus content is essential if you want to sell a collection of your series.
Now for a few disadvantages:
1) Pricing: I’m not an expert when it comes to business, but if you’re selling your series, then you have to think very hard about how much you will charge for it. Ideally, it should probably have a fairly low price per episode (£1-3 or $1-5 at the most) but the cost of any collections you make of your episodes should be slightly lower than the cost of buying each episode induvidually. But it shouldn’t be too much lower otherwise people might just wait for the collection and not bother with buying the induvidual episodes (unless there’s a gap between the episodes being released and the collection being released – although if this is too long, then it can be extremely annoying). I don’t know, it’s all fairly complicated and I’m really not an expert on any of this.
Or one possible idea could be to give away all of or one of the episodes for free and then sell the collection (with bonus content) at a similar price to a normal book or graphic novel.
2) You have less room for characterisation: Your characters have to be fairly recognisable and distinctive, but they mustn’t end up becoming bland/stereotypical stock characters either. However, you have to pretty much re-present your characters in each episode if your series doesn’t have a continuous storyline to account for the fact that some readers may not read the entire series or read it in order either.
There are quite a few ways of doing this though (eg: using dialogue for characterisation or , if you’re writing a comic series, the appearence of a character can sometimes be used for characterisation [for example: this is why, in most episodes of “CRIT”, Jake is usually seen wearing a lab coat]. Plus, there are numerous examples of series-based characterisation in TV series (I don’t know, you tend to pick up a few things if you watch a lot of these) which may be useful if you’re drawing/writing a comics series.
3)Your stories have to be tighter: Even if your series consists of a single continuous storyline split into several instalments, then you still have to ensure that each one ends in a way which makes the reader want to read the next instalment (usually a cliffhanger or an unresolved plot thread of some kind) and the structure of the story probably has to be slightly different to that of a novel. If each episode tells a different story, then it’s basically kind of similar to writing a series of short stories – with all of the limitations which can come with this (eg: there’s little to no room for sub-plots).
4) You MUST geek out about your series: I’ve mentioned this subject before, but it’s essential that you are the number-one fan of your series. You really have to like it, since you’ll probably be spending a lot of time with it. If you’re indifferent about your characters or the world of your series or are starting to get tired of them, then it probably won’t last that long. This advice applies to every form of storytelling – but it’s even more important if you’re writing a series.
5) If it ends up getting adapted for television, then they might change a lot of things: Ok, if it gets adapted for television, then you’re probably fairly successful anyway and this probably isn’t too much of a disadvantage (what with all of the money, fame, free publicity for your books/comics etc…) but I thought that I’d probably mention it anyway.
6) There’s less room for editing: if you’re writing a novel and you suddenly notice something in the earlier part of it which will cause a plot hole or a major continuity error later in the story, then it’s just a simple matter of going back and editing it.
However, when you’re writing a series and you notice something like this in an earlier episode (which has already been released), then you can’t really do this. You either have to think of a creative way to work around or explain the plot hole [which can look kind of contrived] or find a way to use it to your advantage [eg: if a character acts out of character (compared to earlier parts of the story) or gets a detail of their own backstory wrong, then it could be evidence that they’re an impostor or something like that].
7) World-building and settings matter even more: Chances are, some locations may well appear quite often in your series and setting a series in the same place means that creating interesting settings (especially in more visual kinds of storytelling like comics) which convey a sense of a much larger world is even more important.
In fact, in many television series, key settings often almost actually pretty much become characters in their own right (literally in the case of the Tardis from “Doctor Who” or Moya in “Farscape”). The same is true for fiction/comics series too (a classic literary example is probably 221b Baker Street in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories).
8) The episodes should be a reasonably consistent length: This isn’t something which is as strict or fixed in fiction or comics which are published online as it often is in TV series and conventionally published stories/comics. But it’s something to bear in mind nonetheless. Each episode should at least be a vaguely similar length to the other episodes.
In conclusion, writing a series may not work for literally every type of story – but it’s definately something that might be worth trying – you might surprise yourself…