7 March 2015 - 2:57 pm

Pacing a Serial: the Story

Writing a serial is a bit like tackling a marathon.

Writing a serial is a bit like tackling a marathon.

I promised recently that I would start to post more stuff from my writing group discussions. I have been asked many times about pacing and writing a serial story, so it seemed like a good place to start.

I tend to put together some base material for the group to talk about from a mixture of experience, study, and research. This content was mostly gleaned from personal experience and the wonderful advice available from the Web Fiction Guide forums, where serial writers get together to swap this sort of information.

Like other writing advice I post here, this is a collection of tools and information for you to use. It’s up to you how and when you use it, and which parts you simply don’t care about. I hope you find it useful!


Pacing is pretty important to a story, and can mean the difference between a good and a bad story. It’s a mixture of a lot of things: speed, cadence, tension, urgency, mood, length, or relief.

The format of a serial adds another level of considerations to those of a non-serial writer, giving us a three-way challenge when it comes to pacing:

Tip: Serial writing has very similar challenges and principles as web comics. If you’re familiar with creating or consuming those, use that experience!

This got scarily long and rambly, so I’m splitting it up into multiple posts. For now, let’s talk about pacing the story itself.

Pacing the Story

Many guidelines and best practice for non-serial stories apply to serials as well. Let’s get them out of the way first:

  • Each post, like each scene in a story, must progress something important: plot, character development, motivation, etc. Beware of fillers and tangents; they tend to interrupt or bog down the pace of the story.
  • Be aware of the level of your pacing. There are a number of ways to chart it, so find one that works for you.
  • Avoid reader boredom. If the pace is too slow, readers will get bored. Remember that you want them to keep coming back to your serial regularly. Spice it up!
  • Avoid reader fatigue. If the pace is too fast or hectic, and readers may find it jarring or exhausting. Give them a break.
  • In a similar vein, vary the pacing to keep it fresh, don’t lull your readers into a pattern. Monotony, at any level, is bad.
  • Be wary of lingering too long in the same place: scene, situation, mood, etc. If readers feel like a story is ‘stuck’, they’ll lose interest and move on.
  • Cliffhangers are good but don’t overuse them. Readers are savvy and will get frustrated if forced to wait for a cliffhanger’s resolution for too long, or too often. This particularly applies to serials, as readers might have to wait days or weeks to get to the resolution. The further apart your posts are (in real-time), the more annoying cliffhangers are for your readers. (My readers gripe at me about this sometimes. I’m sorry! Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)
  • Know the expectations of your genre. For example, horror, action, and romance are going to have quite different demands and expectations when it comes to pace.
  • Cater to your audience preferences. This one can be hard to gauge, as you need an audience before you can ask them. But think about the typical audience for a story of your genre and type. Age is a factor (YA), as is time available (chicklit for working mums). See what’s out there and try to judge from that. It’s a place to start; you can always refine later.
  • Pace according to the needs of the story. Have an action sequence? Then pace it like one!

The breaks between posts comes up a couple of times in that list, and it’s important to keep in mind. Whatever posting schedule you choose (more on that later), there will be time when a reader is forced to wait for the next bit. This is one of the few formats of textual fiction where the writer can control how quickly a reader can progress.

It gets trickier than that, though. We can’t assume that a reader is going to keep up-to-date and jump on each update according to our schedule. We can control how quickly they read the story, but not how slowly. Different readers have different preferences, and we should try to cater for them, too. The truth is:

  • Some readers prefer to read in chunks and will ‘save’ posts up so they can read several at once.
  • Life interferes and even those who prefer to read post-by-post as they go live sometimes need to catch up.
  • New readers need to catch up to where you’re posting right now. The longer the serial goes on, the more they have to read. This isn’t a bad thing!
  • You might want to publish the serial in books or collections, to allow readers to consume it in a different format (I know some readers prefer to wait for the ebook version to come out!).

It puts serial writers in a curious position, trying to cater for continuous and broken reading at the same time. It’s something we should try to keep in mind, especially when thinking about pattens in the pacing of the story. Something that might not be obvious when looking post-to-post becomes blindingly obvious when reading stretches of the story, like an action scene that goes on for pages and pages, or a journey that takes forever to get somewhere.

Story Shape

There are lots of posts around about the kind of shape a story should have (Kurt Vonnegut famously did a lecture on this). The ‘shape’ could refer to anything you like: tension, mood, pace, happiness of the protagonist, or the progress of a plot arc.

I’m only talking about pace here, so let’s focus on that. When it comes to the overall pacing of the story, a lot depends on the form and purpose of the serial. There are several main variations:

  • Serialised novels, which follow the same guidelines as a regular novel
  • Soap opera-style serials, such as fictional blogs or ongoing stories
  • Collections of vignettes or short stories, which may or may not be linked to each other.

The form that is peculiar to serials is the soap opera-style, because they’re designed to never end, and their shape can be quite different to other forms. For example, let’s look at the pattern of the plot arcs (as progress through a plot can be a big indicator of pace).

Novels and shorts tend to have a single major plot arc (or several overlapping, entwined ones), with potentially some smaller plot arcs (or sub-plots) happening at the same time, and all of them come to some kind of resolution at the end.

Soaps, on the other hand, have overlapping plot arcs that don’t coordinate their starts and ends, and they don’t tend to have a single ‘main’ arc. The idea is to create a constant reason for readers to come back, through stories that are never ‘finished’ and new questions raised as soon as answers are given.

What does this means in terms of pacing? It means that the story should avoid natural pauses, places where a reader might take a breath and call it done. It is a rolling train, rumbling and rattling at times, swaying around corners, speeding up and slowing down, but never truly stopping.

This is not to say that soaps have arcs that never end. Plots should still be resolved and questions should be answered, but there’s usually something else picking up the slack as soon as that happens.

Personally, I don’t write soaps. I plan my serials in novel-length chunks, so I know the rough shape before I start. There is a distinct arc and an end in sight. If there’s more than one novel, there are threads that lead between the books, encouraging readers to come back, but I let there be those natural pauses.

This is because I much prefer to write with an end in mind; the notion of an open-ended story terrifies me. The chances of wandering around aimlessly are just too high! I give kudos to those who can pull it off. To maintain my own happiness and sanity, I won’t start writing a story until I know the core plot that’s driving it (which is why there is yet to be any Tales from the Screw Loose), and I won’t push a story past what I feel is the natural end of the stories I have to tell (not even if my readers beg) (Apocalypse Blog, I’m looking at you).

Figure out what kind of story you’re aiming for, and that will help you work out what might be a good pace for it.

Next up: pacing yourself.

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