Serials, Continued

The serial, with its attendant cliff-hanger ending, is as old as Sheherazade. You will recall the story of the sultan's bride, who told him a tale with a cliffhanger every night to keep him from chopping her head off in the morning. In the nineteenth century, and well up into the twentieth, magazines published serial fiction, paying the writers by the column inch (in case you ever wondered why the works of Dickens were so long).

When I was little, serial dramas were acted out on the radio, not only the housewives' soap operas but comic-book style stories for kids, Little Orphan Annie, Sky King, Tennessee Jed, or Jack Armstrong (the All-American Boy). The episodes were fifteen minutes long. Can you imagine? Nowadays it takes fifteen minutes for a TV show to get through the commercials. We would sit transfixed in the big chair in front of the radio, spoiling our supper with handfuls of cookies, waiting to see whether Sky King had rescued Penny and Clipper.

Serials featuring plucky damsels in distress, such as the Perils of Pauline, pulled in many an eager moviegoer in the silent era. Later movie serials appealed to boys. The grim-jawed heroes often served in the armed forces, sometimes flying airplanes, struggling with the customary mad fiend bent on world domination, if not Hitler then Doctor Destruction. Each episode ended with the hero going over the cliff in a car, or falling out of his airplane, or being crushed in a mine explosion. The following episode would begin, "after Captain Bruce Bammer was rescued from the mine, he…"

So the technique is there to be used. Make your audience root for the hero. Involve them deeply in his life. Then do something terrible to him at the end of every episode.

Modern audiences like their serial dramas in bigger chunks than fifteen minutes; an hour or an hour and a half works well on television. And they will wait all summer for the next season of, say, Downton Abbey. But how does this translate into print media? How long should a serial episode be? How many episodes make a story? These questions are still up in the air. Some writers are capable of spinning off an infinite number of episodes of, for example, a sci-fi thriller, and others want to wind it up while the readers are still young. It seems to depend on what the traffic will bear.

How much closure do you need at the end of an episode? That's another question. Some folks are unhappy that the episodes end with cliff-hangers, and to them I say, go read a short story. It's a different form.

It may be that reader input will come to direct the way some of the serial stories will go. There are folks who are horrified by this idea. I'm not one of them. I'll consider suggestions from my friends, so why not from strangers on social media? This is the twenty-first century, after all. How many of us are solitary geniuses cranking out inviolable works of brilliance? As I always say, we'll see how it goes.

Oh, right. I almost forgot to put in a plug for BUCKER DUDLEY.

Kate Gallison