Serialisation might appear to be no more than a footnote from literary history, but it is not as antiquated as it seems.
You probably picture Charles Dickens writing his novels in serialised form for Victorian newspapers, and spinning the plot out so he could earn more money. But the truth is that serialisation still has a role to play, both on a macro and a micro level in modern writing. On a macro level, writing a series of books rather than one stand-alone after another has proved to be an effective way to build up a loyal fan base.
Writing for a mobile platform, too, requires the story to be broken into serialised units. In South Africa, the Shuttleworth Foundation was one of the first to host stories of this nature on its Yoza Mobi platform. Since then, we have seen Fundza and other organisations use the mobile format to publish fiction in a serialised form.
Novel-writing is a notoriously undependable profession. As novelists increasingly despair of making a living in their calling, many have turned to writing for television as a way to earn money. TV writing by its very nature is episodic. There are short story-arcs that can be resolved within a single episode, and longer ones that are designed to sustain the viewer’s interest for a whole season or series. This creates the need for minor and major cliff-hangers that must be woven into the planning of every scene, episode, cluster of episodes, and season.
Writing for soap operas, of course, is all about cliff-hangers. One of the most enlightening talks I saw on this subject was delivered by novelist and TV writer Pamela Power at the inaugural Lowveld Book Festival in 2016.
Most of us understand that episodes of a soap opera always end on a cliff-hanger, but Power explained how cliff-hangers are built into the very fabric of each scene. Even a simple conversation, lasting no more than a few seconds, will not be wrapped up and resolved within the scene. Instead, it will be cut off at a strategic point designed to heighten dramatic tension. This technique should be respected because it is directly responsible for the success of soap operas in building a fiercely loyal audience that will rearrange its evening rather than miss a single episode.
Novels are different inasmuch they do not constantly defer anticipation, but tend to reach some kind of resolution at the end. However, novels are divided into chapters, and there is nothing wrong with treating your chapter as an opportunity for episodic suspense-building. James Patterson is the master of the bite-size chapter that entices the reader to gobble just one more before bedtime. Creating the impression that a resolution is imminent, perhaps just a chapter away, is often enough to keep the reader turning pages.
Of course, there is also such a thing as cliff-hanger fatigue, or at least cliff-hanger impatience. This is something that content providers like Netflix and Amazon have recognised. The modern consumer isn’t a big fan of delayed gratification, which is why binge-watching has become such a feature of our time.
One has to be careful not to try the patience of the modern reader too far. Constant cliff-hangers that never resolve themselves will just lead to irritation. There is a balance to be struck between titillating the reader’s interest while also satisfying the need for closure. Literary fiction tends to be more forgiving of the slow build-up of tension and the lack of clear answers. Readers of genre fiction generally prefer a brisker pace with more deliberately suspenseful story arcs and recognisable closure.
In writing a novel that I planned to serialise chapter by chapter on a daily basis, I had to walk a line between closure and suspense. Obviously, I wanted to leave the reader looking forward to the next day’s instalment, but there is always a danger that the cliff-hanger format can become frustrating. The feedback I have received on social media so far suggests that it’s very much a matter of individual preference. Some readers enjoy their daily dose of suspense, while others prefer to let the chapters build up so they can read several at once.
It has been an interesting learning curve in responding to reader expectations and preferences.