The Rise of the Serial Narrative

Recently the serial narrative has been on the rise in a variety of different mediums. For those who have grown up in the 20th and 21st centuries (which should be all of you unless one of you is a vampire…in which case please call me), television has exemplified this style of storytelling. Divided into seasons that are broken down into episodes, TV shows mastered the serial narrative long ago and have been the primary medium to use it in recent times. Now, TV shows are also being followed more so than ever, and many of them are just as or more popular than films that come out. Their episodic style is starting to show up in other mediums as well.

This format is now returning to the literary scene. For those of you who don’t know, many of the novels you had to read in school (things like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Anna Karenina) were actually published as serials. That is to say that they weren’t released as full novels originally but instead were published in newspapers and literary magazines chapter by chapter over time. With the rise of self-publishing and e-publishing, self-published authors and traditional publishing houses alike are turning to serialized novels as a way to release their stories.

Now video games, one of the newest narrative and artistic mediums, have started introducing games that have episodic formats. Broken Age, a point-and-click adventure game, is being released in two “acts” or “episodes”. Telltale Games’ highly acclaimed The Walking Dead video games are also produced in an episodic manner.

I believe that this change is more than an experiment or a trend. I think that narrative in general is going to start shifting back towards an episodic or serial style, and here are a few reasons why:

1.) There is a glut of content in the world, and we just don’t have time for it all.

Our time is very valuable, but nowadays it feels like there just isn’t very much of it. All of us have lives, and there is only so much time in a day. We all have different forms of work that we do, freelance, traditional, or otherwise. We all have friends that we want to hang out and socialize with. We all have different hobbies that we pursue. And on top of all that, the internet has made it incredibly easy to procrastinate. We are constantly being bombarded by articles, petitions, and videos through all of our different social media sites. While it’s easier than ever to hear about great shows, books, or games from our friends and all of the different outlets we subscribe to, where do we find the time to actually enjoy all of them?

Episodic content allows the viewer to digest things slowly over time, or at whatever pace he or she chooses. This makes it a lot easier to consume. It might be difficult to set aside three hours during a day to watch a movie or read a good chunk of a novel or play through multiple quests in a game, but it is much easier to find an hour or two here or there to invest in something. On top of that, this hour-ish time investment will feel more fulfilling because an episode delivers a complete story arc, even if it still leaves some questions unanswered so that the consumer wants more. There is still a sense of completion that is very satisfying.

In this way we can view, read, or play through content without feeling like we are always stuck in the middle of something. We can pick up where we left off with a new beginning for a new story and remember all of the cliffhangers that were left unanswered as we get into the beginning of this new episode.

And this leads into my next point…

2.) We love our epic narratives, but we’re afraid of commitment.

There’s this really great fantasy epic called The Wheel of Time that you should read. Just so you know it’s 15 books long and about 12,000 pages total across all the books. Doesn’t that new RPG coming out look really cool? It has like 100 hours of gameplay, and that’s only in the main story arc!

As I said above, we don’t have a lot of time these days…or at least there are more things competing for our time, which makes us feel like we have less of it. Still, the idea of becoming fully immersed in an epic narrative and setting is very appealing. The problem is it’s such a big commitment, and there’s no way to really test the water. In the case of a book you might have to read at least the first one in its entirety before you have a real idea of what the story is like and whether or not you’re onboard. In the case of a video game you might have to throw down $60ish and start to play through it before you can determine if you want to really stick with what’s going on for 100+ hours (let’s be real, a demo, even if it’s good, can’t answer that question).

When looking at that much content, consumers can be intimidated and not want to commit to starting something they’re afraid they might not finish. It could be that they have to commit a large amount of time before figuring out if they like something or not, which they are unwilling to do. Of course there is also the threat that the consumer gets distracted by other things in life that force him or her to take a break from reading or playing, and in that case returning to the story can be just as daunting as starting from the beginning.

Episodic structures allow writers to tell an epic story across a long period of time without forcing the reader to necessarily commit to the whole thing. We do this with TV shows all the time. As viewers we only have to watch the first couple of episodes (we give at least two because everyone knows pilots are usually bad) to determine if we want to stick with a show or not. After that, if we’re not feeling it, we can cut loose without feeling like we gave up a lot of our time. Then, if at some later date people say the show has changed, we can hop back in and start fresh. We can choose to catch up on all of the episodes we missed, or we can have our friends tell us what the key things we need to watch are and skip all the rest. Or we can just dive in and fill in the pieces as we go.

Imagine doing that for a video game or a novel. Pay for the first 5 hours of gameplay and see how you like it. You’ll get a complete story arc in that time (with a cliffhanger to promote further sales of course), and then from there you can decide if you enjoyed the game enough to play more. Similarly for a novel, buy the first couple of installments and see how you like it after that. If you don’t, you can stop reading, but you don’t have full books cluttering your room or reader, and you don’t feel like you’re abandoning the story completely since you did get to enjoy a couple of episodes that had their own full stories.

3.) What about binge viewing/reading/playing?

We’ve recently seen more of a willingness for viewers to binge watch seasons of shows. I can tell you that my Facebook feed was full of people watching the second season for House of Cards in one sitting the night it was released. How people consume episodic content differs, and of course there will always be people who want full novels, full games, or full films that aren’t divided into segments. However, episodic narratives allow the reader to consume the story at his or her own pace in a fulfilling way, like I spoke about earlier.

So, for you up and coming writers, game designers, and film makers, I think this is a trend to take note of. It might change the way that you want to approach telling your stories. At the very least, it is another style to consider.

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