The following is an essay by Emma Larkins, written as part of her Mechalarum blog tour.
An Ode to Episodic, Serialized, and Anthologized Fiction
By Emma Larkins
“And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.”
-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
Ever since the dawn of language, humans have told stories. They used their tales to describe the location of food, to warn against danger, to strengthen bonds of community and friendship, or simply to pass the time.
Little physical evidence remains of these first stories, as writing didn’t exist until the Sumerians invented it around 2000 BC. Even then, oral traditions persisted: written works – and literacy – wouldn’t proliferate until the invention of the printing press a few millennia later.
Because of the oral nature of storytelling throughout much of history, stories were structured in a way that made them easily memorable. In part, storytellers accomplished this through the use of mnemonics (memory devices) such as rhyme and acronyms. Narrative structure also played an important part in memorization. For example, many similar stories were built around a particular character, like those detailing the exploits of Hercules. Other stories, like those making up Homer’s Odyssey, fit together in a particular order, building up over time to create an engaging narrative arc. Still others focused on a theme, such as the hubris of humans and how their lack of humility before the gods invariably lead to tragic consequences.
From Homer to Aesop to Chaucer, through the deft fingers of medieval bards to the bedsides of sleepy-eyed children, these stories passed from mouth to mind and back again. Over time, the words and meanings evolved until they were unrecognizable from their original form. The formats, however – episodic, serial, and collected around a theme – stuck around for good.
As literacy spread through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these formats started to fall to the wayside, with favor turning from the story to the novel. Readers grew accustomed to diving into the world of one author and one set of characters for an extended period of time. Literary fiction especially lent itself to the singular, long form story.
Today, these oral-tradition types of fiction are seeing a resurgence. Short form is a great way to dip into new and disruptive ideas. In this short-attention-span era, easy-to-consume is king. It makes financial sense, too – advances are dwindling (where they still exist at all), and many authors can’t afford to spend years on lengthy, detailed novels. Readers now well-accustomed to the episodic nature of most television shows easily transition to stories written in a similar form. Finally, the ever-growing interest in genre fiction lends itself particularly well to series and anthologies.
What differentiates these formats? How are they beneficial to writers? And to readers? Read on to find out!
Episodic fiction follows a group of characters – usually in a recurring setting – as they experience life as it is revealed in the fictional universe. Alternately, the stories might revolve around a central device, such as an artifact or a location.
Episodic stories may or may not make use of continuity or story arcs. In the “snap back” trope, individual episodes act as silos: the storyline in one episode does not connect to that of the one before, and character situations and actions have no lasting consequences. In other cases, there may be some continuity between episodes.
Part of the rise in interest in episodic fiction is due to near-universal consumption of the format through television and movies. Another part is due to comic books and graphic novels gaining mainstream appeal (as demonstrated by the huge success of the Marvel movies and exploding interest in conventions like Comic Con). Audiences are more receptive than ever to one-off media experiences detailing the adventures of their favorite heroes that don’t tie together, even if those experiences directly contradict one another.
This flexibility is great for readers. They can enjoy unlimited narratives about their favorite characters and worlds without having to worry how it all fits together. They can pick up a comic book in a shop, read an issue digitally using apps like Comixology, or get a trade paperback which includes several comics in one compendium. They can jump into and out of universes at will, picking their favorite selections from a bountiful buffet.
Episodic fiction is also a boon for writers. More publications than ever before publish installments of short fiction – because readers might vary from day to day or from month to month, it’s beneficial when missing an episode doesn’t impact overall understanding and enjoyment. Writers can opt to self-publish and distribute episodic stories through their own websites, newsletters, and social media. Digital publishing platforms like Wattpad and Smashwords deliver stories to the masses in moments, with incremental funding through sites like Patreon providing authors with incentives to keep up the good work.
Individually encapsulated episodes fill an important niche. However, often readers appreciate stories that tie together, with one or more ongoing story arcs continually fueling the hunger to discover “what happens next.”
The most well-known modern examples of book series are the trilogies, quadrilogies, septologies (and onwards) that swarm the shelves of bookstores and online retailers, often with ties to one or more popular genres.
Series can greatly benefit readers. When they find a character or universe that particularly appeals to them, they can relax knowing that their entertainment needs will be met for the foreseeable future, without the risk of diving into new works.
Many writers and publishers are fans of series as well. By their nature, series are easier to market and sell. Once you’ve got a reader hooked on one book, it’s a lot less work to get them to buy the next one than to convince them to try something new.
Series are nothing new, but we’re seeing innovations here as well. Or, more accurately, the re-emergence of trends popularized by the serialized fiction of Charles Dickens and others of his time.
Many writers now create worlds that can easily be expanded across formats and mediums. Instead of simply adding more novels to a series, they author supplementals, short stories, or novellas to fill in the gaps and enrichen their worlds. Savvy creators don’t ignore tie-in materials such as videos, games, art, graphic novels, and movies – they do whatever it takes to build an all-encompassing narrative.
Another way to take advantage of the modern interest in episodes and series is through anthologies – editor-curated collections of short stories that focus on a central element, such as genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror) or theme (summer romances, coming-of-age, humor). Anthologies gather together the works of many writers, giving readers the opportunity to enjoy a collection of voices, styles, and points-of-view all in one place.
Readers with hectic modern schedules appreciate the ability to dip into an an anthology for a few minutes, having completely forgotten the previous story. They can return to an anthology weeks or months after starting, without needing to remember the history of characters or storylines. Anthologies also offer an easy way to delve into the history and breadth of a genre. For example, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the what science fiction was like back in the 70’s or 80’s.
Writers enjoy great benefits from participating in anthologies. They often earn greater recognition than they might otherwise receive from publishing only their own stories. And they can experiment with new ideas and styles in a low-risk environment
Editors and publishers love collecting stories in this manner. Creating an anthology means having a whole host of authors (and their networks and platforms) to promote the work, instead of just one. Not only that – it’s a great way to build relationships with talented writers which can lead to fascinating collaborations in the future.
Episodes, series, and anthologies – fun fiction formats that are worth checking out, whether you read, write, or get paid to sell stories.
About Emma Larkins:
Emma Larkins is a science fiction author and card game designer who loves puns. Her influences include Tamora Pierce, Piers Anthony, Douglas Adams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
She writes accessible scifi that teases the edges of your imagination without making you feel like your brain has gone through a blender. Her characters face the world with wry humor, even as it comes crashing down around them. Her stories are filled with action and adventure. After all, what’s the point of a tall tale if it doesn’t make your heart race?
In the dystopian science fiction novel Mechalarum, sciencers toil in a last-ditch effort to defeat the offworld Losh, who have rained death from the skies for twenty years. They work to build and perfect Mechalarum flying suits for fearless pilots to infiltrate and destroy the Losh airships from within.
The most skilled of these pilots, Kiellen Corr, never wavers in her dedication to the cause until she is blindsided with betrayal after a fateful discovery. With her faithful sciencer friend Gage Turman by her side, she must fight to understand the true nature of the Mechalarum suits, the Losh, and herself.