Friday, January 29, 2010

Serial Filler

I was asked by a woman's magazine in the UK if I would like to contribute a serial, which is a longer short story appearing over three issues.  I've contributed to the magazine before; two short stories of 1000 words and 2000 words. We're not talking a literary journal here but its a writing gig (and a competitive one at that, so I'm told) and it pays, so I think it is worth it. Besides, I work best if I have a deadline to work to so it gives me a goal. I've decided I will take up the challenge while I'm waiting for feedback on my WIP from my reader.

Writing short stories is very different from writing a novel. You have only a few thousand words to build worlds, create memorable characters, and convey plot and conflict. Every word has a big job to do. You still have to have a beginning, middle and end, but short stories do allow you to write a snapshot of a story or world that couldn't be sustained over 80,000 words. For instance, my story "Spa Break" is about a middle-aged woman who turns to a life of crime to support her spa habit. Makes for interesting reading (I hope) for 2000 words, but there isn't enough there for a novel. I love short stories because I have a million ideas and I know that 999,994 of them won't work for a novel, but would work in a short story.

So I went into this serial idea feeling pretty confident, but the reality of it is a bit more daunting. Each segment of the story is around 3,800 words. Once you get the story idea sorted (and this must appeal to the magazine's very specific readership), you must meet the structure requirements. In particular, you must end each segment on a cliffhanger note, something that makes the reader want to read on. We have experience with this in novels with chapters, but this is much more critical here. Whereas in a novel the reader only has to turn a page, in a serial, the plot point has to be so interesting that the reader is willing to wait a week and then buy the next issue of the magazine.

With this project, I find myself caught between the two worlds of novel structure and short story structure. I have to plot this serial, just as I do my novels. I have three acts (segments), with plot points occuring at the end of act one and act two. The climax, catharsis and wrap up scenes all have to occur in act three. And I have only 3800 words per act to do it -- and do it well. I'm used to having that many words for one chapter!

I'm sure I will learn from this excercise. But at the moment, I'm wondering if this serial filler is going to be the death of me!

What about you? Any experience with short stories or serials? Do you like to read short stories?


  1. It sounds like an odd challenge, but I have confidence in you, much the same way Fraulein Maria did on her way to the House of VanTrapp.

    Maybe thinking of your story as a screenplay, where you'd have commercials, might help.

  2. Thanks Jonathan! And yes, a serial is like a screenplay in a lot of ways. Think soap opera or old fashioned radio drama and you get the idea. I love a challenge!

  3. you can do this - what doesnt kill us makes us stronger (blah blah blah) :)

  4. I don't have a lot of experience with short stories, though I've read several. I'm really quite impressed, because I don't think I'd be able to do it.