Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.23: Serialization

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Lari, and Dan, with special guest Jenn Court

Let’s talk about serials. Jenn Court, whose work includes lots of  writing for TV (IMDB link), joins us for the discussion. What are the elements that get us, as readers or viewers, to come back for episode after episode, and how do we, as writers, identify those elements and set about synthesizing them?

Credits: This episode was mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Think about your next protagonist. Make a chart that covers their positive and negative attributes.

Thing of the week: Fetch the Bolt Cutters, by Fiona Apple.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: The serial form, a format with multiple installments that are each individually satisfying, but also form a larger whole. Do you leave room fo surprises or discoveries as you go? Most television shows are shot before anything airs. If you can respond, do! But keep in mind your storytelling goal. Emotion, and emotional arcs, drive serialized stories, not plot. Start with your characters, what they want, what they feel, and how they are changing. Give them somewhere to go that is purposeful. Plot versus emotional arc? Plot is stuff that happens. The emotional arc is how the character feels, what they want, and how they change. Where does the character begin, where do they end, and what happens in between. There is a range of television forms, from serialized shows where characters do grow and change, to procedurals, where characters need to end where they started, so that the next episode can pick up with those same characters. How do you balance satisfying endings and keeping the reader/watcher coming back? Know when your show is done. Build a proper arc. Fractals! Five act emotional arc, at the series, season, and episode levels. Episodic storytelling has a complete story within each episode. Problem, then solution. Episodes stand alone. Serialized storytelling has long arcs that tie everything together. To make each installment feel satisfying, make the reader feel something, elicit an emotional response.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 23.

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Serialization.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Lari] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Lari] I’m Lari.

[Mary Robinette] And we have our special guest today, Jenn Court. Jenn, do you want to tell our audience about yourself?

[Jenn] Sure. I am a television producer in Los Angeles. Which means currently I have not left my house in about six weeks. I work with John Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey Productions. I also run a small nonprofit teaching television writing to writers from underrepresented groups.

[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. So we asked Jenn here today because, as someone who works in television, she is significantly more comfortable and familiar with a serial as a form than people who write novels, unless you’re like writing a long epic thing with multiple installments. Most of us don’t deal with a format that is involving kind of these small individual things that are supposed to be satisfying individually, but also are part of the larger whole.

[Dan] Yes. But that serialized model is becoming a lot more popular with Amazon and e-book and stuff like that, so we wanted to do a podcast and have Jenn kind of talk to us a little bit about what works and what doesn’t in that format.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the questions that I have, if you don’t mind me just jumping right into the “how do you do this thing?” questions…


[Mary Robinette] We’ve… One of the things that I’m aware of in the… Is that serials in the older style, before we started bundling things and having them all come out… A season come out. But a true serial, which is released one week at a time, or in installments, often is responding to the act of storytelling, while at the same time having a long arc already planned out. But it’s responding somewhat to audience engagement, it’s responding to surprises. So I’m wondering how much you’re thinking about leaving space for surprises or discoveries as you’re working?

[Jenn] That depends somewhat on your show. The tricky thing about television is that we write and film and edit long before usually any of it airs. Particularly with a serialized show, people will often plan to shoot everything before the first episode drops. So there is actually less responding to audience wishes and things that make them excited. There’s less of that than it might feel like sometimes. We’re just very good at predicting what that will be. When you are in a medium where you can respond, I wouldn’t discourage it. It’s good to listen to people who give you feedback, particularly if the feedback is, “Oh, hey, that person from a group I belong to, you got them very wrong. Please don’t do that.” That can be an excellent thing to respond to. But you also need to keep in mind the thing that you are driving towards in your storytelling. Sometimes an audience wanting something tells you you are doing it right. It doesn’t mean you have to give it to them yet. That can wait.

[Dan] Yes. I…

[Jenn] one of the things we do try to keep in mind is emotional arcs. Emotion should always be driving a serialized story, not plot. If you are chasing plot in a serialized story, you are going to do bigger and bigger and bigger things, none of which are going to be satisfying at all. You’re trying to chase that high of the first excitement in the first installment. The best way to do that is by driving things from your characters, what they want, what they feel, how they’re changing, and you must have planned that in advance. You can’t start at the beginning and just write, hoping that your characters become fully fleshed human beings. You have to actually give them somewhere to go that’s purposeful.

[Mary Robinette] Can you talk about the difference between plot versus emotional arc? Because, for me, I always think about the emotional arc as plot, since there is still have to be… There still has to be an inciting incident to begin an emotional change, and catalyzing points. But you’re using them as two different things.

[Jenn] I am. That’s mostly because I so often see people who come in and have only done one of them. So that is… It has been useful to describe them as separate items, so folks can learn to make them work together. Plot is stuff that happens. The MacGuffin you have to find or return or get rid of, the ring you are throwing into the lake of fire, for example. The emotional arc is then separate from that. How do we feel about this ring? Is it shiny, does it go with my skintone? It’s the… What is the emotional investment in the plot itself and how does that change? Having a character who begins with I want to do this and at the end of the story still wants to do that, there’s not a satisfying arc to that. The wants and the needs that your characters have do adapt over the course of the story based on the things that have happened to them, the things from the story plot that are occurring to them to change the things they want and need. So those emotional arcs are the first thing that we look at when we’re building a television show. Where does my character begin, where do they end, what’s the midpoint turn that gets me there, and then how do I fill in the things in between?

[Dan] The one season of TV that I worked on, the big lesson that I learned from that, the thing that I thought was really valuable that helped me to understand the difference between serialized and kind of regular prose novel, was that I was not… I needed to focus less on changing who the character was than on watching them react to something. Giving them something very interesting and meaningful that would challenge them in some way, and then watching them react and adapt to it. Which is not to counteract anything Jenn is saying, because I think it’s the same principle. But for me, coming from novels, I was trying to make every story be a huge meaningful change in the character’s perspective on life. That quickly becomes untenable when you’re trying to put out a new episode or a new installment every week.

[Jenn] Which show was it?

[Dan] So instead… It was a science fiction show called Extinct.

[Jenn] Okay.

[Dan] It was… Yeah… No one saw it. Don’t worry.


[Dan] But… Go for it.

[Jenn] Television is a… There are a range of different reactions to it. We have properly serialized television, where your characters are going to have to change. So, Downton Abbey, those characters grow, they change, sometimes they regress, they get a little muddled in there a couple times. Or you have a procedural. If you have a CSI, your characters are probably not going to grow or change in time, they pretty much need to end where they started so that you have an episode the next week. So in that regard, there’s a wide variance in the degree of serialization in television. Never mind that it is an incredibly serialized format. Our episodic television does not have that kind of character growth. Properly serialized things do. Limited series, especially, do. Because they are aiming at an actual end, as opposed to aiming at an indefinite extension of the series.

[Lari] What’s very hard about serialization is to try to strike that balance between giving the reader or the watcher a satisfying ending and also something that will keep them coming back. So I was wondering if you have any tips for that? Or if they change, according to the kind of series, so is it something where the characters change or something, or the characters really don’t change that much from episode to episode?

[Jenn] I think there is wisdom in knowing when your show is done. There are more and more people who are looking at beginning from a place of knowing we have three seasons in this show. That’s what I’m going to write. Or we have five seasons in this show, and that’s what I’m going to write. The longer you draw something out to an artificial end, the less likely you are to keep people coming back and the less likely they are to be happy if they do. So having an arc you can actually build properly is important. [Set?] is a useful thing. You don’t always get that. So you need to build a season arc, but think about it in terms of a series arc. It’s all fractal. It’s math. Everything is math. Even words. So if you’re thinking about the five act structure of your character’s emotional arc, you think about that for the series, for the season, for the episode, and narrow it down that way. Keep thinking about where is my character starting, where do I need them to end to get them to the next place I need them to go?

[Mary Robinette] Cool. I think, let’s pause here for our book of the week, which is not a book. Jenn, you had pitched something to us that sounded very interesting.

[Jenn] Yes, indeed. I cannot recommend highly enough Fiona Apple’s latest album. I want to say Just Bring the Bolt Cutters. Please forgive me if I’ve gotten that wrong. It is only 9 AM in Los Angeles. It has been a long week. But in terms of sheer word… It’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. In terms of sheer wordsmithing, I think there are very few people who are as adept at evoking emotion through unexpected words as Fiona Apple. It is well worth a listen. It came out Friday. So… It is available now.

[Mary Robinette] Excellent. So that was Fiona Apple’s Vegetable Cutters?

[Dan, Jenn] Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

[Mary Robinette] Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

[Dan] I am definitely going to refer to it as Vegetable Cutters from now on.

[Mary Robinette] I will… That will be the name of my next vegan band.


[Mary Robinette] So. Moving on. From our… As we continue into the next part of this particular serial, you mentioned serial versus episodic.

[Jenn] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Which is, I think, a distinction that most people who are… Are not thinking about when they’re talk… When they’re thinking about writing something that has more than one installment. Can you unpack it for us a little bit? I’m pretty sure I know what you meant, but I’m going to make you do the work anyway.


[Jenn] Absolutely. That’s what I’m here for.


[Jenn] Episodic storytelling in television, if you had, say your CSI, your average medical show, you have a complete story that is contained within the episode. You start with a problem. By the end of the episode, you have solved that problem. There are often elements in any given show that are more serialized. You might have a season mystery lurking in the background that runs through everything, but for the most part, you have… Each episode stands alone just fine. You don’t miss anything if you don’t tune in that week. So in episodic television… There is less room for people to have those big moments of character growth in episodic television because you really do need them to get back to where they started, so that the next writer can just pick up and write the characters they’re used to. In serialized television, you’re tracking a season-long story or several season-long stories that do need to have an arc that covers all of them.

[Mary Robinette] Cool. So when I think about how to apply this for people who are writing prose, one of the things that I think is… We often talk about how prose has to have a character arc. That… I’ll hear people say that a lot. My response has always been, “Well, no, it doesn’t.” When you look at like, most cozy mysteries, there isn’t a character arc. Or at least not for the main… The protagonist. So really what’s happening there is that those are much more episodic than they are a serial.

[Jenn] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Whereas even something that… When you’re looking at a trilogy, even though it’s enormous, it’s still much more of a serial. But it also starts to get into… I think one of the things that happens to people on a chapter level that were… Which we’ll sometimes talk about people who are reading something that just feels very episodic, it just feels like there’s no progression. I think actually that on your point that writing is fractal, that’s essentially what’s happening, is they are not treating each chapter as part of a serial, they’re treating each chapter as part of an episodic television show. So to speak. That it’s… That there is no progression going on.

[Jenn] That seems entirely likely to me. The… I do not write novels, so I will not speak from experience. But I do often see television writers trying to work a particular scene, and they’re treating the scene as if it either stands apart from everything else that’s happening in the episode, in which case you should cut that one, even if it’s the best thing you’ve written. It doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t stay. Or, they’re treating it as not having enough of its own structure. Even in serialized television, as in any serialized story, every piece you write has to hold its own weight in the structure. If it’s not capable of sustaining interest, you might not get a chance to prove how brilliant the end of your story is. Because your scenes have failed to carry their weight.

[Mary Robinette] I just watched something that… Where they clearly expected a second season to happen. It didn’t. So the ending was incredibly unsatisfying.

[Jenn] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Dan, what were you going to say?

[Dan] I wanted to talk about that subject, actually, the idea of satisfying endings. It’s… We’re almost out of time, but is there anything you can give us, any good advice or tips on how to make each installment of a serialized story feel complete and satisfying, while still riding toward that ultimate goal?

[Jenn] Make me feel something.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Jenn] If you can elicit an emotional response, your audience will… Usually, not always, but they will usually be willing to wait for the next piece. Because you have offered them a complete emotional experience.

[Mary Robinette] Cool. I feel like that’s a good point for us to segue out of this and hopefully leave you all wanting some.

[Mary Robinette] Let’s give them a writing exercise. Does anyone have one that they’d like to share? Jenn?

[Jenn] I do. Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Excellent. Whew!


[Jenn] This is something that we do whenever we build characters for a television show. I would suggest that folks think about the protagonist they are thinking about writing next, and do make themselves a little chart with two sides, one with a plus and one with a minus. I want them to start with the negative characteristics that their protagonist has. The impulse is, so often, to build your protagonist up, to make them perfect. The most interesting thing about any character is their flaws. Flaws become your superpowers, they become the things that make you interesting, that make you capable, that make you potentially great. So start with those things, and you will end up with a much more interesting character than if you make them perfect right off the bat.

[Mary Robinette] That is great advice. So, thank you so much. So, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.