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Does Writing a Web Serial Allow for/Call for Different 'Rules' than Writing a Novel?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by glassgrimoire, Oct 30, 2016.

  1. glassgrimoire

    glassgrimoire Dreamer

    I feel the Internet offers an opportunity for a return to episodic storytelling on an unprecedented scale. And I believe the web serial could reorient our entire approach to writing and literature. Like 19th Century Dickens newspaper serials -- only with no need for presses, no associated production costs, no need for a printer or publisher, and unlimited access to story research and audience.

    The vast scope of the canvas and the open-ended (cost-free) medium offers the promise of longer arcs, larger casts of characters, more complex world mechanics and histories, and even reader interaction and immediate feedback.

    I know this will be controversial but I feel the approach to setting up a saga in this medium should be different than set-up in a typical, more finite novel. The standards for proper novel length, number of characters etc. get blown out the door. Do they not?

    With a very long view taken, my approach has been to exposit (info-dump -- egad!--) the complex rules of my reality in a "Concerning Hobbits" manner. I also introduce a lot of characters early. I intend to lay down the complexity up front so that things can play out. But here's the rub...

    Every criticism of the work is along the typical "hook 'em with the first page, "show don't tell", "I want to know why these characters have this relationship (without waiting)", "info-dumps bad" etc.

    Putting a debate about whether one is a good/bad writer, or experienced/inexperienced writer aside, I am all but convinced that we should be undergoing a paradigm shift in HOW people write -- and how people read -- that addresses the scale, possibility and nature of the web serial medium.

    I feel the opportunity for larger, grander, more sophisticated worlds, stories and reader experiences is done a remarkable disservice by culturally imposing a transfer of the limitations of corporate, published, single-author, 500-page, bestseller novel process onto the longer-game, deeper-dive of this much wider canvas.

    Are the established writing class just digging their heels in here? Is fuddyduddyism stonewalling evolution -- maybe even a renaissance?

    I know there are rules. But do the same rules apply when the medium is so drastically different?

    Can there be new rules? Indeed, shouldn't there be new rules?
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2016
  2. glassgrimoire

    glassgrimoire Dreamer

    Thanks for chiming in. I fear this may come off as being an apologesto for hackery. I hope not. For example, I am just now thinking about using callouts or sidebars for my exposition in order to free up the flow of narrative -- because it's not print and I can! This raises another thing we need to consider: readers have changed with the medium. Why not side bar exposition and write tighter (web-era) narrative.

    This could degenerate into a traditionalist vs. progressive debate but at least we will be talking about it. I read a lot online too. But a lot of it is just novels transposed to the screen from paper. Is there opportunity for exploiting the medium to the readers benefit?
  3. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    I love web serials. Most of what I read is web based and I do think that it should be talked about.

    Now, I don't think that the greatest strength of a web serial is its infinite canvas. I think the serial nature is its greatest strength. A web serial can grow. Each update adds a little bit more to the story and to the world.

    I don't think you should start off with all your complexity up front. It seems a waste when you could start small and grow up to that complexity in convenient, easy to digest chunks.
    visually_alert likes this.
  4. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Sorry for the double post, just wanted to say that I tried to edit my previous post, but it seems like I ended up deleting it. =_=
  5. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    This is such a grandiose sales pitch - I mean, post that I feel compelled to reply.

    Probably not. I find that artists and especially amateur artists love embracing new mediums and techniques.
    Also, the internet's "revolution" of media is well underway. Where have you been?

    Before the internet, there has been types of stories other than novels. Even ignoring short stories or poems, there's been movies, comic books, TV shows and audioplays (or whatever you call them). And all those mediums already have different "rules".
    Granted, some rules are consistent like "protagonists should be engaging" and "the first act is set-up, second act is build-up and third act is payoff" but any writer with even a vague understanding of what they are doing should know that the medium is a tool of storytelling and, like any tool, there's a right way to use it and a wrong way.

    I would like to bring-up webcomics, for a second. Back in the 90's, comic book artist Scott McCloud said that the inevitable evolution of comic is the "infinite canvas". He predicted that removing the shackles of the 7x10.5 page size would be what separates webcomics from traditional comics.
    Now, 20 years later, most webcomics still use standard page sizes (and shape - portrait orientation). Not to say they all do but webcomics definitely didn't follow the course of evolution that McCloud thought they would. The norm for comics on paper became the norm for comics on the internet.
    I think that may be worth thinking about.
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2016
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I fully agree that the internet opens doorways to all sorts of new forms of storytelling.

    ^But these criticisms would probably hold across all of them.

    With the internet, we could look at new story structures. We could look at stories told in 200 word daily installments, or 500 words, or 1,000, and anything written to be compelling in those tiny chunks is going to follow all sorts of crazy new rules that don't apply elsewhere.

    The thing is, a phrase that tells us, "Bob wanted to eat the cake" is always going to be boring, and a phrase that shows us, "Bob started tapping his fingers, trying not to think about the cake" is always going to be a little more interesting. People are always going to want to know more about character relationships because that's a big part of what makes people interesting. You're always going to read the opening and make a snap decision about whether to keep going or move on. Info dumps are always going to be the most basic and laziest way to deliver information.

    Don't get me wrong, all of these rules have their exceptions and wiggle room. But these happen to be the ones that run deeper than the medium. They're going to apply to everything from a short story to a novel to web series to a an interactive text like Fallen London.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  7. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

    I think that criticism like what you received applies (and doesn't apply) equally to every medium. If you don't hook readers in the first whatever, chances are that those readers won't stick around to see the cool stuff. Info-dumps are boring to a lot of people, possibly most people (although the fantasy audience seems to have a higher tolerance for info-dumping), so those people who are getting bored by info-dumps will tell you so if they otherwise like your writing enough.

    Now, the big advantage you have in a web serial is that you really don't have to care about the numbers. You're not getting paid by the readership, so whether a lot of people like it or not does not have to matter to you. Someone out there will, and that can be enough. Basically, you don't have to try and please as many people as you can as with traditional publishing, so you can ignore this kind of feedback if you want. You'd do well to be polite about it though, as these people are under no obligation to provide feedback and are only doing it out of goodwill.
  8. glassgrimoire

    glassgrimoire Dreamer

    Thanks everyone for responses! I am new here and it's exciting to know that people lend their ears -- and wisdom.

    I agree with most of what's been said, but respectfully disagree whole-heartedly that the media revolution is underway with regard to the written word. What I see is merely a move from paper and ink to pixels and screen. And this despite the medium by which the written word is shared progressing more in 30 years than in all of human history before that. In no way has the way we write changed to exploit the possibilities of this medium in any significant way. If anything, the way people write and read has become more superficial and formulaic than ever.

    In light of the valuable reminder that poems, short stories, comics, screenplays and novels are different animals, should be treated differently, and have different rules. I submit once again -- perhaps this time more clearly -- that the web serial is an emerging genre that will become something different than a novel delivered piecemeal. I see it going the way of the daytime drama (soap opera) in form - but with the possibility of much more complexity and artistry. I even see the possibility of decades long arcs emerging during which protagonists become antagonists and the other way around; links are used the way footnotes once were to transfer out exposition and streamline narrative -- all kinds of stuff that will make the new romantics (who just finally accepted getting past paper) and the corporate publishers crazy -- until, ultimately, evolution and the marketplace forces them on board as well.

    Just a hypothesis. Thanks again for some good advice!
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2016
  9. Thomas Laszlo

    Thomas Laszlo Sage

    Thoughtfully Disagreeing

    I have to say that you may be connected to one side of writing and not seeing the other. I, as a sixteen year old who enjoys writing but can't sit down and write for long periods of time very well, love the idea of web serials in installments of 200, 500, or even a thousand words. I think the move to media you are witnessing is the transfer of books from reading them on paper to reading them, for less money which is the bang in today's world, on the internet or in cheap formats for mobile devices or computers. I have a blog on wordpress for my writing platform that hopefully I'll be able to start writing on more now that swim season is over, and through it I met another high school guy who writes web serials. He actually follows a lot of the "rules" illustrated by the responses on here but it is a totally different narrative because he releases it in serials. It is nowhere close to formulaic and he does a great job with it. If I remembered the site I would drop a link but I cannot since I haven't read it for a few weeks. I have to disagree with you about dropping an information load at the beginning. You might think about releasing a page on the web serial site that holds lore as you build it and then the "blog" page can be used to tell the story. Then, the complexities are there if they chose to study them, but your smaller complexities of plot and character placement and relationships can be explored chronologically through your story like installments.

    Think of Star Wars books being released chapter by chapter with a sidebar for wookiepedia to discover all the factual worldbuilding involved.

    Just an idea, I hope this helped a bit! I definitely am excited to see your ventures into the writing transformation that has begun.
  10. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I go by the theory that you can do whatever you want so long as it is interesting. It is not about rules, it is about entertainment.

    How entertaining is your story and do you know how to hook a reader so they never want to let go? The rules of entertainment are universal, no matter your format.

    If your story is not interesting then no one will read it. Period. It doesn't matter if it is in print, in comic form, told on the street, presented on a stage, or given in bite-sized chunks on the internet.

    So to respond to your question:

    The current publishing industry is all about making cold hard cash. They will buy books that they can print cheaply, advertise cheaply and that they think they can sell. These books do follow a certain formula because after years of market research the big publishers have a decent idea of what sort of books their readers are looking for. They know the markets for each genre.

    Writers spend tens of years learning how to write stories that will sell. Entertaining stories that grab readers and don't let them go. I would argue that thousands of years of storytelling has developed basic rules, such as "show don't tell", no info dumps, etc. Millions of writers and storytellers over thousands of years have developed 'tricks of the trade' so to speak as far as how to be an effective storyteller who people actually want to listen to/read.

    Most writers write to make money, and in order to make money you have to write something people actually want to pay for. If people deem your stories to be interesting, entertaining, and good quality, then they will pay to read them.

    So, then there is the rub...

    Are you looking to make money off your huge story? Or are you looking to just put it out there to the world for free?

    GRRM has done a wonderful job creating a huge world with an enormous cast of characters in a sort of soap opera type format. He has done it by following the traditional (proven) rules of storytelling and has made himself a lot of cash.

    If you are not interested in making money off your story then, by all means, write it however you would like, but if a reader is bored they will not pay to continue reading. It doesn't matter how much you love your concept, or how much you defend your methods, if it is not engaging, or it is too complicated, or too much of a time/brain investment then you will lose readers. Period.

    I'm not criticizing the format. Because like I said, so long as it is interesting you can do whatever you want. But it has to be interesting, and the reason the traditional rules are in place is because they have been proven, time and time again, to make a story more interesting.
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2016
  11. Fan-fiction writers have been doing something similar to this for years, and fan fiction has a huge readership. Adapting it to original stories wouldn't be hard at all.
  12. glassgrimoire

    glassgrimoire Dreamer

    Thanks for this! I hear this loud and clear. And I think you hit a nail on the head. i am writing for free -- it is a passion project. So I think I kind of resent formula and the screaming and yelling about the "one right way" to be a writer.

    I really appreciate these non-condescending responses!

    This is helping me a lot and is motivating me to revisit some notions. Thanks!
  13. glassgrimoire

    glassgrimoire Dreamer

    This is helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I am exactly where you are at with offloading exposition to a footnote page. I guess all I want is to know that I'm not caged in and that there are others out there who are beyond the pure novel formula as end-all be-all.
  14. AngelaRCox

    AngelaRCox Dreamer

    I love Laszlo's suggestion to keep stuff short, and I love DragonOfTheAerie's suggestion to look at fanfic for web-optimized storytelling. I also love the idea of returning to the serial novel, something that has come in and out of style with every new medium or distribution platform--and the web does seem very ideal for it.

    Things I would keep in mind:
    -As has already been said, web readers read in small chunks and dislike having to click through slide shows. A blog format, however, to which they can subscribe works great!
    -Shorter paragraphs are easier to read on a screen than longer ones.
    -You can freely use images and formatting in digital formats, BUT you have to keep in mind that it may appear differently on different devices--a lot of people will be reading on phones, for instance, which format web pages a little differently than computer browsers.
    -You don't need as much review when you start a section as, say, Dickens did; Dickens was writing in a place where people might reasonably have been expected to lose the previous issue and need some review. You, however, can just use hyperlinks!

    I hope that helps :)
  15. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    Non-traditional text forms have been around for quite a while. You can break the traditional rules of storytelling. The trick is finding your audience.

    Here's a site for web serial fiction that you may find interesting: top web fiction: free online fiction, by reader votes

    When the web was coming into prominence, way back when, the next big thing was expected to be hypertext fiction (aka, interactive fiction or multi-path fiction), a different art form than the web serial. Hypertext fiction hasn't progressed as much as predicted, perhaps, but does have its niche audience today.

    For a perspective from five years ago on the failure of hypertext as an art form, check out this article: Why the book?s future never happened - Salon.com

    Then check out the interactive fiction of 2016 that you can find here: https://ifcomp.org/

    I wrote a guest post about the history of multi-path fiction as implemented in both print and digital media, which you might also find of interest: Coyote's Adventures Underground: An Historical Perspective on Multi-Path Fiction
  16. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    Pretty much.

    Look at it from the point of view of arc. You're still going to arc the character; an episode is easier because you've got a snippet of an arc but then throughout the whole series the arc is longer, so it balances out.

    And it really gets complex when you go into multiple series. Then all the things that people hate (like, planning) become necessary.

    People do web series for a number of reasons, including that they can be easier to produce. But you don't want to make the mistake of thinking that the storytelling is any easier.

    Your best practice is still learning how to tell straight, clear, concise stories.

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