Deliberations – Ending a Serial/Web novel

While I continue to prod TE Waters for her blog post, I have to take a break this week from analyzing and article gathering. The “Margaret Atwood” effect has passed and there seems to be little to report that seems directly relevant to the topic of serials.  I did catch a bit of news about Kindle Serials here and there as more authors finish their serials/commitment to Amazon. I’ll try to piece together some of those blogs for a later post.

This week is simply a post wherein I obsess through a problem that many authors deal with, but that have strange considerations when writing a novel online particularly in serial form.

The problem I’m muddling through is HOW to end my serial novel.

I’ve really only written one large novel-length work to completion before and it was a fanwork. It was an epic fanwork more than 100k words and my decision to end it was actually more a personal one rather than due to the story itself. I wanted to move on and focus on other creative efforts.   I gave characters their endings after a resolution to a big kidnapping /extortion plot and moved on. (Sort of. I wrote one epilogue and then felt compelled to write another. haha.)

There isn’t a “how to” out there for ending serials.   A good deal of the better known serials/webfiction/blog novels ones actually don’t really end. (Some are going well beyond two to three years at this point.) As for the rest — many a piece of webfiction seems to stop abruptly when the author gives up.  Then there are serials out there in which the ending was done before the first installment posted and the outcome is almost predetermined.

This isn’t my situation.  And so, without a real body of examples to reference, I found myself increasingly worried as the inevitable end approached to the current serial I’m writing.  (While I will continue writing in the world I built, I will pick up elsewhere and with old and new characters. An ending had to be constructed that would allow a complete reading experience but that would lead forward to something else.)

The past few months I’ve taken up reading a lot of advice from different places. There are, of course, a lot of things said about the traditional novel from authors and readers about endings.  Authors point out that endings are your last impression, your last message to your reader.   Many say it makes or breaks your work thus far.

Yeah. NO PRESSURE TO WRITE A GOOD ENDING.

At times I’ve asked people simply to tell me what they think about endings.

  • The folks at Webfiction Guide forums were kind enough to entertain my question about endings in a post from The Daring Novelist.    At the time I was perplexed by her response (more so her confidence and ability to structure) and have been kicking the thought around since.
  • In reading book reviews the past half year, I’ve also seen hints of problems with book endings. First there is the outcome.  Readers of drama and romance universally want what they call a HEA or the “happily ever after.”  However, a HEA doesn’t assure good reviews. In some cases, reader reviewers have expressed their dissatisfaction for endings that they felt tacked on, rushed, or “contrived.”   
  • Reddit folks in /r/Fantasy provided  feedback about what they thought were good endings.  And as usual, they never fail to give really thoughtful answers. (This is why I looooove fantasy readers.)  Surprisingly unlike other genres, they were more open to the mixed ending so long as it was complex, thoughtful, and did not present an unrelated or illogical solution to the problem at hand. 

More or less, the main points about endings was that readers wanted payoff for their investment.

These comments aren’t hard things to keep in mind.   Great.  It’s still hard to craft an ending in that respect, but the serializer knows full well that there’s something different in the equation.   And that is the dynamic of engagement and time on part of the reader.

The ending I started with on paper two years ago was fairly dark. I thought nothing of it in the first few months while I was finding my way around the characters and their interactions.  Over time, the long interaction with an audience created more a responsibility on my part to rethink where I was heading.  The relationship I was building with some of the long time readers was vastly different from those that might pick up the story and go through reading it in one sitting. I wasn’t offering a few hours of reading experience to those early followers, but years of reading.   There is an extreme delay of gratification on their parts for the conclusion to their reading experience.   And the readers and I have a relationship that has difference nuances than is the norm.

I have known that my more vocal readers are proponents of a happily ever after ending.     And I knew which characters they loved the most.  Therefore, six months ago I had to kill not just one, but a few alternate endings I had in mind.  As interesting as I found these ideas, ultimately these did not fit in line with someone who was writing while listening to their audience.

Besides constructing a plot/theme that I think would be an experience the readers wanted, I have been trying to follow some advice I’ve seen to make sure to resolve  loose ends (to the degree that makes sense as some of these will be explored later in subsequent books).  One good suggestion that I’ve been struggling with is re-reading the story for questions or ideas that should be addressed or when tied in would make the work feel more cohesive.   It’s not so much that my problem is resolving what those loose ends are about. (I kept a notebook or put comments in to myself in draft Word documents as I wrote these things.) Rather, time and repeated re-reading (on my part to avoid continuity errors) has made it difficult to read with a fresh pair of eyes and make sure I have not overlooked important details.

Serials sometimes promote a sense of myopia.  Serial writing poses challenges in terms of maintaining continuity, but also lends itself to focusing so much on the weekly output that you lose sight of the big picture.

Endings are all about the big picture.

And this is where I wonder if serialization gets screwy.  Is posting an ending in installments actually more harmful than helpful?

I’ve been writing out the past few weeks the draft ending in pieces.  This hasn’t felt very good actually and I was starting to get frustrated.

And then I went back and reviewed the advice I had gotten at different times in the last month and went back to the beginning of the novel and read it again.   Then I threw out most of what I had and just sat down and drafted again in one sitting.

Not writing like a serializer suddenly made things work again.

Ironic.

But given that last statement, does it make sense to serialize the ending?   If I do my usual thing, the ending will take be posted in pieces (because I need to edit the rough draft).  And yet, I worry that my satisfaction with the ending has to do with reading it all as one experience.

I’ve made my mind up actually on what I”m going to do. But I’m interested in still hearing how others might tackle this situation.  What are the options?

  • Stick to the serial format and let it go out in pieces.
  • Break the schedule and deliver an intact ending. 
  • Others? 

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5 comments

  1. Hey, SgL!Just wanted you to know that I am lurking here, and also thank you for mentioning my post on Web Fiction Guide.I do want to clear something up, though. I wasn't saying that "the author will just know when it's the end." Far from it. What I said was, "It isn't over until you've resolved the problem or question you raised in the beginning."I was also speaking about MY work in that case, not any sort of work.I treat my serials — which run for maybe 5 months each — as if they are "episodes" in a larger story. They have a central problem which can be resolved, even though the larger story may never have an ending.Of course, my background for writing in the first place is mystery, which tends to have long, on-going series which only end when the writer stops writing. And of course, comic strips (which are a form of serial) and long running TV shows often simply end when canceled. Nothing special. They just… end.How you end yours has to do with the promises you've made to the reader. If there is nothing unresolved, you can just go ahead and end it. If there are things which are unresolved, then resolve them… and end it.

  2. And that should teach me not to respond before I read the whole post…..Yeah, when it comes to the endings of my "seasons" in my serials, I do break them up into several episodes, but I am thinking more like a novelist at that point. I write very short episodes, so at the end, I tend to let them run longer. The other thing I do is that each of the three or four ending episodes cover a different subplot or point of view.I once learned that the last scene or chapter (or two) of a story is not the climax, but the "confirmation" of the climax. It's a way of easing out of the story and letting the audience see that things are working out the way they thought. So your hero wins a fight and then gets a medal, and after the detective unmasks the killer, he sits down with friends at tea to go over the clues one more time and tie up loose ends. And the lovers kiss and walk into the sunset. And if you've got all three things going on in a story, for me, they each get an episode.If you write longer episodes, though, I suppose you could write it in one.

  3. Sorry – I should be more careful about how I phrased that and have edited it. I'm still, at times, very much taken aback by how confident some folks are about endings. It might be temperament or discipline. I simply could not feel comfortable about it after a while.Mysteries I guess, though, have to have a lot of discipline particularly as a serial. I read a lot of them, and they're so carefully plotted that to go into one without all the elements laid out sounds dangerous.More or less, I think the promise to the reader is where I realized there was tension between what I thought at first and where I am now. That they've been speaking for a long time will make it ugly if they think I've messed up xD

  4. Regarding the last chapters, that's a helpful tip! Right now I have one long chapter and one follow-up planned that actually probably throws down the gauntlet just a wee bit. (But hopefully it doesn't make people too uneasy while I put them on hold for a few months…) ===I will think about the structure you're using for the next volume or volumes. The next story has multiple POVs and multiple locations (or so I believe), so I may very well use something like what you're doing. Thanks for commenting btw! Always learn from you 🙂

  5. Re, the gauntlet: Yeah, that brings up an important aspect of endings of Serials: If you'll have more stories on the series, how much of a teaser do you put in, and what kind of teaser? (It would of course, be after the endings.)Do you put in an outright cliffhanger? I've heard from friends that some of their favorite science fiction authors do that on novels, and it drives them nuts, but they also run eagerly for the next book. TV shows have done that off and on for years. ("Who shot J.R.?")Then there is the classic, "and it's all over and everything's fine now… or is it?" Signs that the monster wasn't really killed, for instance. Dashiell Hammett did a less provocative version of that at the end of sections of The Dain Curse. The Continental Op would completely solve the case, catch the badguy and be all done with it, except he would walk away thinking about the one loose end which says that the case is not over, even though he definitely vanquished the right badguy in this particular story.Then there is just the leap to the next story. My favorite mystery series, Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters mysteries, which takes place in 1940's Hollywood, features some famous person who calls on Toby to solve a case in each book. At the end of each book, Toby puts the case to rest, rests up, maybe even starts looking for another job, and then he gets a letter or phone call from the guest star of the NEXT book.I think of all of these as kind of like "credit cookies" you see in the movies. The story is over, but those who stick around through the credits get to see a little scene. Sometimes they are teasers in to the next story, sometimes they're just some fun little thing. (Like the Avengers sitting around eating shawarma sandwiches.)I kind of wanted to do both with the end of Misplaced Hero, both to tie up one more loose end — cover one more character — and also to tease into the next story.

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