Web Serials and Novels: How Do They Get Big? Do They Get Big? Let's Find Out!

2 months ago | Rhodeworks (Member)

Since starting Not All Heroes over a year ago, I've found myself having a particular conversation with other serial authors, time and time again. At its core, the conversation is just a simple question: what is it that makes a serial successful? I figured that instead of rehashing my points time and time again, it would be best to spread the information out here. That way, people can read it in their leisure.

The metric of success I'm using is a nebulous mixture of financial, ranking, and general readership. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm sticking to the Top 10 of what is listed on TopWebFiction; however, there are lessons to be taken from RoyalRoadLegends as well. Some of this information comes from my own investigations, some of it comes from talking with others.

Before we begin, I'll mention that you should not look at Not All Heroes as an example for doing any of this successfully or otherwise. One, being a story following these ideas is not the story I wanted to tell. Two, I did the bulk of this work after I had already started uploading the story. As always, you should write what you want to write... but it can never hurt to know when and where you can put your fingers on the scale, no?

There are, in fact, a number of similarities among many of the biggest web serials. Ultimately, many serials acquire a greater audience more quickly than others for a simple, obvious reason: they give the audience what they want. So, the question becomes, what does the typical web serial audience member want? In my experience, that aforementioned member of the audience has a rather narrow set of desires and expectations for their serial fiction. It is also much easier to determine what they like than what they dislike. In fact, I would suggest that there is no standard set of dislikes like there are for likes -- although there are certainly things that don't seem to help a serial.

So, as mentioned, there are some similarities. Below, I've presented what I consider the three most common points across the more successful serials online. They are presented in no particular order. Any examples provided are not comprehensive.

1. Toybox Worldbuilding

This is essentially how the world is constructed and how explicitly the fictional rules are laid out. Wildbow's works, Practical Guide to Evil, and just about every LitRPG nail this aspect. I would argue that this is one of the biggest reasons behind Worm's success.

Basically, it comes down to how definitively spelled out the world is, and how simple it is for the reader to tinker with it themselves. Essentially, it's making the story into a toybox with which the reader can play within between updates. This keeps the audience engaged and keeps them thinking about your serial when they're not reading it. One could say that similar ideas are just how 'fanficable' a world is. Alternatively, to borrow another word, how toyetic it is.

For example, consider Worm and its detailed systems of power specifications and specific explanations of various processes or Practical Guide with its system of narrative-based tension and how characters acquire various titles and names.

This, of course, rewards worlds that are built to be codified in, say, a wiki. Is this a world in which it's easy for your audience to imagine mashing action figures together, so to speak? Then you've got toybox worldbuilding.

In published fiction, Brandon Sanderson does similar things. In fact, if there's one author who modelling your work on would provide maximum appeal in this space, it'd be Sanderson.

2. Gradual Progression

Again, you can easily see this one in a lot of big serials — Wildbow's works, Mother of Learning, Practical Guide, just to name a few. And, of course, just about every LitRPG. In the case of LitRPGs, it is made quite explicit: character gain new powers, abilities, and items, and use them to conquer new challenges which, in turn, award new powers, abilities or items, which they then use...

Think of it as equating more to an MMO loot cycle or 'leveling up' than the concept of the Hero's Journey. Since I collated these notes about a year ago, I've seen this idea in writing start to become codified under the term of 'progression fantasy.'

It could be considered a close relative of the serial 'escalation' meme. Both of them hit the same mental notch, the idea of a story always moving forwards and upwards, as if up a staircase. Characters are always acquiring things, whether those are magical items, fancy titles, new skills, mystical powers, or even just new inventive uses of their particular superpower.

3. Broken Wish Fulfillment

The interesting thing about this one is that it is sort of two things simultaneously. Unlike the other two that center on the worldbuilding and plot structure, this one reflects the protagonist. In many web serials, the protagonist is basically a blank slate, a window into the more exciting world. However, they also tend to be quite unique and often very powerful despite being underestimated.

Taylor Hebert, for example, is a character who fits this to a tee. She is a bullied everywoman who possesses incredible power, cool superhero friends, has epic battles, and ends up saving the world, where her powers are simultaneously regarded as ineffective yet extremely potent. Also, consider Zorian from Mother of Learning.

And, of course, just about every LitRPG and/or isekai does this. Essentially, this allows the reader to more easily put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

Those are, in my anecdotes and experiences, the big three. However, there are other, smaller things to consider. These points are more general and can be applied to serials that don't necessarily follow the aforementioned points. Again, in no particular order.

1. Consistency is key. Pick a schedule based on what you can do and stick to it. Disruptions to this schedule, even advertised ones, can slip you back down the readership hill. In my opinion, update at least twice a week. However, it is better to update once a week every week than start with two and drop to one. I think that would indicate a lack of interest or confidence. It's about habit-building.

2. When it comes to Patreons, I regard PirateAba (The Wandering Inn) as having the best one around. If I was going to start a new serial with the express purpose of making money quickly, that is the Patreon I would look at.

3. Self-promotion rarely achieves anything. Paying for promotion never does much, either. There aren't that many people looking for web fiction that isn't what they already like. This is why positive word of mouth can do wonders. Especially positive word of mouth that reaches outside the usual web serial bubbles. This leads straight into my next point...

4. Many web serials either come from an existing community or target one with laser-like precision. This community might be as narrow as a subreddit (/r/rational, /r/HFY, etc) or might be more broad, something like RoyalRoadLegends.

5. Most serial readers are reading to fill time on a commute or at lull periods in their employment or classes. They are looking for distraction and entertainment more than immersion or catharsis because they are prone to interruption and distraction, meaning their method of reading is more skimming than close engagement.

6. Therefore, building off the above, there are certain kinds of stories that may not work as well as others. To borrow how I've seen it put: no one gives a shit about characters talking about their feelings. Action and exposition can work because it allows the audience to skim and, essentially, imagine it in their own head.

7. Again, building off the previous point, this does mean that prose is not necessarily a selling point. In fact, it may be detrimental. Any work on your prose is more for your own education and development than impressing the audience. How often do we see Worm reviews that mention something along the lines of 'the start is bad but read until you get to Leviathan'? That's about 200k words, by the way.

8. A lot of the top serials are 'meta' in some way. Think tropes and subversion of them etc. Consider Practical Guide, which is basically the Evil Overlord's Guide to Evil in serial form. Worm is alternately a reconstruction or deconstruction of superheroes, depending on who you talk to. Into the Mire is maybe the most obvious exception to this.

9. I think serials have an optimal life of 3~ years. A key part of serials is following them as they develop, which means they shouldn't end too soon. But if they go on for too long, they can be seen as intimidating (too much material) or low quality (this serial has been going for three years, and it only has ten votes?) regardless of whether that's true or not. If I were to write a new serial, I'd give myself a timeline of however many updates over that three year period and sketch the whole thing out.

10. There are, of course, allowances for context. Some serials just get there first. Some serials enjoy being in the right place at the right time. But even so, it's not that simple: there are things about them that resonate.

As mentioned, this is not some magic bullet -- but it could be a key formula. At the same time, if you're just looking to figure out how to aim your serial for popularity, I feel it's accurate enough to allow you to achieve your goal. Like I always tend to say, the key is to write what you want to write. If you want to write something that does all these things, do it. If you want to write a story that aims for something different, do it. At the end of the day, writing a serial is a marathon and not a sprint. Writing what you want to write is a big help on the days where you don't want to write but, by God, you need to get that update done.

Of course, writing something new and different can be a good way of standing out. But the audience is rather focused and it likes what it likes. Don't count on novelty to help you.

At the end of the day, writing can be difficult. It's why so many people talk about writing without actually writing. Anyone who writes a serial, putting out each update to the audience, is doing better than a lot of people who claim to be writers but never move beyond worldbuilding. No matter the popularity, every serial is an achievement to be proud of.

Read responses...

Page: 12

Responses

  1. theredsheep (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    Question about prose: do you mean that polished writing, or complex writing, is generally a turnoff? I don't mean in the sense of lacking typos and gross grammatical errors, but in general serial writing tends to be plain and utilitarian--for example, exposition is done directly rather than by inference, which is generally a no-no in other kinds of writing. Metaphors and similes and all that other stuff we learned about in English class are rare. I can see why this would be, if web fiction is stuff you read on the crowded subway car to work, but it's the opposite of how I've been training myself to write for years.

  2. Dary (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    @theredsheep
    It's a turn-off for readers who want a quick distraction for 5-10 minutes. Those also happen to be the readers most likely to come back (and, thus, vote for you) multiple times a week. Readers who prefer more traditional writing are more likely to hold off and build up a backlog of chapters: they want to read for hours, not minutes.

    This can also factor into how those readers engage with a serial. If everyone is reading the same chapter at the same time, that will promote discussion in a way that everyone reading at their own pace would not. That discussion then bleeds into audience-driven works, like wikis. Combine that with a 'fanficable' world, and you get a very engaged - and very vocal - readership.

    Of course, this approach has as many disadvantages as it does advantages, so it all comes down to choosing the method that best suits the story you want to tell, and the demographics that story is aimed at.

  3. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 2 months ago

    Revfitz has an article more on the promotion side of things rather than the story elements of things on his site that includes my take on making it on RoyalRoad.

    In terms of the criteria you've identified, I'd say it's the "giving them what they want" one that's key. The other stuff helps, but it's the appeal of the story that's the core.

  4. Megajoule (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    "1. Toybox Worldbuilding"

    See, this is one I don't feel Inheritors has yet beyond it being easy to imagine yourself with a superpower. But the next volumes are going to really delve into where powers come from and how they are formed, so I'm wondering if I will see an increase in fandom during this period.

    Overall a spot on list! Very nice work putting this together, Rhodes.

    https://inheritorsserial.com / a clone of the greatest superhero in the world, with only a fraction of the power
  5. Rhodeworks (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    @theredsheep

    I mean complex writing more than polished. However, I generally think that any web serial should at least do a cursory spelling and grammar check before uploading anything. I don't think spelling and grammar issues tend to have much of a negative effect, however, unless they are truly egregious.

    The common comment that web serials never have good writing and you shouldn't expect from them is both a blessing and a shackle. Like Dary says, you can account for this and the story you want to tell. A serial that is a bit denser, written more like a conventional novel, can work. As you point out, web serial writing is plain and utilitarian and focused on visuals over feelings, tone, thematics or authorial voice (very workmanlike).

    However, there are editors and publishers (big and small) trawling through serials. They won't necessarily tell you, but they're there, watching and reading. In that case, it's probably advisable to write the best that you want to write.

  6. Thedude3445 (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    3. Broken Wish Fulfillment

    I will say that using everyman, blank slate protagonists is a good way to get a good readership, but having a character who has more of a strictly-defined personality and a character arc that develops differently from the "generic audience" isn't something to necessarily avoid. That is, if you have developed your "toybox" effectively enough, you can still have a protagonist that is entirely distinct from a "Luke Skywalker in A New Hope" type. I also think that going fully self-insert can very much harm a story, as we see with the large bulk of isekai/litrpg stories where the protagonist is just the author. Then again, lots of those are very popular.

    5. " Most serial readers are reading to fill time on a commute or at lull periods in their employment or classes."

    This one is very true, I've found as a reader! Along with this, I'd really like to encourage writers to make their chapters shorter, ones that can be consumed in bite-sized pieces rather than behemoth-like chunks. For a lot of serials I've read over the years, I've had a lot of trouble with reading part of a chapter in some quiet moment, then getting interrupted, then going back later and having to finish. When chapters are a certain length, it gets difficult to stay focused when it takes so many separate dives to get through a single chapter. Something like 2,000 words is way better for a lot of readers than 10,000 words. This also gives you more of a backlog to post, so don't forget that...

    I'd also like to add that, in most cases, stories do not get Big quickly. From what I've read, it seems to take about a year of consistent updates to gain much of any readership unless you strike a big chord and get lucky. So, so many serial writers give up after getting discouraged by lack of readers or comments, and that's one thing to know before you even post your first chapter-- you are gonna be bummed out for a while.

    Sorry boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you.
  7. sunflowerofice (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    I got a new follower today, making three in total. To me that makes it feel like a success because I am seeing more people finding me. I actually got my biggest view today with 53 views from 10 people, sure that means most didn't read it all but so what!

    Even if i don't grow much really then it means that I have at least a few people who have a story that they will know about that wouldn't be there for them if not for me..... would i like to become well know sure of course, but...... honestly just having any followers, especially if they comment, is enough for me right now.

    To me I am a success from that.

  8. nippoten (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    Also, finish your serials guys. Seriously. :P

  9. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 2 months ago

    Never!

  10. Scott Scherr (Member)

    Posted 2 months ago

    Excellent post with lots of good points to think about, Rhodeworks. Thanks for taking the time to post this thread.

    Sharing from my own experiences posting my first serial, I'd have to say that my lack of consistency after my first year did my readership some damage. Later, I believe my serial's size became intimidating to a lot of new readers. I started posting my serial in February 2014. For the first three months nothing much happened. By month four and beyond, my numbers started to double each month until I completed the first three volumes in my series. I was posting three times a week for a year with a backlog of about six months of material before I started. I went from around 1,000 views a month to leveling out around 7,000-8,000 by the end of that first year. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of taking more than a year away from the serial while I edited and self-published the first three books, and honestly, I needed the break at that point.

    My numbers held strong for a few months after that. But once I started re-posting the edited versions of the first three books while writing Book Four, I'd lost most of my readers. I've never taken more than three months off since then, but the damage was done and I lost that initial surge of readership that comes with following a new serial that wasn't as huge as it is now. In retrospect, I wish I'd never considered publishing the first three books and had pushed on after a couple month hiatus to recharge. I suspect my readership and views would have remained consistent, growing from where I'd left off... if I had stayed consistent.

    Now my serial is massive and I'm certain many people turn away after seeing the time investment involved in such a large serial. So I guess the greatest lesson I've learned from this serial journey so far is if your readership is steadily growing, as mine was that first year, don't ruin a good thing and take too much time away from writing new material. Readers are patient, but not that patient.

    Author of the apocalyptic series, Don't Feed The Dark. http://freezombienovel.wordpress.com
  11. JohnCalliganWrites (Member)

    Posted 1 month ago

    Interesting stuff. I'd love to write LitRPG in one of my old Pathfinder Sandboxes.

    Anyone have a feeling about the pacing of top serials? Slow progression is important, but what are the signs it is moving too fast, or too slow?

  12. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 1 month ago

    I don't think slow progression is important so much as constant progression. You can make your character super overpowered right from the beginning as long as you are able to come up with ever more outlandish levels of power through the rest of the story.

  13. JohnCalliganWrites (Member)

    Posted 1 month ago

    That makes sense. I’m sure I could think of examples of super competent characters who kept finding new uses for their powers. Avatar was kinda like that.

  14. sunflowerofice (Member)

    Posted 1 month ago

    Especially if it makes sense or there were hints of things like that.

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