How would you explain a serial to newbies?

I'm trying to find a cleaner way of describing the serial format than "It's a novel published chapter by chapterr, sorted into arcs, but all the arcs are part of the overall story." What's your elevator pitch?

It's an ongoing story posted piece by piece as a series online. Like a TV show version of a novel.

Know Charles Dickens? Welcome him to the twenty-first century.

Have you ever tried to tell a story, but you were really drunk so you had to keep stopping, and then when you started again you weren't entirely sure what you'd just been saying but you really hoped the story kinda made sense? It's kinda like that. Oh and also Charles Dickens. And -- if you're lucky -- there may even be a couple math puns. (Yes, that joke is very specifically targeted at mathans.)

But seriously.

I think there are a couple options here. The clearest is probably to just say, "It's like fan fiction, but the characters and content is completely original." Of course, there are a couple of problems with this approach: fan fic has a bit of a negative reputation, and it can feel kind of weird to emphasize the originality of your content, since really all of literature is people swiping ideas from one another. (Fan fic authors just do it more openly.)

Alternatively, you can say, "It's a story that publishes a new [avg. wordcount per chapter]-chapter per day/week/month/millenium." I think it's healthy to say "story" as opposed to "novel," because some of these things really don't feel very novelesque.

It's like a webcomic, but without the pictures.

All of those are good; I've never met anyone who was still mystified after some quick comparisons.

If they're an anime fan it's pretty easy. Relate it to broadcast cours and manga story arcs.

If they like literature, Charles Dickens, and if they're into weird publishing history, pulps.

If they like webcomics, it's that model but for prose fiction stories.

If they like comics, etc etc etc. There's a lot of ongoing fiction out there that's comparable in the abstract.

If they are really, truly, honest to god disconnected from all those, and still stumped...I'd probably give up.

It's "Buffy" in text format. ("Dawn's in trouble. Must be Tuesday.")

Though as was pointed out, you can substitute in better comparisons depending on who you're talking to. Still, when I first started writing in the style (late 90s?), my influences were "Buffy"/"Farscape"/"Babylon 5", along with anime, which I think was somewhat ahead of it's time in terms of an ongoing TV storyline (versus more of a "reset" week to week). When I later came up with the personified math, the influence had shifted more to webcomics. (Also, "Buffy" had become a comic...) It was only after spending years in the format that someone pointed out it was a serial, and my jaw hit the floor as I realized I didn't have to call it my "weekly text webcomic-style series" any more.

I wonder, maybe it would be better to ask them what they think a serial is, and correct any misunderstandings?

@BillyH: Thanks for the targeting! I'm in the dark places lately, that keeps my spirits up.

MBT , must be tuesday. sounds like the name of a serial, lol.

A larger story, published in smaller parts.

I may be a bit spoiled though, when I was 10, the local used bookstore recieved in about 30 years worth of sci fi magazines, and they bundled them up, 5 for a buck. so i had a MASSIVE library of them, full of serials.

The old radio shows might be a better comparison, they were called serials as well.

I noticed some people define web serials as a series of loosely connected installments that can stand on their own, kind of like Wonder City stories. They're puzzled by the concept of serialized novels with chapters that build on each other.

"An ongoing story told in regular* updates."

@Chrysalis - I'm asking because I was at a writing mixer last night, and the number of people I seemed to baffle with, "It's the same as any other novel, but you're publishing each chapter on some kind of schedule. They're all a part of the same story - so it's like a TV show, where each episode has its little plot for that forty minutes, and that's part of the season's plot, and that's part of the show's overall plot."

And then the questions just kept coming. I feel like I should've just stopped at the first sentence.

I usually just say that it's an ongoing story with new updates every week (when talking about my own serial). That's usually enough for people to get the idea. I'll only go into more detail if they ask, and if they do, yay! I get to talk about my serial. :D