Web Serial Openings

Recently I've been thinking about web serials openings. In a number of ways they're similar to books: you want to grab the reader's attention at the beginning, you want to set the tone of the work, etc.

But I'm also wondering how they're different. You know, how the nature of web serials changes the purpose of an opening. My thoughts aren't concrete enough to write something resembling an essay, but I thought I'd list a couple of ideas here and see what others thought. Of course they're debatable. I actually want them to be debated, just to get a dialogue going.

Here are the ideas:

1. Web serials tend to have a steep learning curve. This'll change as the years go by, but right now most of us aren't particularly experienced. There are some vets at this point, but how many authors here have been writing serials for more than a decade? Because of this authorial inexperience, the writing in any given serial tends to get better as more posts accrue. This makes the first post one of the most poorly written. (Which isn't to say that it IS poorly written, but merely that the later posts tend to be BETTER written.)

2. Web serial audiences are more patient. I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I think people are willing to forgive a weak opening in web serials more than in books. It's true that when someone's online there are a million places they can leave your website for, but there's a reason they clicked a link to your serial in the first place. They're willing to forgive a somewhat gangly opening chapter, because they don't have to pay for it.

3. It may not be the best thing to establish a fast pace for your web serial. Yeah, you want to establish characters and have them do interesting things as soon as possible, but if you develop too much too quickly, you may not have anywhere to go forty or fifty posts down the line. And anywhere you do go might be a bit of a letdown from the breathless pace of your early chapters.

Curious to see what everyone else thinks.

1. God yes. I was thinking about this a lot before our launch last month. Trying to make the opening tight, but knowing that the story won't come into its own until we find our groove in later chapters. Writing everything and waiting to publish when it's all done is an option. But maybe not so much for serials that will have a long run. It's nice to have a month or two of chapters written in advance, but that doesn't always happen because LIFE.

I've noticed this in webcomics, too. For example, in Gunnerkrigg Court, you can see a clear improvement/change in Tom's art style as the story progresses. Even the writing changes.

2. I agree with you that a person who normally goes out seeking a web serial generally knows what they're in for. They probably started out reading fanfiction before web serials and are already indoctrinated into that mindset. And it's not much different from following a TV series. Someone from the general public who is not a part of that kind of fandom? I don't know for sure, yet.

3. It's hard to judge what's 'too fast' or 'too slow' for readers without a team of editors. And even then, it may be a matter of individual preference. Playing your cards close to your chest and gaining momentum for a massive arch (George R.R. Martin is notorious for this) is something that I personally enjoy as a reader and writer.

But hey, serial fiction has been around forever. Dickens and Doyle made their bread and butter on serial fiction and it's starting to make a comeback, trend wise, in our modern society. So who knows what will change.

I don't really have much of a "debate" to bring here because I think these seem to be pretty sensible observations.

Number #3 though I thought about a lot myself before starting. I try to take characters interesting places every arc, but I'm in for the long haul on a pretty big story so I have to be careful not to burn through my entire hand of character arc stuff too quickly.

As far as the overarching plot is concerned I've got a hell of a lot of events planned, it's a gigantic war, so there's no shortage of overarching plot and physical events. But I have been hearing some comments lately to the effect that the second arc had way more intense stuff than the current one. Which is the nature of big urban conflict vs a much smaller fight in the current arc. The Second Arc was about a huge defensive battle with trenches and killzones; the current one is about small unit tank operations.

And it's not really my intention to constantly escalate the *size* of the battles each passing arc, but to show *different* stuff. But I think people have the idea that the story is meant to constantly get bigger and crazier with every arc and that's not exactly what I want to do but it seems to be what people want to read? And I'm not entirely sure how to handle that.

I think a lot of the standard advice for openings of stories applies to serials: start strong, raise questions, 'hook' your readers, and set expectations.

I think #1 is right: writers get better as they go along. This is natural, and serials are different from other forms because we don't tend to go back and edit earlier stuff on the live site. However, I don't think this is a problem; readers tend to understand, and trying to write the perfect opening is a dangerous endeavour. Some novel writers I know never get past the first chapter for exactly that reason. Embrace the notion of 'good enough'. If, at any point, you think that the opening is too weak for the story, you can always go back and fix it.

As far as setting up too fast of a pace goes, it's generally a good idea to vary your pace somewhat anyway, so don't think that starting with a mile-a-minute action scene means you have to gallop through your story. Set up variations in pace early in the serial and your audience will come along. If you run out of story within 50 posts (and you were hoping for more), then you need more story. :) Throw more stuff in as you go.

For me, the challenge was always how to start strong, because I write blogfics and have to write in chronological order. No flashforward/back for me! But that's all part of the fun and challenge. It's a learning process, and I think that my second serial (Starwalker) started a lot stronger than my first (Apocalypse Blog).

After you have enough of an archive built up, I think the impact of your opening lessens. For better or worse, readers start to look past it based on what they hear is happening farther down the road. They come for Plot Point F, so they'll put up with A to E much more easily than mot. I mean, you still have to entertain them, but if they keep feeling entertained to turn the page, eventually their overall opinion will average out. Our goal is to make sure that average overshadows the single thought towards the first chapter. You know, like that messy episode of Friends. :)

I think of serials the same way, Tarta! Pilot episodes tend to be a bit of a mess because you're still trying to figure out what you're working with and where you're going. I think the same thing can happen in web serials. At least it did with mine. I don't think I really figured out what I was doing until my fourth or fifth chapter. And when I go back and look at those sections I cringe because some of the writing is just not good.

For my own peace of mind, I extended this TV/web serial comparison to editing. TV shows don't go back and re-film episodes just like we don't go back and do substantial editing (mainly because, I think, we're all just trying to meet our posting deadlines). This means that some chapters are going to be better than others just like some TV episodes are better than others. This has helped me embrace the "good enough" notion that you mentioned, Kess. If I hadn't started thinking of serials in this way, I'd never post anything. :)

Yup, E_Foster! While we should strive for 'good', we've got to be wary of 'perfect'. :) I wrote a post about this a little while back, with visual aids! http://writer.apocalypseblog.com/random-writing-tip-10-perfection-is-the-enemy/

I don't think there's anything wrong with striving to make it perfect. I know, I know - nobody is and you'll never finish if you get hung up on it, but I think once you establish it as 'the most perfect you can make it on your own', you're leaving the reader better off and making your life easier for editing later.

I'm trusting you guys to note the difference between that and never, ever accepting that your writing is good enough ever. My version is about writing to the max of your abilities, accepting where that max is, working to improve that max over time, but ultimately realizing that there isn't some magical line of standards to cross. The bad way, you damned but fellow procrastinators, is forever trying to cross the magical line. But you never do, so your writing dies.


I completely see what you're saying, Tarta. And that is what I was trying to say (albeit very poorly). :) I try to make every chapter as good as I can make it myself, and I post knowing that it is flawed anyway. And, over the long haul, I am trying to get much, much better as a writer.

And speaking of procrastination... Prior to starting this new web serial, I hadn't written in years because I was so afraid that I simply wasn't good enough. Even before that, I couldn't finish anything because it was never perfected. So, I've really, really had to re-evaulate the way I think about writing. The conclusion I came to was very similar to what you wrote about in your blog post, Kess. I realized that my chapters will be good enough (or as good as I can make them at the time), and I always have the option of going back later and making them better.

A lot of people have in the past, told me explicitly that my openings are too weak. Though I do agree with you, I don't think that openings are the game changer. Once someone actually decides to read your serial, they are most likely going to read it (the first chapter). If your chapter is short, then they will continue for a bit and then see if they wish to continue. Some people are picky, and they will stop reading after either 1 sentence, 1 paragraph or 1 chapter. They may come back, they might not.

I think writing well, and going for a target audience is what brings a crowd. Once you try to target everyone's preference you start becoming like those Urban Fiction Young Adult book writers.

Now to address each of your points.

1. I don't think the first chapter is "poorly written", it may just be that the author has no conceptual idea of the world yet. For example, I'm in my third story that I am writing, and I didn't publish the first two because of...many reasons. Now. The point is, that the first chapter may be written bad because the author can't grasp the story yet. A way that I personally solved this was to plan your steps, and even then, you will struggle with the world. I start to put in things that I didn't plan, and it helped the story a lot. I can keep talking about this for hours, but I'll just leave it as that.

2. I'm not sure if everyone is patient. It really depends on your audience, the way you present the serial and how well your story is written. Writing well vs. just writing for the sake of it, is a big difference. Some crowds don't like too descriptive text, but some do. Example: Worm is liked because its descriptive, but not repetitive. Some authors, keep writing and writing about things that has already been mentioned.

3. Momentum is a HUGE key in writing a story. I think, well personally that writing a steady paced story is whats best. I think I enjoy the story more when they are in depth but not slow. I think the walking dead comic is an example of how SLOW i would want any story to be. Anything slower is just dry. And I think being too fast paced isn't a good idea. I dunno, I'm just saying the same thing now, aren't I?

I'm sure what I wrote may not align with everyone's thoughts, and that's alright. Everyone has their own opinion.

Tartra and E_Foster - I agree; I wasn't saying that we shouldn't try to make our writing as good as it can be. Perfection is the unicorn we're all chasing, as any 'good' writer is always striving to be better (in my opinion).

The key is to recognise that it /is/ a unicorn (and therefore impossible), we're never going to catch it, and at some point we're going to have to be more realistic or we won't get anywhere. That doesn't mean the chase isn't worth it, or that we shouldn't try again next time. It's all about not getting stuck, but moving forward.

The "serials as TV shows" is, I think, a natural link given the latest shift to more serialized storytelling. Possibly even a stronger link than to a book. What I now consider to be my first serial I began in 2000... as a 22 episode TV show. (Hm, does that mean I've been at this for more than a decade? Eh, not really, since I wasn't writing those to a deadline... I didn't finish the second season until 2009.) My tendency is not to overload my first "pilot" episode though. In fact all 3 of my primary serials have started with a very small group (2 or 3 people), the world gradually filling out around them as the writing continues. I'm very much a character writer (and probably an acquired taste).

Regarding the points:

1. The more you do anything, the better you'll get at it. Seems obvious, but you're right that people may not consider it with serials. Even so, poorly written or well written, at the start the style is likely there, and (aside from genre, which is probably what drew someone to the story in the first place) that's what's liable to make someone stick around. Honestly, if I started with a huge action scene, that might be false advertising.

2. I can see that. Though it's relative, some people can be impatient waiting for the next update. ;)

3. The very idea that "you may not have anywhere to go forty or fifty posts down the line" is completely foreign to me... perhaps because I don't start with guns blazing? It's certainly possible that I am dry and slow. But I think it goes more to the universe you end up in. Every character within it has a story. I could have seen myself continuing both serials I don't currently update... indefinitely. The only reason I didn't is because of time, and lack of reader engagement.

Thanks for all the interesting responses. It's good food for thought.

I guess my perspective is different in that I tend to focus on openings? So really the three points I was making were areas where I felt the general web serial audience approached things differently than I did.

If I were to rewrite my three points from a personal perspective, I would say that (1) I tend to spend a lot of time writing and rewriting openings, so I worry that the later posts pale in comparison (2) I tend to be pretty picky when it comes to openings, so if an opening is boring or error-filled I'm likely to click away, and (3) my new serial Future - Past starts with a very fast pace, and it's slowed down a little but not much, so I'm worried how much material I might have fifty posts down the line.

Deadbeatbooks, I only dipped my toes into the fan fiction world, but I'm so thankful it's there, because it makes original web fiction a much more doable proposition. I don't know how familiar you are with Wildbow's rise to semi-success, but it involved a fanfic author recommending him. I think that guy brought Wildbow hundreds (if not thousands) of readers.

Dennis, I think the serialized nature of web serials makes it difficult. If a serial is more episodic, you need less build-up because each story doesn't last THAT long. But if it's all one big story, then it feels like people want you to constantly get bigger and bigger. I wonder if the solution lies in Chris Claremont's X-Men, or Frank Miller's Daredevil. Those guys would do small, fun arcs in-between the huge ones, and that seemed to work pretty well.

Kess, blogfics are a cool idea, but they seem so hard to execute. Better you than me!

Tartra/E_Foster, yeah, I agree that perfection is completely unachievable. And sometimes I send out a chapter that I wish I had more time to polish. But when it comes to the first chapter, I want to have something that I'm really proud of, you know? In retrospect I might look back and see major flaws, but when I send it out I want it to feel perfect -- even if it's just for a moment. Like Tartra's saying, I want to write/edit it to the best of my abilities. :)

Mrouzbanian, I never know if I'm describing the right things. It's so strange -- creating this whole reality with words, creating this reality that other people can enter. Like, how is that even supposed to work? How do some readers ignore the words on the page and enter the world?

Mathans, I like the idea that you can update forever. I tend to create my stories as finite things, but the idea of something that can just sprawl forever has a perverse appeal. Like Kess said, if you run out of story, you just need to create more story. (I REALLY like that idea, by the way. So thanks, Kess.)

Personally, I'm tired of the trope in which the scope of conflict in fantasy/superhero/scifi scales up and up until it all ends up in the same place - Must Save the Multiverse from Teh Evil, or All Is Lost. Again. Sigh. I'd rather they took more original routes to coming up with new interesting conflicts and plot twists.

@Fiona: I loved the old Doctor Who shows (Tom Baker, Peter Davidson) because most of the stories were small. Something weird was going on locally and the Doctor mugged his way through. It was fun. With the current show, it's Save the Universe (or Save the Human Race) every episode. I find it unwatchable. I'll take smaller stories any day.

Fiona, I'm tired of it too and aim to avoid the whole 'save the world from evil' trope. The characters make fun of it, though. They've read all those comic books where good fights evil because... because!

Quoting a character: "They fight because some dude in spandex did it in some comic."

I'd like to read more stories where the world doesn't end, or it ends regardless of what anyone does and the characters are just people trying to survive rather than heroes chosen by destiny. Stories about little people and their sometimes failures that influence a greater whole.

Well I'm not tired of big stories yet. I just had a guy remove an entire island from existence (almost). It was fun.

I think if you're going to have a big story, you should also make it small. Which might be a dumb answer, but I just feel like the plot should reflect the character. If you get so huge that the individual characters don't matter anymore, you've run into a problem.

That said, my serial right now looks big but is mostly just about one person, so maybe I'm just biased.

The wonderful Jo Walton actually wrote a good Tor article about this a while back: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/12/not-saving-the-world-how-does-that-even-work

Thanks for posting that article, Billy Higgins. Very useful read.

Also - ubersoft, you had a guy remove an entire island? That sounds super fun and awesome. :)

BillyHiggins - I looooove writing blogfics (a ship's log is like a blog, right? ;) ). It does have its challenges, but I have fun with it. Just one format of so many, though!

And, you're welcome! Embrace your internal Bad Idea Bear; it can be so helpful. (Bad Idea Bear says: "What's the worst thing I could do to <person/thing> at this moment?" Then you do whatever seems most fun.)

Fiona - I am right with you there. The constant escalation is ridiculous; eventually you're going to hit a ceiling, and THEN what? Change the stakes, keep it fresh, but that doesn't have to mean make them higher. Different works too!

(This is how I ended up with kittens in space. It... wasn't an escalation, okay?)

I've always been a fan of the street-level stuff, rather than the cosmic level. Daredevil rather than the Avengers. Partly because the meeting of the super and the mundane interests me. (One day I'll get around to writing that superhero story.) That's why the Apocalypse Blog was about the ordinary people scraping through the aftermath, not how it happened or big world-shattering battles or trying to undo the fallout.

ubersoft - that does sound like fun. Big is good, too!