I’ve been hearing a lot of talk over the last few months about how serial stories and short stories are radically changing the face of modern publishing. Both forms are so innovative and are just what our short-attention-span society needs right now.
Really? That’s so cute.
But here’s the first problem with that claim: The first short stories were published around the turn of the nineteenth century, and the form had been present before that as the main vehicle for the oral tradition. With the advent and popularization of the magazine, short stories found a home among Victorian middle class readers. These published stories were originally folksy or literary in nature, but soon detective and mystery stories caught on, leading to the serial story.
That’s actually the second problem. By the 1830’s, serial stories were becoming a regular occurrence in magazines. Inspired by the Arabian fairy tale Scheherazade, novelists realized they could build up suspense and readership by releasing one chapter at a time through the magazines. When moving pictures came along, they adopted that serial/episodic structure in releasing early pictures. Then when television came on the scene, some shows adopted that same serial/episodic structure that moviegoers were already familiar with. We still see this today in televised series, regardless of their platform.
What this means for publishing is that everyone should be looking to writing sites like the various fan fiction and original fiction sites for guidance, as they have helped keep the model in common use (even when the platform doesn’t support serial stories. I’m looking at you, deviantArt.). Because what we’re experiencing as these shorter serial stories gain ground is a return to an older, successful publishing model. And it’s not a return to existence so much as it is a return to mainstream publishing.