Around twelve years ago, I picked up the first three Harry Potter novels and devoured them. It was Prisoner of Azkaban that stuck with me the most, and I spent a lot of time after I was done reading thinking about the details and mysteries revealed in that book. What else did I have to do? There were no more books to read, after all.
Around ten years ago I picked up the Wheel of Time and read everything that had been published up to that point. I enjoyed it, and I picked up each new book enthusiastically. And when I was done, I had vague, positive memories and no ability to distinguish between the storylines of the different books.
There’s something magical about a series of stories. Nothing earns obsessive love like an unfinished arc story. I have theories about that!
But first, a tangent!
At one point, long ago, I read somebody wise discussing why audiences bonded with mysterious male characters.* We had to work to understand them, their motivations, secrets and histories, and the more work we invested in a character, the more we cared. I took notes!
This was an interesting tip!
I think the same thing is true of serials. And series novels. (Let me know when ‘series’ doesn’t look like a word anymore. I think I’m already there.)
An enforced break between parts of a story means the audience spends time thinking about the story. They invest themselves in it. They care. They really want to get more! (And in some cases if they can’t get more on a timely fashion, they make more.)
This is awesome.
One of my favorite authors only ever writes standalone novels. I love her stuff with a passion, but after I read it, I’m done. I don’t spend time thinking about her next book because I have nothing to think about. Another book will come out. It will be good. It will probably have an awesome Kinuko Craft cover. That’s all I know.
Another of my favorite authors has written 35 books in the same setting. Each book is a discrete story, but the characters evolve and grow over time. I’ve spent some time anticipating the direction of the character growth, but I don’t really know what direction the setting is ultimately going, only where it’s been.
Even though I’ve spent a lot more time rereading Discworld books than I have Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire books, I’ve spent far more non-book time thinking about the latter two series. I suspected Snape was motivated by love by the end of Azkaban and I knew it by the end of Goblet of Fire. And just ask me about R+L=J and Sansa and the Hound in ASoIaF sometime. (Have not read Dance with Dragons yet, no.)
A well-written story with sequel hooks and mysteries will grab my mind and not let go for days.
I don’t think it matters if it’s a serial or a series.
Wait, you want to know the difference?
Can you remember what happens in each book, where it begins and ends for each character? Or is the whole story a mass of events, perhaps chronologically ordered?
Discworld is entirely a series. Harry Potter is a series, until the last couple of books where it develops a serial flavor. ASoIaF and The Wheel of Time (which I haven’t read since my binge a decade ago) are decidedly more serial. Classic serials also show up in newspapers and daytime television, media that lend themselves to an endless exploration of a setting and the lives of a set of characters. Of course, the other sorts show up on TV enough but I don’t really watch enough TV to have any idea what’s what these days. Somebody can help out in the comments, maybe.
I’ve encountered a number of people who believe that there’s a fundamental difference between serial fiction and serialized novels. This has both interested me and made me knit my brow together. My observational experience is that while, certainly, the feel of a soap opera and the feel of Harry Potter are different, they both prompt audiences to say, when they get together, “How about that last story, eh? What do you think will happen next?”
Maybe I’m too focused on potential audience investment, and not enough on that feel? But for my own purposes, I don’t think it matters whether something is serial fiction or a serialized novel or a set of serial novels.
Still, it seems to be important to some other writers, and one day if I work hard, I’ll understand why.
* I think the actual discussion involved a double standard regarding reserved male and female characters, and probably came from Neil Gaiman or one of his fans in association with the reaction to various characters in Neverwhere. But I’m almost certain the aspect I mentioned above also came out of it.