Series vs. Serials

What is the real difference between a series and a serial? Is one merely a subset of the other? Perhaps the difference is largely semantic. Or maybe the lines have blurred a bit.

I like to try to make the distinction that a series is a set of books with the same main character or characters, with each book representing a self-contained story. With a series, it doesn’t matter much whether you read the books in order. There is no over-arching story. Nothing carries from one book to the next. The characters may not even age. My favorite example of a series is the Doc Savage books.

I see a serial as a story told in several installments. There may be a single epic adventure playing out, or it may be merely the chronicles of one hero, or even a generational dynasty. A serial contains a story line that connects and weaves through the books. There is some risk of becoming confused, or at least not realizing the importance of a certain turn of events, if you read them out of order. Hunger Games, A Game of Thrones, and Twilight might fall into this category. With a serial, it’s not so much that you must read them in order, but there is at least a marginal utility in doing so. Even though each story may be self-contained, each is only part of a larger story.

But which is the smartest marketing strategy? Will you be better positioned with a reading audience who just can’t wait to find out what happens next, or fans who just want more? Either of those is pretty good, and if people like the characters or the premise in any one book of the set, they will likely return to buy the others.

Yet, even with a successful series or serial, there are risks. Sometimes, readers don’t want it to end, but it might have to. Or maybe the author gets sick of the character. By some accounts, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle despised his character, Sherlock Holmes, and wrote more only under duress. When an author is branded with a certain character, it may be challenging to break away and find enthusiasm for other projects, maybe even other genres.

How many Harry Potter fans did J.K. Rowling bring along when she published The Casual Vacancy? She had the huge advantage of name recognition, but she basically left her enormous fan base behind. I’m not going to call that brave, because she was doing it from the top of a mountain of money. That move, followed by her short-lived pseudonymous novel, make it seem as if she’s trying to discover something.

The critics panned The Casual Vacancy. One cannot help but wonder, if this had been her first book, would the Harry Potter serial ever have seen the light of day? Of course, Rowling can afford to muck around now, writing whatever pleases her. But what of those of us still laboring in obscurity? If we have a series or serial up our sleeves, do we lead with it, or save it until later? Are we prepared to be locked into it if that is all our readers ever want from us?

The series will at least provide an author endless opportunity to write the further adventures of a character. A serial must end at some point. Do we risk painting ourselves into a corner? Tell me what you think.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Series vs. Serials”

  1. “With a serial, it’s not so much that you must read them in order, but there is at least a marginal utility in doing so. Even though each story may be self-contained, each is only part of a larger story.” –

    Very helpful for me, thank you!

    “The series will at least provide an author endless opportunity to write the further adventures of a character. A serial must end at some point. Do we risk painting ourselves into a corner? Tell me what you think.” –

    This really got me think (the whole article really). Viewing my own fiction work, I use the same set of characters, occasionally emphasizing my or the other, and what I think I understand I have now, is a series, with several serial sequences within it.

    For example, Slumming in Paris (8 parts) is a serial which is part of the overall generational series.

    Anyway, I’d read a really good book re serials elsewhere, but this really helped with clarifications for my own work. Thanks again. 😉

  2. So, by this definition my trilogy is a serial, not a series. Hmmmmm. I had never given the distinction any thought. I don’t see the term serial used a lot, so I think many still say series when they may mean serial – as I did.

    1. Perhaps in the whole vast scheme of things, one is just a subset of the other, but there is some difference. Just something to think about.

  3. Thanks Stephen, this is very useful. I’ve struggled with whether I should refer to two of my novels as a series because they have different protagonists, albeit the story of the second one arises from the events of the first novel (and is set in the same town). There may well be another novel about the second character (I can’t seem to get him out of my head), but it seems a little premature to call it a series. You’ve made me realize that for now I should stick to the other ‘s’ word – a sequel!

  4. If you build up a fan base to like your writing style, most will give you the benefit of a doubt when you start a new project. By that point, they should love your voice as well. The difference with Rowling is that she drastically hopped genres–fantasy to mystery. If you stay within your same genre or a similar genre, your fans will most likely make the jump with you.

    1. I agree, Megan. As long as the author is writing in the same genre, the chance of a huge impact on the fan base is small. Great comment. Thanks. 🙂

  5. I have a hard time seeing Hunger Games as a serial. It’s just a linked series to me. Maybe because I’ve been very involved with serials and that whole writing/reading community.
    When I talk about “platforms” at conferences” I mention online serials as a great plank that none of the “experts” mention. There have been a lot of serials get published or even filmed in the last five years. Historically, serials have been a powerful channel ever since there have been newspapers. (A serial pretty much requires a regular published medium). Serials have a long history of serving as readership builders and literary kingmakers. Authors like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson took advantage of newspapers ability to deliver readers, which influenced the very shape and structure of the Victoria novel. “The Three Musketeers”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” “Madame Bovary”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, Sherlock Holmes, and “Bonfire of the Vanities” all appeared first in serial form. The Saturday Evening Post ran several major American fiction icons like “Tugboat Annie” in installments.
    These days you see them online, as podcasts, delivered by email, even “Twitterature”.
    But the main thing about them is continuing the story line through the appearance of new episodes.

    1. Lin, just leaving a comment so I’ll have another thread to this article and to your comment, you added a nice piece for some plans I’ve in mind up ahead. Thanks so much; great examples btw 😉

  6. Great post EM. As I was reading it, my mind immediately jumped to Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga? Silo Cycle? Each ‘omnibus’ of the over-arching serial came out in serialized ‘chunks’, blurring the lines even more. Perhaps we need new words to describe the many ways in which stories can now be delivered.

  7. Serials are episodic and usually employ cliff-hanger endings…this technique is aimed at having readers breathlessly anticipating the next part coming. This was used a lot in the early cinema as with “The Perils of Pauline,” and “Flash Gordon,” and even Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan,” was serialized.

    Robert Louis Stevenson’s work saw serialization, before he ever complied it into novel form. It was just the best way to reach readers…at a time when our kind of advanced communications was mere speculation and the stuff of dreams.

    Poe’s work was definitely serials in the papers; then later pulp fiction used this to great advantage for writers including H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

    Characters in a serial do not have to be repeated from part to part, but other things will tie the episodes together; a place like a town might be the one fixed focus by which the rest revolves around and interacts with each other.

    Of course many television shows are serial works.

    Stephen King used the serial format with the Green Mile, putting it out in six parts, all thin books separately. I remember there was some fans who were upset he did this, and even went so far as to say he did it just to reap more money from his fans. Most people prefer a full novel, and it’s like a cheat, to get it one slice at a time. That’s the sort of thing I’ve heard said, anyway.

    Series are books with a particular MC whose story is told over a number of books; more than one, of course. The settings can change, other characters, even time frame is variable; the one constant is the MC.

    Series can be contained in one book; a stand alone or it might spread out over 2 or more books, answering unresolved issues that were established in previous books, but that sense of an unfinished story isn’t as obvious in a series.

    Mysteries employ the series effect to illustrate a certain theme they wish to convey as with Lilian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” books. There’s a common thread that must be in every book that is consistent whether it’s book two or twenty-two. These elements never change.

    I don’t think I have ever heard anyone complain about cliff-hangers from reading a series…and that is actually the advantages series collections have over the episodic serials.

    1. Great comment and I think your argument holds up well when thinking of the distinctions between series and serials as they first appeared. I think they have evolved somewhat and the lines have blurred a bit. Now, they are not always, “Tune in next week!”

      Sometimes, the over-arching plot is the only thing unresolved between books and each “episode” resolves a smaller chunk of the overall story. So Voldemort, or the Horned King, or Moriarity escape and the “war” continues, even though the “battle” of the single episode is resolved.

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