SUSPENSE, SERIALIZATION, AND THE SHORT STORY

Five years ago I posted on the topic of serialization on EQMM’s webpage forum. I continue to be asked, often, whether EQMM serializes novels or novelettes. My position has always been that any piece we publish must be sufficiently self-contained to leave readers who will never see the next installment with the sense that they’ve read a complete work of fiction. When a magazine is published monthly, rather than weekly, it’s important, I think, not to leave even those readers you know will be with you by the time of the next issue in too much suspense. A month is a long time to wait if you’re on the edge of your seat, and elements of a continuing story can easily be forgotten in a month’s time.

In the years since I gave that explanation, however, a lot has changed in the wider entertainment industry. Increasingly, television series are being presented not in episodes that can each stand alone but with continuing story lines. In a genre such as the family saga, this makes perfect sense. It’s not terribly hard to remember the circumstances necessary to follow the continuing storylines of such shows, and the long-term conflicts and entanglements of the characters are what the fun is all about. With a mystery the situation is different, for a mystery, almost by definition, must have a complex plot. That’s why I was so surprised to discover that a hallmark of the TV series Longmire is that the solutions to murder mysteries are left unresolved not only from episode to episode but from season to season. Though a solution to the murder of Walt Longmire’s wife was finally arrived at after a couple of seasons or more (I’ve forgotten now exactly when), the last season available on Netflix (Season 4) ends with yet another murder, this one at a construction site, still not fully resolved. Although I like the characters and the setting of this series a lot, I find that aspect of it less than satisfying. I’m certain I will not recall the circumstances of that murder by the time the next season becomes available (and I probably won’t care by then), and I would not want EQMM’s readers to become apathetic over so extended a cliffhanger in something we published. That said, I realize that when it comes to television series, many people now consume them in marathon viewings of several seasons together—in which case it may actually add to the excitement to have lots of carry-over between episodes and seasons.

There are many in the entertainment business who don’t at all share my objections to making readers or viewers wait long periods for the resolution of a story. Maybe that’s partly because, even looking way back at the history of fiction serialization, there’s evidence of people’s willingness to wait. The English magazine Cornhill began monthly publication in 1860 with an issue that sold a reputed 110,000 copies—a phenomenal amount if you consider the population at the time. Like the weeklies that began to appear around the same time—Household Words and All the Year Round, for instance—Cornhill’s fiction consisted mostly of serialized novels. I’m no expert on the history of magazine fiction, but it doesn’t surprise me that novels were the meat of these early fiction periodicals, since the modern novel predates the modern short story, which was only beginning to come into its own in the mid 1800s.

Readers of those early fiction magazines seem to have hung on the next installment of the novels serialized in them, often lining up to get copies. The top writers of the day—Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Dickens—all filled editorial positions with the publications for which they wrote, and were well aware of what their readership wanted. When you read a Dickens novel you can see the mark magazine publication left on the work in the way so many of the chapters begin by reminding the reader of where the characters were last seen.

So, long-continuing story lines, stretched out in publication over time—the serialization of whole novels, for instance—can work. But it’s also true that some of those early magazines that were so successful in serializing novels eventually shifted over to the emerging short story form. Ladies’ Companion, which published Poe’s short story “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (albeit in three installments), and Graham’s Magazine, with which Poe was even more closely associated, are examples of publications that serialized novels but also relied increasingly on the work of short-story writers.

I think the short story works a lot better in magazine format than the novel, and I suspect that most current editors would agree with me—since most contemporary fiction magazines rely almost exclusively on short stories rather than long fiction. The short story seems to me the ideal sort of reading for a publication that can be slipped into a pocket or handbag. Portability and the short story go together. It’s no accident that magazines such as the original Strand, which published so many of the first great short stories in our genre in the 1890s, flourished along with the newly booming commuter traffic by railroad.

But of course, the extraordinary revolution in publishing over the past couple of decades is changing the landscape yet again. Electronic reading devices have already somewhat softened my resistance to serialization in a monthly magazine such as ours, because now that readers have the ability to archive lots of back issues of a magazine on a tiny device, they can easily refer back to previous installments.

I have a final objection to serialization that can’t be eliminated so easily, however, and that is that there are few enough places for the short story to find a home as it is, without precious magazine space being given over to the novel—which already dominates the literary scene. I also believe that our readers come to us precisely because they love the short story, and the unique experience of reading something that can be comprehended in a single sitting. Poe thought one of the most important characteristics of a short story was the singular impression it can make on the mind—and that its ability to do so was tied to its being read without a break.

What do you think—as readers, writers, or editors—of novel serialization in magazines?—Janet Hutchings

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9 Responses to SUSPENSE, SERIALIZATION, AND THE SHORT STORY

  1. Tom Carpenter says:

    I concur with your final objection. It would be a shame to reduce the opportunities for readers to enjoy short fiction.

  2. Josh says:

    I agree with you, Janet. I read a lot of novels — but, whenever I want to do so, I buy one or check it out of the library. I don’t want to have to wait a month for the next installment or months and months to find out how it ends. And specific to those few magazines which offer writers a market for short fiction and readers an opportunity to slake their thirst for it, I’d be disappointed to see a part of the limited available page count turned over to pieces of a novel.

  3. Art Taylor says:

    I agree with the points here, Janet—and appreciate both the historical aspect of this and the contemporary comparisons to TV shows. And I agree too, as others have, with the final concern about devoting space issue after issue to one writer’s extend storyline at the potential expense of other writers’ individual stories. That said, I do think it’s interesting and useful how often EQMM and AHMM both have run stories that constitute loose series of storylines: writers with recurring characters who pop up from time to time—too many to mention here, but for an obvious point of reference look at Ed Hoch’s various series characters. Few of these series, taken together, would form a novel. (I wrote about the novel-in-stories versus the story collection earlier on the blog, of course, and thank you again, Janet.) But there’s continuity there of some kind—a return to familiar territory and an interest in those characters—not as programmatic as issue after issues, and not as problematic either. In short, I appreciate how you balance many aspects of this question.

  4. rkoreto says:

    I like the focus on short fiction, and month by month is a long time to wait for Part 2. But I very much like seeing the same characters again in self-contained short stories.

  5. JJ says:

    It’s interesting to reflect that the Strand was considered something of a firebrand breaking the ranks when they opted not to publish serialised stories, and yet the sudden explosion of the popoularity of charatcers like Holmes shows how smart a move this was. The difficulty comes now in the fact that the risk for disappointment increases — at least a disappointing one-shot is over and done with, but dragging out the agony can often be counter-productive (as many TV series find!). And who’s to say people won’t get bored waiting several weeks to complete something that may not be worth that much investment? Sting them once too often on something like that and you’re alienating your market.

    It’s a shame in a way, because it removes the fun that was had over things like the guessing-game surrounding Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery, even though most of the middle chapters prove to be redundant. There is a great history of this kind of thing in all sorts of genres, undoubtedly, but the payoff with crime is so much more important that you can’t help but feel these middle-duration forms no longer have the audience they did. And in a way this raises another issue: if you have a story that is told perfectly in 20,000 words, do you shorten it to a one-shot and lose some of the brilliance, or pad it up to a novel and sacrifice some of its intent and focus? It’s probably not the biggest problem in the world, but where do these stories go?

  6. V.S. Kemanis says:

    I have such a deep love for the short story, as a writer and a reader, that I greatly appreciate EQMM and other magazines devoted to this art form, especially since the markets have dwindled over the years. For a writer, it’s an exciting challenge to work with precision, to make every word count, and for a reader, it’s satisfying to get lost in a story for 30 or 60 minutes and come out of it with a complete experience. I have a romantic notion that the days of Dickens must have been pretty exciting, anxiously waiting for the next installment. Today, however, for my money, I’d prefer to read stories in a magazine and novels in book or e-book format. Thank you for this post, Janet.

  7. pauldmarks says:

    I agree with you, Janet. And though serialization has a long and honored history, I think when one’s reading something in Ellery Queen they want to have it come to a conclusion. I also agree that waiting a month for the next installment is too long, despite the arguments about the TV shows. And re: what Art says about recurring characters, I think that works fine when each story is self-contained. We might want to spend more time with those characters, but I think it works better in that context than as a continuation of one story over several issues.

  8. Thanks for these interesting replies! Series characters have been a staple of EQMM since the very beginning—think not only of the Ellery Queen characters but of the many series characters of Edward D. Hoch and innumerable other EQMM contributors. But though the stories of the personal lives of these characters may develop over the course of many years (think of Hoch’s Dr. Sam Hawthorne, his town’s most eligible bachelor, finally getting married!) the mystery/crime element of each story is almost always entirely contained within that story. That is true even of the intricately connected stories by Art Taylor that eventually formed his novel-in-stories.

    As regards JJ’s comment about the lack of markets for novellas, I agree that it’s a shame there are not more publications specializing in that form. EQMM does sometimes accept stories up to 20,000 words, however. And our three sister publications (AHMM, Asimov’s, and Analog) are, I believe, even more receptive to this length than we are. The real problem comes with works that are short of the 60,000 or so minimum that’s required for a novel and over the 20,000 that tends to be the maximum for short fiction. The best option for such works may be electronic publication.

    Thanks for your feedback!!

    Janet

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