Thursday, 15 August 2013

Black Library Serialised Novels - Basic Errors And How To Avoid Them

If you're a frequent visitor to the site, you might have noticed that among the several dozen Black Library books reviewed each month was Scars. The latest book in the long running Horus Heresy series, and the latest indication of a move towards an endgame at Terra, Black Library opted to take a new approach with the book. Rather than releasing it as a whole piece, it was being broken up into serialised chapters and sold off in separate bits. This is something the company has done before, usually in the now defunct Hammer and Bolter, but it's never been able to quite get it right. Authors seem to keep writing full novels only to have them broken up and drip fed to readers, with no bit really working on its own.

The mistake of not having novels written to suit a serialised format is a mistake which keeps being made, and while Scars: Episode II made a few steps in the right direction it's showing a lot of the same problems. Half the point of this site is analysing flaws and bringing up alternative improvements to works, so let's take a look into what might make a multi-part novel work.

The first thing to do is to make a narrative which is better suited to individual episodes of events. While chapters might help to break up a story many are written so they work best when they're put together. There's no individual focus or three act structure to them, and while many have memorable conclusions which make you want to see what happens next they give little individual closure. How the serialised episodes juggle plotlines is also a big problem, as they seem to be crammed in wherever possible. Not balanced or placed where necessary so much as briefly focused upon then pushed to one side. The episodes would be more effective if they were given mini-arcs to carry out or parts of a larger tale which served as stories in of themselves. Breaking up such sections between characters and more evenly breaking them up between one another. 

Of course, doing this would require far more pages and more time to balance out events which brings us onto the next problem: Page length.

The first episode of the Scars novella was seventeen pages. The second episode was twenty-one. While Episode I managed to pull off what the series needed with a visible act structure and conclusion to its events, it was only thanks to its very narrow focus. There was no longrunning series of events it was having to deal with nor even a moderate number of characters who required exploration and their own stories. Hence when Episode II introduced (and reintroduced) a multitude of new characters, and tried to kick off much a much larger series of events it simply didn't have the space to do them justice. There was no real structure to things, just a series of brief beginnings to stories, many of which never went anywhere.

To actually serve as a proper episode they would need twice the page length and be reworked to feel more like stories in of themselves to a degree. There are ultimately two ways this could be done, firstly through giving them three act structures as suggested or through simply ignoring a large overarching story entirely. Many stories best suited to an episodic format and being released individually are those which consist of loosely connected individual tales. Those with some degree of continuity, but largely serving as stories in of themselves. The original Trollslayer book from the Gotrek and Felix series and Iron Snakes book are two major examples of this. Certain aspects and details would carry from story to story, such as Felix gaining his now iconic blade or the fates of certain astartes in the squad, but would serve as individual minor tales.

Whether or not Black Library will actually consider improving the quality of serialised stories remains to be seen, but the company and authors need to realise they cannot simply take the same approach to them as they would standard novels. Or break them up into twelve pieces to try and make more money than they would with collector's edition books. 

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