Serialized fiction is a complicated thing to try to explain to the uninitiated. There are those who see the influx of "Serials" in the new self-publishing boom as authors trying to milk money out of readers by just chopping up chapters and scenes from a longer novel and publishing them separately.
While it is true that there are unscrupulous people who may do that, authentic serialized fiction is its own writing form and has existed for centuries. The format itself has had ups and downs, gaining and losing popularity, but it seems to be making a come back (and I'm excited about it!)
What is a Serial?
Much like episodes of a television series, which adopted the serialized format and made it shine in its own way, serialized fiction episodes are usually shorter (short-story, novelette or novella-length) and released in short intervals (once per week / every two weeks / once per month etc.) They can span for years if the serial is popular and the author or publisher can continue coming up with content. For an easy comparison, think watching your favorite television show - a one hour episode, playing once per week for a few months until the season is complete. The individual episode will have its own story arc and plot but will likely end on a cliffhanger and the overall story-line for the season will continue the following week with a new episode. Serialized fiction is meant to be consumed in the same fashion. There is usually a longer story-arc connecting the individual episodes that are arranged in "Seasons" (just like T.V.) Though authors may use different terminology (Parts, Episodes, Installments, Seasons, Arcs etc) the format is basically the same.
Another feature of the serial is the use of cliffhangers, pulling the reader through the season by building anticipation for the next installment. Not all authors use cliffhangers for their serials, but many do. Traditionally, serials were published in newspapers and magazines, the readers following along with great enthusiasm from one week to the next. Cliffhangers would leave the reader wanting more, ensuring that they'd come back for the subsequent episode to find out what happens next.
Some History About Serialized Fiction:
Serialized fiction became extremely popular during the Victorian Era and you'd be surprised how many famous works were originally published as serials, Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers are just a few famous examples. With the invention of television, the serialized format in writing became less popular in the twentieth century, resurfacing with the rise of the internet and writers began putting out serials online. This, along with the self-publishing boom of the past few years, has led to a new interest in the serialized format from both writers and readers.
One of my favorite things about serialized fiction is that releasing in installments over an extended period of time gives both the readers and the author a chance to interact during the wait between releases. Excited readers will often chime in about the story, the characters, their hopes for the outcome... and oftentimes the author will incorporate the readers' reactions into their work. It's a bit more co-operative than writing a novel, which is finished and complete for reader consumption before the reader even lays eyes on it.
Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes
Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities
Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo (two of my favorites!)
Stephen King's The Plant
Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina
Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road
Orson Scott Card serialized his out–of–print novel, Hot Sleep
(Originally posted on my Wicked Red Serials Blog in 2015.)