Serial Thriller

From literature to appointment television, episodic storytelling is flourishing.

Matt Dorfman

Before the arrival of the 40th and final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, in 1841, American readers of the series were forced to wait. And wait. And wait—not just for Charles Dickens to finish his story, but for his completed work to cross the Atlantic. When the ship bearing the resolution of the series finally docked in New York, a mob desperate to learn the fate of the tale’s protagonist, Little Nell, stormed the wharf. The ensuing scene would make a modern-day publisher swoon: a band of readers passionately demanding to learn how the story ends.

The Old Curiosity Shop owed its narrative power not just to the genius of Dickens but also to a certain type of ending: the cliffhanger. In this, the story was akin to Great Expectations and Anna Karenina and Heart of Darkness and the many other works of the time that began their lives as installments in periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly. That wave of serialized fiction was the product of particular historical forces, among them rising literacy rates, industrial advances in printing, and periodicals’ need to sustain reader interest over time. But it was the product of something else, too, something less technologically contingent and more human: the anticipatory pleasure that can come from the simple act of waiting.

The best evidence for this is that, in a plot turn Dickens himself might have appreciated, serialization is enjoying a renaissance, at what would seem to be a most unlikely moment. The Internet, with its ability to give us pretty much any content we want, pretty much any second we want it, ought to have made waiting—for entertainment, at least—obsolete. But that same Internet is also helping revive the serial form. At the same time, television, in so many ways the legatee of periodical literature, is enjoying a new golden age, with shows like Homeland and Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey challenging cinema for cultural supremacy. And book publishers, in an even more overt nod to Dickens, are establishing new platforms devoted explicitly to serialization.

Take Plympton. The digital publishing house, which promises “serialized stories for the future of reading,” launched in 2012 with help from Amazon and from the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. Plympton promptly raised nearly double its Kickstarter funding target, and is now producing tablet-targeted works of fiction and selling them through Amazon. Amazon, meanwhile, is offering Plympton’s stories in conjunction with its own venture, Kindle Serials, which it describes as “stories published in episodes.” St. Martin’s Griffin has also been experimenting with serialized e‑books, promoting them as “a cross between a novel and a dramatic television series.” And the digital publisher Byliner recently announced Byliner Serials, signing Margaret Atwood as one of the series’ first authors.

The Internet, with its ability to give us any content we want, any second we want it, ought to have made waiting for entertainment obsolete. But that same Internet is also reviving serial storytelling.

We don’t know yet how these experiments will fare, critically or commercially: they are young upstarts. But they can look for guidance to television—the form that has, by technological fiat, pretty much perfected serial storytelling. The Mad Mens of the world are remarkable not just for their writing and their exacting production values, but also for having perfected the cliffhanger ending: that inconclusive conclusion that fully exploits the agony of time-bound suspense, leaving you thinking and wondering and waiting and wanting … until next week.

The cliffhanger has an obvious narrative value, but it also has a significant social one. And this is part of the debt television now owes to the Internet: services like Facebook and Twitter and their counterparts—not to mention couch-friendly devices like smartphones and tablets—make watching television an increasingly collaborative experience. Trendrr.TV, which tracks TV viewers’ use of social media, reports a whopping 800 percent growth in commentary about first-run TV shows from 2011 to 2012. Social viewing rewards synchronicity: it’s much more fun to tweet about True Blood when your friends are tweeting about it at the same time. Even with our ability to watch a show after it’s aired, using DVRs or online streaming, 43 percent of all time-shifted viewing still occurs on the day of a show’s original broadcast—suggesting once more that, whatever flexibility technology allows, we still prefer to consume our stories as a group.

Why, though? Why choose to be constrained by programming schedules when so much digital life can be lived on demand, shifted to fit our needs rightthisminute? Part of it, certainly, is social: simultaneous viewing gives us something to talk about. Schedules are one of the compromises we make for community.

But here’s another theory: we sometimes choose delay over immediacy—and small portions over all-you-can-eat binges—because episodes bring order to our lives. A world that used to be organized by shared blocks of time (the 9-to-5 workday, the workweek, the dinner hour) has become much more fluid, and much more chaotic. The content that was once delivered to us in the tidy containers of newspapers and magazines and, yes, books and TV shows now comes in feeds and flows and occasionally floods—a sea of stuff with no obvious beginning, no obvious ending.

Serialization, the narrative form that relies on—that guarantees—endings, offers some refuge from all that. We may have the capacity to watch an entire TV series in one sitting, to download an obscure book with the click of a button, to otherwise swim in the Internet’s churn. But those who are reviving the serial form are embracing the value of the one thing the digital world doesn’t provide on its own: limits.