Creating a Web Fiction Series – Episode Six: Word Limits and Episode Structure

So now that we’ve got a main character (kinda) and a cast/setting (sorta) it’s time to figure out how we’re going to format the series. Now, you might be thinking, “hey tiredhamster, shouldn’t you try to refine and deepen your ideas first so you have a strong foundation to work with?”

So anyway, there’s a number of ways to go about formatting a web serial. And by formatting I basically mean what is each installment going to look like. If you remember eons ago, we “discovered” a winning “war strategy” and one of the stratagems was to confine each episode to about 500 words or less. This is something that we can still do, or we can deviate from this.

A couple of weeks ago there was a web serial I discovered on Twitter about a private detective which seemed to parody and pay tribute to the old noir radio serials. The problem is that it wasn’t very good. Each episode indulged in every word and narrative cliché from the days of Chandler; hell, even each episode title was a cliché. However, I still kept reading. And I think one big reason is that each episode took the above stratagem to heart. Every installment was about 500 words or so and, as a result, it was very easy for me to consume each bite-sized episode and continue. But I eventually stopped because, while the reading was accessible, I was not engaging with the poorly-written text. The point is that the 500 word limit definitely has its benefits when it comes to grabbing readers, but, in the long-run, it doesn’t mean anything if the writing itself isn’t good.

“Well yeah, that seems obvious. But what does that mean for what you are trying to do?”

Well, it puts me in a conundrum. I want this series to communicate and examine various ideas. This may mean having episodes that hone in on a particular moment or image, or having two characters getting into a heated discussion. But there’s also the benefit of the 500 word limit I’ve conveyed above. And it’s hard to adhere to that limit especially if there’s something specific I’m trying to do.

As a result, here’s what I will likely do: maintain the word limit where I think it’s most appropriate to the story.

The web serial that I was reading used the word limit effectively because each episode conveyed a central idea, but then ended right at the moment where the reader starts to ask “okay, then what?” sort-of like a mini-cliffhanger. And this is something I could definitely use. For example, Burt could be in the middle of a delivery where something wrong occurs, and as he’s trying to figure out how to reconcile someone calls out his name, ending that installment with a moment of suspense.

Other than the word limit for certain episodes I was also thinking of certain episodes jumping between perspectives, perhaps conveying multiple POVs within a single episode with different font types. The series Touch not only uses different perspectives, but also uses different narrative devices. For example, the prologue takes the form of a video transcript. I could incorporate this as well as other forms such as poetry and drawings depending on the situation and character. This also goes back to “pushing them boundaries” from that strategy thing.

“Okay. That’s nice and all. But shouldn’t you have a plan? Like, is each episode going to be self-contained, or is there going to be an overarching story?”

Um…both?

I was thinking of having “season-long” story arcs, similar to the television series Dirk Gently, but also try to have subplots, perhaps in the form of individual deliveries Burt has to make, threading throughout. However, I have a feeling this might all be a bit too ambitious for me. So, next time I will focus on outlining this whole thing and see where that leads me.

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