Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How to write a serial

This is the second of my blog posts on how to write a serial. Last week I posted on my own blog at about writing my serial, The Lemon Grove. This week I am posting both there, and here about:-

CHARACTERISATION - characters are important in most stories but they play a special part in constructing compelling serials. This is because these are magazine stories particularly aimed at women. Now, women like a cracking good plot as much as anyone. But women on the whole have a higher emotional IQ than men. True, like men they enjoy car chases, action scenes, a stirring war tale but very often for a story to make a lasting impression on a women's magazine audience, they want to know how people feel and what motivates them. Romance is a big seller and that's no coincidence - it's because people read romances in order to feel something. Now I know this is a huge generalisation and I don't want to annoy any feminists - I guess I'm one myself - I make my own decisions and have always made my own way in life. But I have often put down a book and not turned the next page, or lost interest in a film mainly because I feel nothing for the characters or have lost sympathy with them.
In women's magazine serials the way to keep someone coming back week after week, pennies in hand, to buy the next episode is if they care about the players. They have to sympathise with them, or perhaps feel these are people who would be their friends if they met them in real life. Not to say that all your serial characters need to be likeable. They can be villains, but your villains must be compelling and believable.
One of the best ways to reveal your characters is through dialogue and this is an essential element of most serials. If there is something you can reveal through your characters' conversation, then do it, make sure we literally hear their voice. Think of all the TV series that are popular - the soaps, Morse, Downton Abbey - the characters constantly verbalise their feelings and their observations of others.
In my serial, feelings run high. It is after all, a family tale with all the dynamics and difficulties experienced by any family. Had it been about business though, or a quest to solve a mystery, feelings would still run high. In fact the only sorts of serial I think where perhaps there does not need to be so much emotion is perhaps a comic serial where the reader is kept engaged by the humour. If you can write humour well, good luck to you. It is hugely popular and there is a humourous serial running at present in one of the women's mags about a group of retired amateur sleuths which is part of a series which has obviously been well received.
In my story, I had an irascible patriarch father, Salvatore, who runs a family hotel and who his staff fear. He had to be a rounded character though. His children and his wife love him, he is not a baddy, so he had to have redeeming features. After all, he has his son's respect. Antonio (our hero) wants to honour his father and do his duty by helping to run the family business even though his dearest wish is to be an archaeologist. In order for Salvatore to be credible, I had to make him lovable as well as somewhat dictatorial. The way I demonstrated this was that he is very much the protector of his children and his wife. Everything he does, he does with the best of motives. He's flawed but he means well. The trouble is, he's old fashioned. So, when his beautiful but wayward teenage daughter Louisa who fancies herself as a bit of a model and a flirt with the local boys angers her father, sparks fly. And there you have another key to characterisation for a serial. There has to be conflict. Have you ever seen an argument in a public place, in the street, or a shop? I'll bet people stopped and looked, wanting to know how the conflict was going to play out. Conflict is the life blood of a serial. For through conflict comes suspicion, people behaving badly, worry, anger all those things which make a story interesting. Through the resolution of conflict comes love, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation - all those things which make the ending of a story satisfying.
Finally, I had a wealth of different characters. They ranged in age from 14 to very elderly, they ranged from wealthy to having problems with money. They ranged from business people to lovely Italian nanas who stayed at home and did lots of cooking (just like my Italian nana did although she ran a successful catering business for many years when she was younger!) I had a fabulous looking Italian detective and a peaches and cream English nanny. The supporting characters, the people working at the hotel, the visiting relatives, a difficult neighbour - were all in their own way as important to the plot as the leading characters. That's not to say their stories overtook the leading characters, your hero and heroine are always most important and they must remain centre stage if you are writing a romance. If you are writing a police story like a recent shorter magazine serial I read, the detectives must always remain centre stage and not be upstaged by the supporting characters. That said, supporting characters have to be painted crisply and completely and to have their own individual personalities and distinct looks or mannerisms. Never forget that your readers have to wait a whole week to get reacquainted with your characters. It is much easier if they have something specific to remember about each person. That was true in my serial, The Lemon Grove, whether they were a wine drinking blustery Professore or a kind compassionate nana who showed them how to make homemade pasta. However small a part minor characters played, they had to be written large so we could fix them in our memories and we sympathised with their motivations. Then readers can feel for them and want to know what happened next.
Good luck with your characters. Next week, I shall be doing a post at about the importance of the setting for serials.


  1. This is such an excellent series of posts, Cara - thank you.

  2. Yes indeed, Cara. Very helpful and packed with good information.


  3. This is great - when is your serial starting in PF? I can't wait to read it. This morning I'm about to start work on my set of characters for my next WIP so you've inspired me to think carefully about what they may be like.

  4. Hi Thanks Wendy and Margaret, glad the posts have been of interest. It's actually been really useful writing them. Until you get stuff down on paper, you forget yourself what paths have lead to you writing in a certain way. I'm very unanalytical and just leap in with both feet so it's good for me to reign myself in a bit and think about the craft of writing before I put bum on seat and fingers on keyboard. Carol, I sent of the latest revisions for the very last instalment yesterday. Am waiting on tenterhooks for the reply and I know they've commissioned the artwork so it's just a case of waiting for a date now. I will definitely let people know, after all I've barely been able to stop going on about it for ages now! Sorry.

  5. Cara, your serial sounds wonderful. Good luck with it.

  6. Hi Noelene, many thanks. Just had the last instalment back (again) for a final revision. It's easiest to accept multiple revisions as inevitable, I just take them as a matter of course now!

  7. From someone who's also writing a series - very very good advise!