Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tricks of Serial Writing

Lady Audley's Secret was published serialized in instalments like most Victorian three-deckers, including the novels by Charles Dickens. After serialization the novels were published in three volumes (hence a 'three-decker'). With the rise of the circulating libraries a discussion developed about the practicality of these mammoth novels, when a slinky one-decker would be so much more convenient for the libraries to circulate and readers to consume. There was nothing worse than to read the first two volumes and then having to wait to get your hands on the third one. We do not see much of the serial-novel anymore, or multi-volume works. However, many novels published today are hitting the 500-page mark reminiscent of the three-decker size, and internet publishing is offering a platform for serialized publication in both blogging and e-publishing of smaller but linked pieces of writing which can be downloaded to various e-readers. Maybe the Victorian format of story telling familiar to Dickens, Collins and Braddon will make a comeback.

Some writers wrote a whole novel and then submitted the lot for serial publication. Others, like Braddon and Dickens wrote the story while it was being published, keeping one or two instalments ahead of the publication. This approach meant meeting tight dead-lines, but it gave the author the flexibility of modifying their story according to reader feedback. It also forced the authors to produce uniform sized snippets with a consistent quality of content.

Writing for serialization requires its own techniques, has its own conventions and sets its own limitations to novel-writing. While the most important quality in any novel is to keep the reader turning pages, make her want to read on, this is even more critical in serial writing, because the reader has to wait a week, sometimes a month, to get to the next page. And the reader pays for each instalment separately. People have to be persuaded to keep on paying as well as to keep on reading. A serialized novel has to be exciting and engaging throughout. It has to be addictive from the beginning to the end, all 500-600 pages of it.

It helps if you have a sensational plot with a mystery that you can unravel slowly. Needless to say sensation novels and detective stories of the 19th century follow this model. It also helps if you have interesting characters that either earn the reader's sympathies like Charles Dickens's Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop whose death (1841) caused wide-spread sorrow on two continents, or who otherwise appear larger than life and memorable. Lady Audley as well as Count Fosco in The Woman in White (1860) are engaging villains, Dickens's Edwin Drood (1870) is an engaging victim. Robert Audley is a reasonably engaging hero, as is Franklin Blake in The Moonstone (1868). While sensation novels are not celebrated for their careful attention to character development, they make good use of stereotypes. It is scandalous to present a stereotypical lady as a villain, it is sensational to suggest that a gentleman can be a thief. In this way, even if characters themselves are not memorable, the way they are depicted as representatives of their class and social 'role' can be used to keep readers hooked.

Pacing of the narrative is crucial. Reveal the secret too early and you waste potential for exciting narrative tension, keep it too long and you will irritate the reader and insult her intelligence. In Lady Audley's Secret Braddon manages to do something very interesting and clever. As soon as something has become glaringly obvious to the reader, the narrative accepts that it is so without confirming it. For example, the narrative assumes that we have figured out that Lady Audley is Helen Talboys quite early on. We then get teased about this assumption: if Lucy is Helen who is buried in he grave and how was that managed? We are sure Lady Audley met George Talboys in the limewalk and something terrible happened. The narrative makes us think this, and then goes on to tease us about it: how could George Talboys still be alive when Lady Audley is so sure that she killed him? In this way, the narrative very consciously takes into account what the reader is thinking at each stage of the unravelling of Lady Audley's various secrets. We think we know what has happened, and we probably know what has happened, but we have to read on to find out if we are right, because the narrative is constantly hinting that we might be wrong after all.

As long as there can be any doubt about the facts, the narrative keeps wavering, hoeing-and-humming and winding us up. The narrator is constantly teetering on the verge of overdoing this, but never quite goes over the top from tension to tedium. With the reader always one step, but only one, two steps at the most, ahead of the narrative revelations, the reader can feel smug and smart, without losing her respect for the narrator's ability to tell the story and keep manipulating the reader's experience in a satisfying manner. And what is most surprising of all, when in the end all is revealed and Lady Audley's secrets are peeled open like layers of an onion, we are not disappointed that we figured something out pages and pages ago, quite the contrary, we are pleased to see how neatly it all fits together.

Cliff-hanger endings are crucial. You have to leave the reader on tenterhooks lusting for more to ensure that your next snippet of sensation will sell. Braddon is quite good at this and there are many excellent chapter endings in Lady Audley's Secret. There are two ways of doing a cliffhanger: dangling and twisting. You can leave your hero suspended over a precipice of doom by his shoelaces.Or you can leave the reader with an unanswered, burning question. Alternatively, you can produce a plot twist or a surprise revelation. Of course it can also be a red herring, we have at least one such ending in Lady Audley's Secret. Volume I, Chapter 3 and Volume II, Chapter 9 have dangling endings. Volume I, Chapters 12 and 15 and Volume III, Chapter 2 in Lady Audley's Secret are examples of the twisting cliff-hanger. If you cannot produce an actual cliff-hanger, then the next best thing is to whip up emotion. End of Volume II, Chapter 13 is a good example of this: we leave Lady Audley filled with murderous passion after an accusing letter from Robert. It is clear something awful is about to happen.

Readers' lives are busy and they have much to occupy their minds. Serial writer needs to keep reminding them what has been going on in the story so far and who all the characters are. This means that repetition and summing up is required. This must be delicately done and Braddon overdoes it only occasionally and very slightly. We are regularly reminded how bewitching Lady Audley is, and how Robert Audley is compelled to continue his investigations. A serial writer also has to keep promising future delights. This can lead to heavyhanded foreshadowing. Braddon avoids this, I believe, with her consistent use of promising and engaging chapter endings and much more cleverly, with the way the narrative manipulates the reader's assumptions in unravelling the mystery. When the reader is allowed to maintain the illusion of scampering one step ahead of the narrative in solving the mystery, there is no need for foreshadowing, the reader's imagination is doing it.

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