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On Serial Fiction: Unkilling Athelstane

Lately I’ve been thinking about a funny story that has to do with the writing of Ivanhoe — a novel I just finished reading. “Funny” isn’t really a word usually associated with Ivanhoe, but the book does have its moments and one of its most reliable sources of levity is a character named Athelstane.

Athelstane was a really minor character who had a major impact on the plot. He didn’t do much, but his existence provided one of the key sources of conflict that drove the story. In order for the plot to work, he needed to be around until the climax, and then die. Simple, straightforward storytelling.

The problem Scott ran into was keeping Athelstane around — giving his character a purpose, scene to scene, so that he could continue driving the plot without boring the readers. Scott solved that problem using one of our go-to writing tools.

Athelstane became the comic relief.

He was a funny guy, too. Laid back, cool to a fault, a little bit slow but always willing to weigh in on the fiery events going on around him. He really started to shine when, kidnapped and thrown in a dungeon to be held for ransom, his cool finally shattered — not at the danger or the physical abuse or even the indignity to his person, but at having to miss his lunch.

Shortly after that came his moment of glory, his plot-essential role. Freed from his cell, the castle under assault and vicious battle all around him, he finally found his courage and rushed into the fray. He faced down the story’s villain wearing just his nightclothes, a busted chair leg his only weapon.

And, as had to happen, he was cut down. Scott wasn’t subtle about it, either. The villain, a knight in full armor and mounted on a warhorse, charged the hapless Athelstane and swung a battle axe at his naked head. It connected. The blade split Athelstane’s head from the top, cleaving it through to the teeth. That’s dead.

When he sent that chapter to his editor, it became a big problem. Turns out Scott had done such a good job with the comic relief that Athelstane was his editor’s favorite character. Scott went right on telling his story as it needed to unfold, but he started getting letters from his editor demanding that he undo Athelstane’s death scene.

In the end, his editor won out. Three chapters later Scott finally swallowed his pride, retconned like the best of them, and gave his readers a classic soap opera resurrection scene.

He found ways to explain it away (if awkwardly). He patched together his plot so it still worked. And, most importantly, he told a really great story start to finish, even if it did stumble a bit at places.

The History of Serial Publication

That sort of flexibility is an important trait in writers. I’ve had to exercise it more than once in my own writing career, and the number one thing that’s helped me develop it is my experience with several serial fiction projects.

With its special challenges and unique experience, serial publication teaches lessons like that, often in ways you can’t get elsewhere. Writers have known that for a long time, too. In fact, some of the great classics of Western Literature were written and published as serial novels.

This week I’d like to talk a little bit about the difficulties and the benefits of writing serial fiction, and encourage you to try it for yourself. So come back tomorrow for an introduction to serial fiction, and Saturday for some advice on actually writing serial fiction (and dealing with the worst of its pitfalls).

Photo credit pete-astn.

6 Responses to “On Serial Fiction: Unkilling Athelstane”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    What gives, friend? You’re supposed to encourage me to focus on my work-in-progress, not get me all stirred up to start working on that darkly brilliant serial idea I came up with a couple weeks ago, which has been intruding most inconveniently upon my consciousness. If my magician’s apprentice doesn’t get his act together and start saving the princess this weekend, I’m blaming you.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Have you already forgotten last Thursday’s article? You’ve got to chase inspiration wherever it comes.

      Actually, though…serial fiction is a huge time commitment. My real advice would be to do like I said last week, capture as much of that darkly brilliant serial idea as possible in prewriting, and then put it off until you’ve finished this WIP (if you think you’ll finish this WIP any time soon).

      Chances are good that once you start the serial (if you stick with it), it’ll be three months before you really come up for air, and maybe four or five before you’ve got time to start multitasking book projects again.

  2. This is perfect timing Aaron. I can’t thank you enough. I’d better explain. Whilst in France I started writing a serial novel. Only done two parts so far so this will be excellent. Thank you so much 🙂

  3. Writing serial fiction has been one of the most fun things I’ve ever done! Maybe it’s the ‘baby steps,’ maybe the deadlines, maybe just the story in my head, but I’m loving every part of it.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Aww, come on, Becca! Can’t you at least say “spoiler alert” before you give away everything I plan to say on Saturday?

      I kid! I’ll use hundreds more words than that!

      I’m glad you’re having so much fun with it, though. I’m definitely enjoying all the things you mentioned, working on The Girl Who Stayed the Same.

      • Ha! Yeah, no way you’ll be that concise. 😉 Just jokin’ of course.

        I’m just providing a personal testimony for your advice to others. 🙂