What is the difference between serial fiction and episodic fiction?

What is serial fiction?

Serial fiction or serialized fiction is a fictional work delivered to readers in installments that cannot be fully understood and enjoyed individually. Although each installment might well be structured to have a beginning, middle, and end, the author will refer back to characters and events from previous installments, and the main storyline will not be concluded until the end of the final installment.

When reading serial fiction, readers should start with the first installment of the story, as it will be hard to pick up the plot mid-way through. Cliffhanger endings are commonplace in serialized fiction as they are a good way of grabbing the reader’s attention and drawing them from one installment to the next.

Examples of serialized stories

Some of the best examples of serial fiction are the serialized novels of the 1800s and early-1900s. Written specifically to be released in installments, works like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas were published installment by installment in newspapers and journals.

If a reader missed the first few installments, it would be hard for them to fully understand the story if they didn’t go back and read the beginning before reading the current installment.

More modern examples of serial fiction include the hundreds of ongoing works of fiction on sites such as Wattpad, Royal Road, and Web Novel.

What is episodic fiction?

Although the episodes that make up a work of episodic fiction may be linked by theme, or share the same characters, they can usually be enjoyed individually, without the reader needing to have consumed all of the episodes preceding the one they are currently reading.

Episodic fiction may well have some form of over-arching plot to link the episodes, but each of the episodes will be a satisfying story in their own right. Cliffhanger endings are rare in true episodic fiction, as they dictate that the episodes must be read in order.

Examples of episodic fiction

Some of the best examples of episodic fiction are the individual novels in a detective or romance series. These books can be read in order, and there is often an-going storyline, and limited development of the main charcater from book-to-book, but they can also be enjoyed out of sequence as standalone stories.

Some TV shows are episodic. Episodes of Friends, for example, can be watched out of order, and although there are a few storylines that extend beyond a single episode, a full understanding of what has gone before isn’t necessary to watch and enjoy any of the individual episodes.