Saturday, November 12, 2011

Special Guest Post: Writing Tension in Serialized Fiction

Today, The Reading List is featuring a special guest post from Alexis Jenny, a Content and Acquisitions Editor at Grit City Publications. Alexis has some good advice for writing tension in fiction that everyone can benefit from--whether you are considering a serialized format for your novel or not.

Thank you Alexis, for taking the time to share with us!

As an editor for a unique publishing group called Grit City Publications, I'm often asked what I look for in a query. Because we don't publish traditional novels, I understand why writers, both aspiring and published, would wonder. But just like every other acquisitions editor, I look for an interesting story.

So what makes Grit City Publications different?

We publish serialized fiction in monthly installments called emotobooks. Emotobooks incorporate expressionistic art to enhance the reader's experience and immersion in the story. The result is something truly unique and amazing.

Emotobooks are ebooks, so it's easy for a reader to grab the next installment on the day it comes out without having to stop by the bookstore. The individual issues are quick reads, and most people can devour an issue or single during a lunch break or subway ride. I'm a fan of emotobooks because they don't ask for a lot of my time, but they promise adventure month after month for ten months (the complete story arc is called a season, like in television.)

And when I say adventure, I really mean that. Serialized fiction needs to be fast-paced. So when I read a query, I'm looking for a story with some tension. This doesn't mean it must be action-packed, but each issue must have conflict and resolution, or the reader will lose interest. Imagine anticipating an issue for a month, then reading it and realizing that nothing much actually happened this time around. I can think of a few comics that have disappointed me like that, and what's the result? I don't look forward to the next one as much.

There's another reason to write tension into serialized fiction, specific to emotobooks. Emotobooks incorporate expressionistic art to heighten the emotional responses of the reader. The illustrators need to feel that tension in order to respond to it. When I make adjustments to manuscripts to accommodate illustrations, but there's nothing really going on, the result is some boring artwork.

As a writer, I can see how writing in tension for serials can be a challenge. Sometimes we need that first few chapters of a novel just to develop our characters and provide background on the plot. But we can't expect serial readers to tolerate four or five issues of nothing but development... even if it benefits our story. This is because readers won't like waiting around for the next installment just to hear about someone's past or family dynamic. We have to provide the incentive to wait.

There are a couple things that writers can do to accommodate the serial style without sacrificing the backdrop to their stories:
  • Use flashback. Start with a high tension scene, and develop your characters through past events that lead up to that scene. It will give your readers an idea of where you're headed with the story, and it keeps it interesting.
  • Develop the characters through tension. There's an old saying by Shan Yu that says, "Live with a man for forty years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge. On that day, you will finally meet the man." Our character reveal themselves through dire circumstances.
  • Speed up the story and separate the slower parts into different issues. Your readers might not need all of that background information at once. Keep the action rolling and add the rest of it intermittently throughout the season.
Lastly, think like a reader. That's the best writing advice I've ever come across. If you were reading your story, would you be entertained enough to wait a month for the next installment? Would you want to see characters happy and comfortable and bored? Or would you like to see some conflict? Maybe something dangerous. Some tension. Some suspense. And of course, some emotion.

The good news is that you don't have to send me a query of a novel in emotobook format. I can work with you to adapt your novel, novella, or short story into our serialized style. For more information on submission guidelines, check out the Grit City Publications' website and the handbook, How To Write Emotobooks.

Email me at with your queries and shorts.

About the Author

Alexis Jenny is a Content & Acquisitions Editor at Grit City Publications. She’s also a freelance writer, novelist, and book reviewer. She earned a BA in English and Professional Writing from Ellis University in Chicago.

Alexis runs the writing blog, Bunny Ears & Bat Wings, and the book review blog, Blackbird Books. Information about her freelance writing career can be found on her writing site.

Alexis lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband and son. Follow Alexis on Twitter @lexisjen and find her on Google+.



  1. Thanks again for the opportunity to add my voice to The Reading List :-)

  2. Thank you Alexis for taking the time out to share some very useful writing advice with us!

  3. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    I recently put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's a collection of short pieces, mostly dark fantasy.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog.

    If so, please email me: Let me know what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy.

    You can download a sample from the ebook's page on Smashwords:

    I'm also happy to do interviews, guest posts, or giveaways. Just let me know what you'd prefer.




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