Critical Essays The Use of the Serial Form


To present-day readers, the idea of reading a novel in weekly or monthly installments may seem strange. Why buy twenty issues of a magazine when the paperback costs a few dollars and you get the whole story at once? But as one writer in 1828 noted, "No Englishman in the middle class of life buys a book." At that time, one complete novel might be published in three or four volumes at a cost of roughly three to four hundred dollars for a complete novel. Given this, anyone who wanted to read a book and who was not rich joined a lending library or bought the weekly issues of a magazine. Thus novels, once only the domain of the rich, became a cheap luxury for the masses.

This method of publishing affected how the novels were actually written. Authors' choices of plot, character, and style were often a direct results of the requirements of publishing in serial form. (In fact, some of the flaws of which Dickens is accused by modern-day reviewers are actually constraints of this form.)

The first consideration in planning a book for this form was the number of installments to use to tell the story. Each installment needed to be about the same length, roughly thirty-two pages of fifty lines per page. The emotional intensity and action had to be about equal in each, as well. After a break in the story of a week or month, the pressing question was: Would the reader come back and buy the next issue? Hence each installment had to be a "mini-story" or "episode" in itself, each with its own cliffhanger ending. To achieve so many cliffhangers, plots had to be large and complex with a lot of action.

The same applied to the story's characters. They were often odd and given unusual and sometimes almost "excessive" characteristics so the readers could remember them from week-to-week or month-to-month. In Great Expectations, Dickens used character tags, such as Jaggers biting his finger or Wemmick having a "post-office mouth." While these traits or tags were a necessity because of this fragmented publishing method, this much repetition in a story published as a solid book can drive the reader crazy.

The writing for serials had to be rapid because of tight deadlines. Often the author was still plotting action or figuring out the ending as he went along, and half the book had already been published. It was a shoot-from-the-hip method in many respects because it also took into account readers' reactions to the story. If something was not working and circulation dropped, the author could change a character's response or add another cliffhanger to beef up the audience's interest. The action also had to be fast because every word counted. Space in the magazines was money. In contrast to a one-thousand-page novel, Great Expectations, done in serial form, was considered downright short. The Victorians wanted a lot for their money and they expected a sweeping story with lots of twists and turns. Charles Dickens gave them exactly that and was very successful with his reading public.