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What is serial storytelling?

What is serial storytelling? What is serial storytelling?
In this article:

    Series and Seasons

    A serial or series is a long-running narrative set in the same world, featuring the same characters. Sometimes these have a set end point, sometimes they don’t. Effective serial storytelling requires moving your reader through Beginning, Middle, and End phases of your story in the form of season arcs. 

    Serial storytelling isn’t about an electric beginning, a thrilling conclusion, and an infinite amount of Middle stuffed inbetween, like an ever-expanding Oreo. Rather, it’s a box of Oreos, where each unit is distinct but encourages you to reach for the next one. Season arcs help you structure your story so that the reader keeps reaching for the next part.

    Think of season arcs like books in a series, or seasons of a tv show. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1, A Game of Thrones, has a different plot than Book 2, A Clash of Kings. Book 2 builds on Book 1, but both Book 1 and Book 2 have their own Beginning, Middle, and End. Similarly, on Game of Thrones the tv show, the plot of Season 1 is different from Season 2, etc. The series builds on itself throughout each installment, but each season arc/book has its own plot, with a Beginning, Middle, and End each time. This structure allows you to give the reader the thrill of escalating stakes and the relief of resolution, while still leaving enough unanswered questions and unsolved problems to keep the reader coming back for more. It’s this balance of providing and denying resolution that makes serialized stories so compelling to readers. 

    In order to plan our season arcs, first we need to get the rough shape of the story down by establishing the overarching structure that’s shaping the story we want to tell. 

    Series GMCS

    Having strong GMCS is crucial to effective serial storytelling. This is the story engine that will propel your story forward across multiple season arcs. For a regular story, you just need one set of GMCS, but the first step of plotting a serial is setting your series GMCS. 

    It might be helpful to work through our character planning worksheet.

    Series Goal

    This is the overarching goal for the entire series, the biggest goal your characters have and the thing they are driving towards over the course of the whole story. This can and should be a really big goal with lots of sub-steps. 

    In Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA), the series goal is for Aang to become the Avatar.

    In Percy Jackson, the series goal is to defeat the titan Kronos and his forces.

    These are external goals that are specific, concrete, and have a lot of potential sub-steps. With ATLA, the sub-steps are organized according to each element Aang needs to learn. In Percy Jackson, each book has Percy setting out on a unique hero’s quest that is an incremental step towards the overall series goal. A good Series Goal is believably attainable but convincingly far-off. The more steps your protagonists have to go through to get the Series Goal, the more story you have. A walk to the corner store doesn’t have as much in it as hiking the Appalachian Trail. For serial storytelling, we want the Appalachian Trail. 

    The Series Goal should be relatively simple and easy to understand, even if it creates a lot of complex situations. For example, Game of Thrones is famously very complex and morally grey, but the series goal is really simple: everyone wants to sit on the Iron Throne. The complexity arises from the characters and the situations they find themselves in, but their shared Series Goal is actually quite simple. 

    Nailing your Series Goal is crucial to plotting your serial. This is your series north star, so don’t be afraid to keep revising until you have a goal that feels really concrete and appropriately sized. 

    Series Motivation

    This is the main motivation for the series goal above. This motivation is probably pretty simple when you boil it down. It’s often in the background, setting the general tone for the story. Individual characters can (and should) have much more complex motivations than this, but this is the overarching motivation that all the individual character motivations hook into.  This is the in order to of the series goal.

    In ATLA, the series motivation is a desire to restore peace after the Fire Nation started a war

    → Aang must learn all four elements and become the Avatar in order to restore peace after the Fire Nation started a war. 

    In Percy Jackson, the series motivation is preventing the fall of Olympus.

    → Percy Jackson must defeat Kronos and his forces in order to prevent the fall of Olympus.

    Note that this doesn’t have much to do with the individual characters’ backstories. The fact that Aang’s whole civilization was wiped out by the Fire Nation, or that Percy is a demigod doesn’t enter into it. Those are important backstory pieces for the individual characters and comprise their personal motivations, but for the series motivation, we’re looking for something a little more general. If it helps, you can think of Series Motivation as part 2 of the Goal. 

    Series Conflict

    The series conflict is the main thing standing between the protagonist(s) and their goal. In a serial story, this is often (though not always) an actual antagonist who has their own goals and motivations for blocking the protagonist. 

    In ATLA, the series conflict is the Fire Nation trying to stop Aang from becoming the Avatar. 

    In Percy Jackson, the series conflict is that Kronos is trying to recruit or destroy Percy and the other demigods.

    In both of the above examples, the Fire Nation and Kronos each have their own reasons for being antagonists to the protagonists. The Fire Nation doesn’t just dislike Aang; Aang becoming the Avatar is a direct threat to the Fire Nation’s political goals of world domination.

    It’s possible to have a Series Conflict that doesn’t have a delineated good and evil side, or a designated protagonist or antagonist; Succession for example, has multiple characters at cross-purposes with one another while they vie for the CEO position. In that case, the series conflict is that each character wants power (each because of their own individual Goals and Motivations), and they are all blocking or assisting each other in various ways. In this case, while each viewer has their favorites, all of the characters are morally grey in varying shades, and no one is flawlessly good or irredeemably evil. Game of Thrones and White Lotus are similar in their approaches. 

    Note that this form of conflict is quite complex from a plotting standpoint; setting multiple morally grey characters against each other requires a very strong grasp of plotting in order to make sure the story ends up coming together. But it can also be quite fruitful, in that the story can keep going for a long time and produce a lot of exciting drama.

    The series conflict is the thing that is going to keep your readers coming back. When boiled down, your series conflict probably sounds quite simple, but it’s like a ribbon wrapped around a spool–wrapped up it’s pretty small, but unroll it and you’ll find it’s quite long. 

    Developing a strong Series Conflict is crucial to keep your story running long term in an organic fashion. Conflicts that feel like they should be easily resolved don’t make good Series Conflicts because it’s hard to keep them going in a way that continues to feel rewarding to your reader. In both Percy Jackson and ATLA, the antagonist producing the conflict is ultra-powerful, so the protagonists of both stories have to fight really hard to overcome them. The sheer difficulty of this fight generates massive amounts of story conflict that keep the reader organically engaged for many season arcs. 

    Series Stakes

    What are the consequences for failing at the Series goal? In other words: Why does any of this matter? 

    In ATLA, if Aang fails to become the Avatar (series goal), the Fire Nation will take over the world

    In Percy Jackson, if Percy fails to defeat Kronos, Kronos will destroy much of the mortal world alongside destroying Olympus and the gods.

    In both of these examples, the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, but not every individual scene has these specific stakes, because that would be exhausting. Series Stakes should be big, but they should also be appropriate to the tone of the story and provide the backdrop for the story. For example, in Succession, the stakes are the control of the company. The Series Stakes are not the only Stakes in the story, but they provide the background shaping for other, more personal and smaller-scale stakes throughout the story. 


    The point of developing your Series GMCS is to set the guardrails for your story and create its basic shape. This ideally happens in conjunction with developing your characters and world in order to create the frame for the kind of story you want to tell. You can always go back and adjust your Series GMCS as you work, but once you start posting, you should try to stick to the Series GMCS you’ve set for yourself in order to deliver a consistent reader experience. 

    Season GMCS

    Now that you’ve got your overarching Series GMCS nailed down, it’s time to get a bit more granular. This is where we set up the GMCS for the specific season arc. The process here is very similar to setting up the GMCS for a self-contained story, as we outlined in 101. The difference is that we are going to use our Series GMCS as scaffolding to create our Season GMCS. The most important part of the Season arc is the Season Goal and the Season Conflict. 

    Season Goal

    This is the problem your characters are trying to solve this season. While the Series Goal should be big, the Season Goal should be much more achievable and specific. By the end of the season, the characters should succeed or fail at this goal, which will in turn relate to how they approach their next run at the Series Goal. 

    In ATLA Season 1, the Season Goal is for Aang to master waterbending. This is step 1 on his path to becoming the Avatar. Aang fully understands this goal and is behind it, even if he sometimes has conflicting feelings about it. Aang has other goals throughout the season as well, but this is the structuring plot goal. This Season Goal then breaks down into a series of smaller steps that structure the individual episodes, so that the characters and the viewer always understand where Aang is on his journey. 

    In The Titan’s Curse, the Season Goal is for Percy to find the goddess Artemis, who disappears at the start of the story. This is key to the Series Goal of defeating Kronos, since Artemis's influence is needed during gods’ winter solstice meeting to convince the other gods Kronos can indeed be resurrected.  Percy has to solve the mystery of who kidnapped her and is well aware of the importance of his Season Goal in regards to his series goal: he knows he needs to find Artemis in order to defeat Kronos.

    Sometimes, stories will have a puzzle box structure where the relation between the Series Goal and the Season Goal is not immediately clear to the character or the readers, and part of the suspense of the story is figuring out how these things fit together. The first four Harry Potter books have this structure. In this case, the author should always understand how the Season Goal fits into the Series Goal, even if the characters don’t. 

    Here are some ways to structure the Season Goals and their relation to Series Goals:

    • Linear Progress: The Series Goal breaks down into a bunch of smaller Season Goals, which add up to a linear progress towards the Series Goal over the course of the story.

      • Ex: Lord of the Rings, One Piece

    • Succeed/Fail: The protagonist makes a run at the Series Goal and succeeds or fails. This creates further complications and problems that the protagonist then has to deal with.

      • Ex: Ted Lasso, Succession, Game of Thrones 

    • Episodic Formula: The protagonists have a very general Series Goal like “solving mysteries” that is infinitely repeatable. 

      • Ex: Grey’s Anatomy, Law and Order

    • Puzzle Box: Each individual season seeks to answer a question or solve a mystery, but the question/mystery is part of a bigger plot that keeps escalating the stakes as the seasons progress.

      • Ex: The Wire, Gravity Falls, The X-Files 

    • Anthology: The Series GMCS remain the same each season, but are encountered by a different set of characters. Note that for romance-heavy stories in particular, we really want to spend time with each couple and let the relationship develop, so we should spend at least 75k words with each couple. 

      • Ex: Animorphs, Bridgerton 

    Which one you choose depends on the story you want to tell and how much advance plotting you want to do. A mystery or  a puzzle box plot requires much more advance plotting than simply breaking down the Series Goal into smaller steps. Any time you want to have a big twist in your story, you should plan that out well in advance. 

    Season Motivation

    Your Season motivation can carry over from your Series Motivation. How much work you need to do here depends on how your Season Goal and your Series Goal relate to one another. If you’ve chosen a linear breakdown style of story where your Series Goal is broken into smaller steps, your Season Motivation might be the same as the Series Motivation, and that’s totally fine. However, if you’ve got a puzzle box structure happening, you’ll have to do a lot more work to establish the motivation and the why of your Season Goal since its link to the Series Goal isn’t obvious to the reader.  

    Season Conflict

    Like the Season Goal, this is a big structuring piece of your season, and you should spend some time developing it. The Season Conflict will depend on your Series Conflict, as well as on the structure you choose for relating the Series Goal and the Season Goal. 

    How is the Series Conflict going to play out this season? Your Series Goal offers the shape through which the Series Conflict plays out in this season specifically. 

    In ATLA, Aang’s Season 1 goal is to learn waterbending. In order to do that, he has to travel to the Northern Water Tribe. The conflict arises because the Fire Nation is attempting to capture him, and Aang going to the Northern Water Tribe brings the Fire Nation to their doorstep. The Season conflict here is the same as the Series Conflict (the Fire Nation wants to capture Aang), but the way it plays out is very specifically guided by Aang’s goal for that season (learn waterbending). 

    In The Titan’s Curse, the Season Goal is for Percy to find Artemis. In order to do that, he and his friends must go on a quest to find and save her. The conflict arises from the enemies they encounter on the way to rescuing her. The Series conflict remains the same (prevent Kronos’s rise), but the Season Conflict is specifically about fighting through the enemies preventing them from rescuing Artemis. 

    Season Stakes

    Your Season Stakes will flow from your Season Goal and Season Conflict. The Series Stakes shape the Season Stakes, but the Season Stakes should offer a bit more detail and specificity to the problem of the Series Stakes. 

    In ATLA, the Season Stakes of season 1 are the same as the Series Stakes, with the addition of the safety of the Northern Water Tribe being at stake due to Aang’s presence there. 

    In Percy Jackson, the Season Stakes of The Titan’s Curse are directly linked to the Series Stakes. Without Artemis, the gods might decide to ignore the threat, effectively losing the war before it begins, and thus losing the Series Stakes. The Season Stakes here are a smaller piece of the bigger Series Stakes. 

    Putting It All Together 

    Now that we’ve done all this work, it’s time to begin putting it together into an actual story. Your actual plotting method can be as in-depth or as top-line as you like. We’ve got some suggestions here, if you want a place to start. The more intensive and twisty-turny you want your plot to be, the more thorough you should be in laying it out beforehand. Here’s a basic summary on how to put this all together:

    1. Set your Series GMCS, and begin to sketch out your world and characters. 

    2. Determine what kind of relationship you want your Season Goals to have with your Series Goals

    3. Estimate how many seasons your story needs, and about how long you want each season to be. We’re looking for serials run at least 150K words, so that’s three season arcs of 50k each at a minimum. But your season arcs can be as long as you like, it just depends on how you like to write.

    4. Make a list of potential Season Goals for each season. This is just to sketch out where your story might be going, to think about how it might progress season over season. 

      1. If you choose a mystery box season structure in step 2, you will need to plan each season in much more depth at this stage

    5. Set up your Season GMCS for Season 1. This stage will involve brainstorming some ways you can pull down your Series GMCS into more specific and concrete Season GMCS, as well as brainstorming potential plot events. 

    6. Pick your favorite plotting method and go to town. With strong Series and Season GMCS, you can still follow a looser plotting structure and come out with a cohesive, engaging series. 

    7. Start writing!!

    8. We suggest holding off on posting until you’re at least a third of the way through the first season arc. This gives you time to firm things up, revise your Series and Season GMCS as necessary, and self-edit your story before sharing it with readers. 

    9. Set an update schedule and stick to it! Consistency is key in building your readership. 

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