How Many Words Should a Serial Be?

By Sean Platt

Today’s question is probably the most frequently asked question we get. It’s died of a little bit recently but I can’t count the numbers of times we’ve been asked this. It’s how many words should a serial be?

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

Sterling and Stone kind of started with serial fiction when Dave and I published Yesterday’s Gone that very first season in fall of 2011, we were really doing things differently.

We were actually stealing language from TV, with episodes and seasons, and packaging things with six episodes into a season, which could then be bundled and sold. We were selling individually and separately, and we were just kind of making it up.

But ever since then people seem to think that there is a formula to this, and that the main part of that formula that everybody seems to want to know is how many words should be in that serial.

Person at a computer with many tasks.It’s really important to keep in mind that there are no rules.

When we started out, we were literally making it up.

Even that very first episode, Dave took three characters and I took three characters and we each wrote our parts of it and then we put it together.

We were aiming for around 100 pages, which we figured would be about 25,000 words, and we would try and write about half of that each. Really that was just for that story, and we needed something to hang our hook on.

We knew we wanted the episodes to probably be $.99 individually. That seemed about fair for that word count but again, we were totally making it up.

Since then we’ve done a lot of stuff.

We’ve done six seasons of Yesterday’s Gone.

We recorded The Beam, Robot Proletariat, WhiteSpace, Space Shuttle, Unicorn Western, Cursed.

All of those have kind of a serialized feel to it, but they’re totally different.

Even with Collective Inkwell, we have ForNevermore, which is 15,000 words. WhiteSpace episodes are about 18,000 words. Yesterday’s Gone has gone from about 25,000 works an episode to just under 20,000. The Beam is 25,000-30,000 words an episode. Robot Proletariat are 12,000-15,000 words. Space Shuttle are 7,5000.

You can see there really is no one answer. Even within our own company we do things differently all over the place.

The real question is what kind of story do you want to tell, and then tell that story.

The Beam was designed as 15,000 words per episode but we realized that we needed twice as much space to tell the kind of story that we wanted to tell, so by Episode 2 or 3 we realized that we would need 25,000-30,000 words.

I don’t think you can know until you understand your characters, you understand your story, you kind of know what direction you have, you know where you want to take everything.

Once you have that in place, then you can figure out your word count.

But I think just writing a story to a word count is not the best way to go.

There is a wrong way to do a serial and that’s cutting up a story that doesn’t belong as a serial.

Paper in a typewriterWhen we started with Yesterday’s Gone, we were really trying to kind of ape the tone of television with that episode.

You know what a serialized episode of TV feels like. Think of Breaking Bad, for example. It’s got this really explosive opening, a lot of character development for the episode, and then a really great cliffhanger that makes you immediately want to watch the next episode.

That’s the right way to do a serial.

Writing a book and then breaking it up into five or six pieces so that you can sell them off individually, is not a serial.

A serial is written to be a serial and should have that serialized feel.

If you’re just breaking apart a novel, you’re cheating your reader and it’s not going to go over well. You shouldn’t do it.

I think that the serial is an art form. It’s not one book broken into pieces, and I believe strongly that if we had done that, Yesterday’s Gone would have failed.

That’s the dividing line.

Look at network versus Netflix. In a network show you’ve got 42 minutes, because you have to leave room for commercials. So, there’s a lot of structure to them.

But if you look at cable shows or even Netflix now, that’s kind of evolved and changed a lot. It’s improved the storytelling because they’re not saying each episode has to be exactly 42 minutes.

They’re saying we need to tell the story.

You’ll watch episodes of let’s say Orange is the New Black is something that I’ve been recently watching on Netflix. Those shows could be 45 minutes or 52 minutes or 59 minutes, or even last night’s episode was an hour and a half. That’s because they’re taking as long as they need to tell an episode of that story.

That’s the biggest take away. Tell your story and tell it in your way and make it as good as it can possibly be. Click To Tweet

Nobody has your voice and don’t look for a formula other than telling a good story.


Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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