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  • A Cluster of Essays on Serial Narrative:Introduction
  • Sean O'Sullivan (bio)

serials, by their nature, produce sprawl—in terms of both storytelling length and cultural fecundity. How can we study the sometimes inexhaustible elements of narratives told in parts, across many platforms, eras, and constituencies? The following contributions to that inquiry address the challenge from four different angles:

Serials as cross-medial form. My article, "Six Elements of Serial Narrative," posits six terms and concepts that allow us to analyze serials at perhaps their most basic definitional level—namely, the narrative relationship between one installment and another. These six are: iteration, multiplicity, momentum, world-building, personnel, and design. Beyond identifying these elements, my argument aims to provide methods for considering them within specific serial stories and across serial manifestations, to suggest that—however different the native idioms of comics, television, written fiction, podcasts, and cinema—we can place their serial properties into shared conversation.

Serials as units of meaning. Kathryn VanArendonk contrasts my universalist approach with a counterclaim about the particularity of one serial manifestation, specifically the television episode. "Theorizing the Television Episode" positions the episode as a rule-bound entity shaped by the specific affordances and history of television as a medium, distinct from the wider activities of serialized storytelling. She argues that the special properties of the episode allow for wide ranges of narrative experimentation, while simultaneously providing a reproducible weekly container that operates both independently of and in league with the continuing show around it. [End Page 47]

Serials as interactive technology. The art of part publication has always been intertwined with the material conditions of its issuance—whether those conditions were the shilling price and multiple illustrations that accompanied Dickens's forays into the serial, or our current moment of digital immediacy. In "As We Speak: Concurrent Narration and Participation in the Serial Narratives '@ I_Bombadi' and Skam," Tore Rye Andersen and Sara Tanderup examine two recent serial genres—the Twitter story and the webserial—in light of their distinctive qualities of construction and their distinctive qualities of reception. In so doing, they bring these twenty-first-century objects into contact with the recurrent topic of audiences' ongoing engagements with stories of "planned unruliness."

Serials as creative and interpretive practices. The productive tension between planning and improvisation has shaped serials in all eras, and that complicated navigation needs to be re-learned by every artist working with the syntax of installments. Critics and consumers have likewise always struggled to make sense in real time of narratives that are initially available to us gradually and in pieces. "Contemporary Seriality: A Roundtable" offers a dialogue among two makers of stories—Lev Grossman and Julie Snyder— and a film reviewer—A. O. Scott—about a broad range of serial issues, from the dangerous allure of suspense to the comforts of nesting within broad storyworlds to the tricky, permeable boundaries shared by the fictional, the journalistic, and the corporate.

The collective aim of this quartet is to provide a synecdochic representation of how serials operate, and of how we can try to discuss them. I am deeply grateful to all the contributors, as we aim to advance our collective investigations of this field of collective storytelling. [End Page 48]

Sean O'Sullivan

Sean O'Sullivan is an Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Mike Leigh, a volume in the University of Illinois Press series on Contemporary Film Directors, and of articles and book chapters on such topics as: The Sopranos and episodic storytelling; modernist structure in Mad Men; and Deadwood and Charles Dickens.



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pp. 47-48
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