What Is a Serial Drama?

by Alane Michaelson
Cliffhangers are common features of serial dramas, used to excite people about upcoming installments.

Cliffhangers are common features of serial dramas, used to excite people about upcoming installments.

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Serial dramas have gripped audiences for centuries, starting in the pages of print publications and often appearing today on television screens at home. Serial dramas are fiction stories that are told in an episodic fashion, where each excerpt or episode is part of a larger narrative with characters and plot lines that continue from installment to installment.


Works of fiction began being published as serials in the Victorian era in England. The installments of these serial dramas were features in magazines and newspapers, and many great writers like Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad published work this way. In fact, all of Dickens' work was first published as a serial drama. Unlike expensive books, serial dramas were affordable for lower class people and became popular with large audiences.


In the 1930s, a new form of home entertainment began capturing audiences' attentions. The radio became a popular feature in many American homes, and serial dramas began being broadcast over the air. The term "soap opera" was coined to describe serialized daytime dramas that were sponsored by home cleaning products and dominated the airwaves by the 1940s. As television took over as a main household entertainment source, many of these soap operas moved to the screen.


In addition to daytime soap operas that still air across the world, television viewers watch serial dramas during prime time. These dramas include popular shows like 2002's "The Wire," and "Dexter" which first hit the air in 2006. Some of these serialized dramas include mystery themes, like the show "Lost" that began airing in 2004, and the 1990s' murder mystery "Twin Peaks."

Social Impact

Serial dramas are celebrated for quality storytelling today and throughout history, but serial dramas can do more than entertain. Historically, printed serial dramas are credited with improving literacy rates during the Victorian era by inspiring more people to read. In 2006, South African audiences tuned into a serial drama depicting the life of young HIV/AIDS-positive adults. The aim of the show was to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and improve prevention awareness among young people.

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