Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for Sherlock Holmes. That was always a sore spot for the physician writer, as he considered his various historical novels to be more “important” than his contributions to the mystery genre. Aside from the iconic character and what it did for mysteries, the Sherlock Holmes stories did provide a major innovation to episodic storytelling in general.
Doyle explained what he had done in his autobiography Memories and Adventures:
It had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine. On the other hand, it seemed to me that the ordinary serial might be an impediment rather than a help to a magazine, since sooner or later, one missed one number and soon lost all interest. Clearly, the ideal compromise was a character which carried through, yet installments were complete unto themselves, so that the purchaser was always sure he could relish the whole contents of the magazine. I believe I was the first to realize this and The Strand Magazine was the first to put it into practice.
I came across the quote in David Stuart Davies’s introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of The Best of Sherlock Holmes. The approach has been followed much more now in television and comic books, the two biggest serial media, but it predates both. The credit goes to Doyle, who combined the addictive appeal of a serial with the accessibility of the short story. I’m sure someone else would have come up with it, but it’s pretty cool that the major innovator ended up being the guy who also created Sherlock Holmes.
The method was the norm for television and comics, until fairly recently. Consumers of both media now have increased access to earlier installments of ongoing series thanks to DVDs, trade paperbacks, downloads, streaming services and internet libraries. New customers can also access internet summaries to become more familiar with the backstory. As Stephen Johnson noted in Everything is Bad For You, today’s pop culture has allowed for increasingly sophisticated episodic storytelling.
There are still a few comics and television shows in which the installments are completely self-contained without larger arcs, but it’s no longer the convention. Even the current adaptations of Sherlock Holmes feature long-running storylines, with the Stephen Moffat BBC series Sherlock, the American series Elementary, and the Guy Ritche/ Robert Downey Jr films all featuring an ongoing multi-part arcs involving the machinations of Professor Moriarity. Of course, Doyle had beat them all to the punch with The Valley of Fear, a serial written when Sherlock Holmes was a significant enough draw that desperate readers were no longer inclined to miss the latest edition of the Strand.