The history of serialized fiction starts in a sultan’s bloody marriage bed. Furious at being cuckolded by his first wife, the sultan bedded a new virgin each night and murdered them the following day before they could betray him.  But Scheherazade found a way to keep herself alive: she told the sultan an enchanting story and when dawn rose, with her story not yet resolved, he let her live another night. For one thousand and one nights she kept the stories going, always stopping her tale at a moment of nail-biting uncertainty. She had invented the cliffhanger, and saved her skin at the same time.

Though the compendium of folktales known as One Thousand and One Nights, collected by many authors and translators over the course of many centuries, is not really a serialized novel, it does bear the two hallmarks of the medium: the overarching narrative, unresolved until the end – in this case, Scheherazade’s efforts to stay alive through storytelling – and the cliffhanger.

The invention of the modern serial novel had slightly lower stakes attached: the motivating force wasn’t death at the hands of an angry regent, but newspaper circulation. It was 1836 and a Parisian businessman was trying to figure out how to get subscribers in the habit of buying a daily newspaper instead of the typical weekly. He decided that the best way to hook readers was to include pieces of an original novel in his publication. He approached the most popular novelist of his day, Honorè de Balzac, and the serial novel was born.

That same year in England, a 24-year-old named Charles Dickens published The Pickwick Papers in the form of text accompanying a series of engravings.  It only took four installments for British readers to discover what a treat the serial novel could be. Sales soared to 40,000 in that month. Charles Dickens became a household name. And newspapers and magazines began scrambling to sign up writers for their own serializations.

Soon few books were being published before first appearing in serial form.  Serialization was a way to test commercial appeal and to build an audience. Many of the novels we consider classics of the period began life as serials, including Eliot’s Middlemarch, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dostoevksy’s The Brother’s Karamazov, James’ Portrait of a Lady, and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In the United States, one of the earliest original works released in serial format was Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in National Era, an abolitionist periodical.

Serials were so immensely popular that they were responsible for at least two riots. In 1841 impatient Dickens fans rioted at New York harbor as they waited to learn whether sweet orphan Nell had indeed died in poverty despite her loving grandfather’s best efforts.  And in 1842 there was a riot in Paris by readers who didn’t have the fee to read the resolution of a particularly nail-biting cliffhanger in Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris.

As these riots attest, serials are compulsively appealing. So much so that every new medium for the past two centuries has used them to establish its audience.  It wasn’t only daily newspapers and monthly magazines like Harper’s and The Atlantic that built their names by serializing the great writers of their day. Long before movie-goers became accustomed to long feature films, they flocked to cinemas and nickelodeons to see the latest installments of Flash Gordon or Adventures of Kathlyn. Early serials like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger convinced millions of Americans to install bulky radios and television sets in their homes. And when cable finally established itself as a force equal to the networks, it was with a serial called The Soprano’s.

What better way, then, to usher in the era of digital literature than with this enormously popular and endlessly generative tradition?