AUTHORS: Are You Writing “Episodic” Fiction? Why You Might Not Want To (and how to tell if you are)

How do adventures A, B, and C connect in your novel?

How do adventures A, B, and C connect in your novel?

Today I want to explore the idea of episodic fiction. What is it? Why isn’t it popular nowadays, and how you can improve an episodic novel if you have one?

I read a post about this months ago and kept the idea for my own post on the topic on the back burner…. Just google “episodic fiction” for more. You’ll find TONS of articles about this topic.

We are all familiar with the concept of “episodes” thanks to television. Episodes are unconnected adventures that involve one character (or set of characters).

Because they are unconnected, “episodes” can generally occur in any order.

This used to be the standard for fiction, but doesn’t work as well nowadays. Preferences have changed on a basic cultural level toward plot arts and connected adventures.

MY FAVORITE LITERARY EXAMPLE OF EPISODIC FICTION:

434766_don_quixote_de_la_mancha_1

Don Quixote

Who saw this one coming? (Come on…. I completed coursework for a PhD in Spanish lit. I love this book!)

I can think of no greater proof to demonstrate Don Quixote‘s episodic nature than to compare the two most famous images of him. Everyone is familiar with the sight of:

  • Don Quixote attacking the windmills
  • Don Quixote wearing a barber’s bowl like a helmet.

Sometimes people conflate these images, picturing Don Quixote wearing the barber’s bowl while he attacks the windmills. In truth, the windmill episode is the knight’s first after recruiting the aid of his squire, Sancho. He doesn’t acquire his “helmet” until later.

The reason that conflation is so simple, and makes so much sense, is because Don Quixote’s various adventures (or episodes) are utterly unconnected and could theoretically be arranged in any order without changing much, if anything, in terms of character development or plot.

There is no overarching plot beyond “Don Quixote leaves home, so his friends, the priest and the barber, try to bring him home.”

That is the key to episodic fiction: no adventure affects or causes later ones in a fundamental way or is affected by previous adventures.

Think of your favorite TV shows:

  • Is there any rhyme or reason to the placement of “Friends” episodes when Chandler’s ex, Janice, returns to wreak havoc?
  • After Diane leaves “Cheers,” does it make any difference which woman Sam is seeing when?
  • One of the reasons so many people consider “Arrested Development” one of the best sitcoms ever written is because it is much less episodic than most. Everything goes to back to what happened before and everything connects in crazy, fun, unexpected ways.

WHY EPISODIC FICTION CAN BE BAD

Episodic fiction has a number of downsides nowadays.

  • Readers feel comfortable stopping at any point because there isn’t a real “end point.” It’s just unrelated story after unrelated story.
  • Fiction has largely evolved past episodic writing, so that it feels a bit stale and backward. Readers expect PLOT.

Here is a simple way to distinguish episodes from plot-driven adventures:

  • EPISODES: adventure one happens, then adventure two, then adventure three.
  • PLOT: adventure one causes adventure two, which sets up adventure three in its turn

You might be familiar with the much more famous contrast (can’t remember who first came up with it):

  • STORY: The old man died, and then his wife died. (You can consider the deaths episodes one and two)
  • PLOT: The old man died, and then his wife died of grief.

Same basic concept: a plot implies causality. The wife could have died first in the story. You can rearrange the episodes; you can’t have the wife die of grief before her husband dies, though. That’s plot.

Each “adventure,” each step of your plot, should derive from the events that came before, whether in an expected or unexpected way.

That’s what readers expect nowadays. That’s “good writing” in our time. (Not that Don Quixote isn’t good writing…. It is truly a masterpiece: one of my two favorite books. In my opinion, only Shakespeare can rival Cervantes’s literary genius. If you haven’t read DQ, you really, really should!)

So, what are your thoughts on this? How do you ensure you have a “plot” and not “episodes”?

If you enjoyed this article, or found it helpful, you might want to check out my other articles on plot-related subjects.

And don’t forget: “Writing for You” comes out on July 31! You can add it to your bookshelf (and enter a giveaway!) on Goodreads.

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33 responses to “AUTHORS: Are You Writing “Episodic” Fiction? Why You Might Not Want To (and how to tell if you are)

  1. I do, or at least I have written episodic fiction. I am working on publishing it now but the episodes all tie together and there is an overarching theme/plot that links them all. Each episode gets you closer to problems being resolved. Much like episodes in a television series each season get you closer to a finale.
    As for episodic fiction that lacks a central plot but has the same character, it depends on how I feel about it. If it is well written then it can be great but I find too often it is not. The character, although interesting, is not enough to keep me reading unrelated episodes for a lengthy period of time.

    • I love the distinction you make here between episodic fiction with and without a central plot. I have a post already written for tomorrow going into that: episodic and hybrid (and then what I call a “directed”) series. I feel like you’ve written a hybrid series, which is much more popular and much more common in our day than true episodic fiction (with no central plot.) It has a lot of episodic elements, though, as you point out.

  2. I think if you follow most of the writing (and the “what’s publishable”) advice given today– and I’m not saying you have to, mind you– it’s hard to create truly episodic fiction. Everything I’ve read/heard says that if a scene doesn’t move the plot forward (or add something significant to character development) and have a direct cause-and-effect relationship to what comes before and after, you cut it. If things are just happening that aren’t tied together in a cause-and-effect relationship, it seems like most editors wouldn’t let that scene survive.

    It can work. Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favourite of the Narnia books, and I think it’s a good example of an episodic story. They do accomplish something toward their goal on every island (finding out what happened to the Narnian Lords, Eustace’s character development), but I’ve read it several times and couldn’t tell you what order they visited these places. It doesn’t really matter; they’re all episodes. Great episodes, and meaningful, and they add up to a story I love.

    I agree that you risk losing narrative tension when everything that happens isn’t part of a chain leading directly to the climax. Episodic fiction CAN work, but I think you need to have a lot of skill to do it right (and I also think it often works best in children’s fiction; I know my kids appreciate shorter story sections to one long narrative they have to hold in their minds).

    • Fantastic points all here, Kate! I agree with you 100% and I SOOOOO need to read Narnia! I’ve been telling myself that for ages and ages. I have read lots of Lewis’s theology but someone missed Narnia as a kid and I am dying to read those books :-)

      Episodic fiction is just really, really difficult. I don’t write it because I don’t have the chops to pull it off. Most of us don’t, I think.

      • I agree. And oh, my goodness, read the Narnia books. I didn’t read them when I was a little kid, either; didn’t know about them until I was in grade 8 or so. The last book makes me cry every time… *sigh*

        And people wonder why I’m always searching in wardrobes and random closets.

  3. In television, I think that most of the series that I watch combine the two. For example, I am currently working my way through “Fringe”, and some episodes are singular events that are not directly connected with the overall plot, and some episodes are part of an ongoing story arc. (“Supernatural” is also very much like that.)

    So the structure looks something like this: A–X–X–B–C–X–D–X–E–F.

    Also I think that it’s possible for a story arc to be “hidden” within an episodic format, where each episode contains a clue to the overall story arc that isn’t revealed until later. I’ve mentioned “Life” before, I think they pulled off that trick pretty well.

    Structure: A–X(+B)–X(+C)–D–X–X(+E)–F, and it isn’t until the arc is nearing completion that the hidden clues in the seemingly unrelated episodes start to come together into a long narrative.

    In fiction, many detective novels are structured that way. Joseph Wambaugh is particularly adept at setting up a series of seemingly unrelated incidents that turn out to be all connected at the end–”The Glitter Dome” and “The Delta Star” stand out as two of my favorites.

    What makes the “hidden story arc” such a compelling structure for me is that the reader never knows which elements within an episode will turn out to be significant parts of the overall story. It works best, I think, when the writer has room for a lot of episodes (hence it’s use in television series).

    • ooh, this is wonderful!!! This is exactly right…. I hadn’t thought of it quite this way but I go tomorrow into the idea of a “hybrid” series, which is in a lot of ways what you’re describing here: a story with an overall arc that contains episodic elements. I’d say 99.9% of tv shows fall into that pattern, and it’s SOOO much fun not knowing what relates to that arc and what doesn’t most of the time…. the tension that creates is one of the real highlights of a hybrid series.

  4. I think episodic can be done, but the writing has to be amazing, and the episodes have to be a deliberate part of very modern kind of structure. The best example I can think of is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. Same persistent world, same characters, but each chapter jumps in time and places really dramatically without any obvious connections or “main plot.”

    …and it won the Pulitzer.

    Probably because Egan is an incredibly talented writer, and she used Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as an inspiration, but still, proof it can be done.

    Without an experimental structure to support them though, I completely agree with your point. A novel that reads like Law and Order might be fun for a few minutes, but you’d have to plod through it. Better off to write an anthology of short stories (and market it as such) methinks :)

    • “A novel that reads like Law and Order might be fun for a few minutes, but you’d have to plod through it. Better off to write an anthology of short stories (and market it as such) methinks”

      that is pretty much entirely my point in this article summarized in a much clearer fashion :-) And that’s a great suggestion about short stories…. Definitely the best way to go about marketing/packaging episodic fiction.

  5. Interesting concept, Victoria.
    My novels are the typical a plot driven series, but I also write episodic short short stories. You’ve given me a new perspective on what I’ve been doing.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article! Short stories are a fabulous format for episodic fiction, I think…. With short stories you have no danger of making your reader wonder “why doesn’t this chapter connect with others?” and “Where is this all going?”

  6. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever read an episodic series. All I can think of is the old Conan stories, which I have a book of. I found reading them one after another got old. How many times a week do I need to read the description of Conan? Yet, it was necessary considering they were published in magazines with months apart at times.

    I think an episodic system could work for smaller works like short stories and novellas. Those seem to be a lot more episode friendly.

    • I totally agree. Shorter formats…. allowing you to “break up” the episodes” makes episodic fiction more what our age considers to be “reader friendly.” Just like TV shows are broken up into what we call “episodes.”

      • I’m seeing a lot of people publishing stories in Part 1-3 styles. Mostly erotic romance. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

        • I don’t read erotica so I can’t make an observation where that particular genre is concerned, but I don’t generally like “part 1-2-3,” though it works for many people. Even in a series that isn’t episodic, I prefer a complete story in each installment…. some kind of conflict and resolution of that conflict. But that’s just my personal preference.

          At least part 1-2-3 is marketing the story as “volume 2 or 3 of a story already begun,” so that’s honest. Once I read volume 1 of a story like that with no idea it would end with a horrible cliffhanger and I had no volume 2 on hand. I was seriously annoyed.

        • I made friends with a lot of romance authors, so I support them and read their books. I’m iffy on the 1-2-3 thing because I don’t see why you can’t put the whole book out. I fear it runs the risk of turning off readers that see it solely as a way to make more money.

        • that’s a good point…. if it really is one story, it makes more sense to me to publish it as one, especially if together it’s not too long to make one printed volume.

          To give writers the benefit of the doubt, maybe if it would be a really long book they don’t want the length of it to scare readers off.

        • Good point. I think people are trying to imitate the serials of the old days too. Not sure why.

  7. I found this article particularly useful. Seeing as how I went to university for Economics and NOT English, I didn’t have a chance to catch up these extremely important pointers when it comes to writing (particularly fiction). Thankfully, I’m learning something new every day from your entries!

    • I’m so glad this article was helpful, Payam! I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum as you…. I’ve been focused in my career so much on studying fiction from a scientific/academic perspective that I forget out the intangibles from time to time. So I’m glad you stop by here, because your approach to the topics I write about really broadens my vision.

  8. One novel I finished was rather episodic due to the plot. I think this is is one reason why it kept getting rejected. (That and the less than stellar writing.) I was too influenced by episodes of TV shows. So I see what you mean. I didn’t have a cohesive plot.

    Would you consider Anne of Green Gables episodic?

    • that’s a good question! I haven’t read it in so long…. in some ways it is. But didn’t Lucy Maud Montgomery originally serialize it? that would explain it. If it is episodic, it’s a great example of how do to episodic well.

  9. I think my original concept for my works was more episodic, due to the nature of my characters’ careers. It just doesn’t work out because I have to spend all my energy just driving the plot. I think another thing is that it can easily become quite repetitive.

    • Episodic fiction definitely tends to be repetitive. That’s not always a bad thing–it works for television shows–but if it goes on for too long, people can definitely burnout. That’s a good point.

      I love how you’ve taken the time to figure out what the problems with your work are. That means you can fix them, learn from them, and improve your writing…. It’s not always easy for me to admit where my work falls short.

  10. I love Don Quijote also. I am also a Spanish major! Lol. I enjoyed reading this article and you are so right and you give wonderful examples. My fiction I write is more modern and it driven. I really have not written any episodic fiction, although like you I revere Cervantes writing. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!

  11. The Hamish Macbeth series which I have been talking about is, somewhat, an episodic series in that you don’t necessarily have to read the books in order. I know for a fact because I read them out of order. However, there is a sort of continuous storyline in regards to Hamish as in the early books he owns a dog named Towser and the later ones, it’s a dog named Lugs and and a cat named Sonsie. He was once engaged to be married to the daughter of wealthy colonel and so on. One I collect all of the books, I plan to read them in order so I get see how certain things developed and in what order.

    It is my goal to make sure my series had plot lines which continue through each book.

    • I love having plot lines that develop through each book and throwaway references and jokes about previous events. That’s always fun!!! :-P Pets and significant others are great ways to have a bit of ebb and flow from episode to episode.

  12. Because everything about you and your blog is SO LOVELY, I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award!! http://allnightknitter.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/one-lovely-blog-award/

  13. Pingback: Three Categories of Series: What class does your favorite series belong to? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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