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:
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.