The problem with episodic storytelling is that often the writer can’t really see the problem with it.
Stuff is happening to the main character, as it’s supposed to. Maybe even quite interesting stuff. Different scenes may not be directly connected, but they’re still happening to the same person, so it feels like there’s a connection.
But when you have a character who goes from one thing to another seemingly at random, what you end with is a character who has nothing better to do. It’s not very captivating when the story meanders and the main character doesn’t know what he’s doing.
It is of course possible to write a good episodic story. A character can go through a series of adventures and experiences. It’s possible, but rare.
A classic example of an episodic story is Alice in Wonderland. One crazy thing after another. No real point to any of it. And in the end she wakes up and it’s all been a dream.
Why does that story work? Easy, it’s a unique work of genius. Each individual moment, each character, is so brilliant and unique that quite frankly he could have written it in any form he wished and it would work. And I can’t think of any other story that manages that feat.
The closest I can think of is The Wizard of Oz, which also has some very amazing creations, but it has a very strong throughline: find Oz and get home. Everything in the story is done with that in mind. Now imagine a story where Dorothy lands in Oz, has no idea where she is or what to do. She wanders around, picking up a few friends who decide to tag along, and eventually they end up at the Emerald City where they discover a wizard.
Nobody tells her to find Oz; lots of roads to follow; people join her because why not? Would that have the same effect? I would suggest not.
Episodic: Mick is in love with Mary, but doesn’t know how to tell her. He goes to see his pal Jim. Jim is having an argument with his wife so Mick and Jim go to a local bar. In the bar an entertaining drunk bets them he can guess their star sign or he’ll give them his lucky shamrock...
Even if each of these individual scenes are brilliantly written with exciting moments, hilarity, drama and whatnot, overall it will feel lacking. Because what has any of this to do with his problem with Mary?
And if we’re going to get to Mary later, is she really that big a deal to him if he can go off and do all this other stuff?
Non-episodic: Mick is in love with Mary, but doesn’t know how to tell her. He decides to ask the advice of his pal Jim who’s been happily married for ten years to beautiful Debbie, Mary’s best friend. And also maybe Debbie can put in a good word for him. He gets there in time to see Debbie storming out with bags packed, screaming about how all men are scum...
In order for a story to feel like it’s going somewhere, the main character needs a goal and he needs a plan. The goal can change, the plan can fail, but when a character sets off he needs to know where he’s going and why.
The key is to consider what your character wants. Then, what are they doing to get it? You can still have other stuff happen to them, they can still be sidetracked or waylaid by events or people, but if they have this thing they need to do, then that will provide a framework for the scene, which will even allow you to work in elements that have nothing to do with the story but which you find entertaining.
Episodic: I’m wondering what to do with my day when there’s a knock at the door. Aunt Fanny’s dropped round for tea. There follows a fantastic scene with the wonderfully witty Aunt Fanny...
Non-episodic: I’m trying to get the money I owe a mobster before he has me killed, but wonderfully witty Aunt Fanny has dropped round for tea. Now I have to get rid of her, without freaking her out, and get on with my mission...
You can still have the fun with Aunt Fanny scene, but there’s also the added facet of trying to get rid of her to get back to the main goal. And so it remains integral to the overall story.
Episodic stories tend to be plagued by convenient moments that help the main character figure out what to do. The character ends up in an arbitrary place for no particular reason, and someone just happens to be there who can tell them where to go next or what they need to do. To avoid that, you need a goal and then you need to make the character pursue that goal.
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