Thursday, 15 November 2012

Episodic Storytelling Is A Problem

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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30 comments:

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I think television series handle the episodic nature of stories pretty well.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always have the ending and the character's goals in mind before I begin. (Actually, they are on paper in a really detailed outline that can take longer to create than the first draft.)

mooderino said...

@Michael-that's not really the same thing. Generally TV episodes are judged by time (i.e. chunks of the story meted out over weeks) rather than narratively epsiodic. So the next episode can pick up where the last one left off. Although some TV shows can be structured as single entities, with the past generally not affecting the future very much, more akin to a book of short stories featuring the same characters.

@Alex-it's when the character loses focus and starts meandering (usually in the middle of the story) that things go awry. Having a solid outline helps avoid that, and so does remembering what the character is there to do.

Lydia Kang said...

I had the hugest problem with writing an episodic story. It was my second one. There was no point to it. There was a character arc, but no overarching plot goal for my MC. I ended up tossing it after I realized how I really needed to write it, and it would take a complete rewrite.

R. Mac Wheeler said...

I love your insight.

You have a way of breaking down the faux pas(ses) of writing so even a simple mind like mine can keep up with you.

I'll repost!!

A.K.Andrew said...

Characters really do have to have a purpose. Without them then the plot is meaningless. - just a set of incidents strung together for no reason. Your comparisons with episodic v. non WP. We're spot on.

Julie Luek said...

I've read a few prize-winning books in the last year which I found baffling in their chapter-by-chapter disconnectedness. (The Tigers Wife, A Visit From the Goon Squad) Although more literary selections as opposed to popular fiction, they made for very laborious reads without true endings, yet both were highly acclaimed books.

So while there may be a place for episodic writing, I'm guessing it's the rare writer who's skilled enough to pull it off. Your point and observations are well-taken (and applied!). Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-I think it feels more like real life to have random stuff happen to a character, just turns out real life isn't always that interesting (mine certainly isn't).

@Mac-thanks for the repost!

@AK-cheers.

@Julie-I think there are structures that intentionally form loose connections, but my feeling is if you don't have the insane genius of a Lewis Carroll I'm not all that interested, although there may be others who are.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm reading a story right now that's a bit episodic--the author goes off on apparent tangents and the actual driving force behind one of the two main characters isn't strongly emphasized. It's still quite a good book, though.

Lauri Meyers said...

Hmm. I think that sums up one of my problems. I write a perfectly good story. A thing happens. It's interesting. It ends. But it's just an episode -it's not a book.

Daisy Carter said...

Another excellent post! Love reading this blog.

sjp said...

ah the annoying random events that conveniently solve everything... great examples, definitely would change Oz if they just ambled about

mooderino said...

@Golden-I think individual moments can always be entertaining, but it's much harder to make it feel like a complete whole. Not impossible though.

@Lauri-integrating the separate parts into a solid narrative can be tricky. Although it is possible to write a kind of loosely connected shorts.

@Daisy-cheers.

@SJP-sadly not all stories have a nice yellow road to show you the way, would make it a lot easier to know where to go next.

estetik said...

Thanks for the plug-in information and also the ways and reasons to use it. Great post and information.
estetik

Diane Carlisle said...

I agree, Alice in Wonderland was pure genius. I read somewhere that the author was tripping on LSD while writing that story. I cannot read a story where the main character has no objective. Even if the story is obviously well-written, if I don't know of or suspect a goal or path, I'll lose interest by chapter 3.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't you tell me this a year ago??!!

K

Rachna Chhabria said...

I always try and get the character's goal in mind when I start the story, else I will meander in all directions.

nutschell said...

Episodic stories are best left to TV shows :) I always enjoy reading books where the protagonist has a clear character arc/ or GMC (goal motivation conflict) :)
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

lbdiamond said...

Interesting info...never really thought about this before. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@estetik-your welcome.

@Diane-I've been trying to think of another Alice-like book and can't think of any.

@Kathryn-I only started thinking about it until I critted your story.

@Rachna-me too.

@nutschell-even tv shows tend to build a season arc these days.

@lbdiamond-YVW

Elle Carter Neal said...

I agree; it's very frustrating and dissatisfying in fiction. I have read a handful of good episodic autobiographies/memoirs, though. But, then, one doesn't expect real life to have a decent plot.

Elle

mooderino said...

@Ellie-I think it makes a big difference what the author's intent is. Memoirs are a good example of a story not meant to be too structured, and the readers expectations change accordingly.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Great post! Yes, random episodic stories start to feel a little, um, well, random and episodic:) about half way through when you realize there's really no point to it all. Having a main goal or focus is definitely key.

Sarah Allen said...

I hadn't thought of Alice in that way, but you're right. It is very episodic. And a unique work of genius. You're definitely right about the problems with this style :)

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah With Joy)

mooderino said...

@CGQ-It always starts out okay but then there's that moment when you suddenly realise nothing's happened.

@Sarah-Geniuses! Ruining it for the rest of us.

dfmil09 said...

Forrest Gump is a good example of episodic storytelling done well. And the novel is way more episodic than the movie. I think if the writing were not so humorous, it would not have worked.

mooderino said...

@dfmil09-a good example. You'll notice that to make the story interesting enough he had to intersect with some of the most momentous events of the 20th century, which formed a kind of overall theme to the story. However it does show it can be done.

Beverly Diehl said...

My personal style tends to be episodic, This is not bad, in and of itself, PROVIDED one can weave in a theme or overall conflict that knits it all together.

I wish I were a better weaver.

mooderino said...

@Beverly - I think episodic writing can work, depends on the quality of each episode, but it's harder to get a flow going than in a focused narrative.

Behrooz Shahriari said...

I think that even AIW has a lot more cohesion than your examples. It's all propelled by some very clear motivations from Alice. After the inciting incident of the White Rabbit, Alice spends most of the book trying to get to the garden or finding her way home.


I don't disagree that it's episodic in its nature but even there a thread of continuity seems essential.

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