After the last post on episodic writing a lot of people mentioned TV as an example of where an episodic structure works very well. So I thought I'd address that.
The first thing to bear in mind is that just because something is delivered in an episodic format, doesn’t mean it’s episodic narratively speaking.
If I take a novel and split it up into sections, and then let you read one chapter a week, then that’s an episodic way to read the story, but it makes no difference to the story itself.
The fact a TV show is watched in weekly segments doesn’t automatically define the kind of storytelling it contains. It can be a serial that takes up from where it last left off (usually with a Previously on... opening), or each episode can be entirely stand alone (this week Angela Lansbury solves the murder of a husband by his wife, next week she solves the case of a monkey accused of stealing a banana...).
And then there’s a third approach where each episode is stand-alone, but an overarching storyline is introduced bit by bit. That could be a will they/won’t they romance, the emergence of a Mr Big pulling the strings behind the scenes, or a recurring bad guy who has a special connection to our hero.
The thing to remember though is that the audience has a clear idea of what kind of story they’ve tuned in for and adjust their expectations accordingly. And that’s true of someone reading a novel, too.
In an ongoing serial or mini-series, the main character has a specific aim and the audience expect that story to be furthered with each episode. Occasionally that kind of show is a big hit and in order to extend its life, the writers try to go off on various tangents. Can that work? Sure. Does it? Rarely.
The reason is simple. You had an agreement with the audience as to what kind of story you were telling, then you changed it. That’s fine if the new version is as good as the old, but different approaches have different rules, in much the same way novels and short stories are judged differently.
The truly episodic shows, where cases are solved or jokes are made, and then next week it’s like everything starts from scratch again, are like a collection of short stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, people enjoy them and they take skill to do well, but a short story is not a small novel.
Ten great short stories strung together, even if they are connected by theme or setting or featuring the same characters, is not the same as reading a good novel. That’s not to say it can’t be very enjoyable or even preferable to some people, but in the scheme of things it’s pretty obvious which is harder to write and the more satisfying artistic experience to read.
People know what they’re getting with TV shows that have self-contained episodes, and they judge them on that basis. You can still develop feelings about the characters and their general predicament, but you know that each week they’ll pretty much be the same and possibly stuff that happened previously will be conveniently forgotten.
Over time though, character development is introduced. A long-running series gets a bit stale if nothing ever changes and storylines that stretch over episodes or even series start to appear. There’s a very good reason for this. The audience cares more if the story switches from an episodic to a long-form structure. They have time to engage with the narrative on more than a superficial level.
You may have noticed more and more of these kind of show are appearing. And pretty much in all cases they get to a point where they fall apart and people go from being obsessed with them to not caring at all.
This is because when you change the structure, you change the rules of engagement. And after the couple you’ve been on the edge of your seat wondering if they’ll get together finally get together, you can’t then just go back to the old stand-alone episodes. The audience notices the difference. They are aware that they cared more when things had a specific goal. And why would they want to go back to the less involving version? (Answer: they wouldn’t.)
Similarly, the standards for events in a short story are not the same as those for a novel. People will allow you time and space in long-form that they won’t in short-form. That’s true of all formats, movies, TV, comics...
And the simplest way to see that difference is to consider if you had a popular TV series with both episodic and overarching storylines that you wanted to turn into a movie, which elements of the original would you cut?
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