Monday 19 November 2012

What Episodic TV Teaches Novelists

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?
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Nominations for WRITE TO DONE's annual TOP 10 BLOGS FOR WRITERS 2012 are open. Go HERE and leave the name and URL of your favourite writing blog (*cough* Moody Writing *cough*) in the comments section with a few words about what you dig about the site.

WRITER'S DIGEST 101 Best Websites for Writers is also open for nominations. Send an email to (with the subject line: 101 Websites). Include the blog name, URL (*ahem*, and reason for nomination.

Obviously you don't have to nominate MOODY WRITING, any site that you feel has helped you or the writing community in general would be worth the couple of minutes it'll take to write a comment or send an email. Perhaps there's a helpful ninja you admire, or an interior decorator who spreads positivity, or perhaps a kick-ass Californian who set up her own writer's group. The usual suspects will of course have received multiple votes already, but it would be nice to see some of the smaller sites get a little love.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You're nominated? Very cool!
If writing a novel like that, I can imagine you'd cut all the individual stuff that didn't apply to the overall story arc.
One show that comes to mind is X-Files. Most were stand-alones, but there was a story arc that pulled the series along. Although it rather fizzled at the end. (And I actually preferred the individual stories.)

mooderino said...

@Alex-No, nominations haven't been announced, they're still accepting suggestions.

X-Files is a good example of where they couldn't recapture the old magic.

Grace said...

Great post that clearly explains these different methods of story-telling, and why it can be hard to mix them. Each method has its own strengths.

My favorite examples that I can think of are Star Trek (TOS or TNG mostly) for very episodic storytelling. There were some multi-part episodes, and recurring characters from season to season, but basically, if you knew the world, you could come in at any point and be okay. That makes it fun for a quick 50-minute adventure, if that's what you're looking for.

At the other end of the spectrum was Babylon 5. That show was really more like a long novel, with each episode being a chapter, or maybe even just a scene within a chapter. If you came in at any point past about the 4th episode, prepare to be lost... One of my absolute favorite shows. :)

And ditto on those thoughts about The X-Files...

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I said vote for Moody! And left the website address in the comments section. I hope you win dude. Your blog is the bomb.

mooderino said...

@Grace-Star Trek is an excellent example of a show that managed to have it both ways. Although it helps to have dedicated fans. Genre has an effect on expectations too, I'd say.

@Michael-Thank you!

Tammy Theriault said...

oh wow, hmmm...never thought about it that way. break it down like a tv series and it is the same. you have a great blog. new follower! hi

mooderino said...

@Tammy-cheers. Off to visit your blog.

Golden Eagle said...

I don't tend to watch a lot of TV, but I see what you mean by episodic. It's an interesting difference between episodic and just presented in sections.

I nominated you for the Top 10 Blogs contest!

mooderino said...

@Golden-thanks very much!

Shallee said...

Sometimes I enjoy episodic stories more than overarching ones, especially on TV shows. Thanks for the post!

mooderino said...

@Shallee - I think a lot of people do, especially those with busy lives. But tales that take time to unfold are also enjoyable experiences.

Gina Gao said...

I really like TV shows, they can be episodic or overarching. I don't mind either.

mooderino said...

@Gina-when they're done well, either can be great.

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