Episodic Storytelling? Here’s Why

This week’s video offers some pointers for avoiding dead-end events in your stories.

Video Transcript:

The term “episodic” is very rarely going to be a compliment when used in reference to a novel. What it usually indicates is a herky-jerkiness to the plot, a lack of cohesion, and an overall story arc that doesn’t pull together into a concerted theme. Not exactly what most of us are striving for. What we want is for the plot, the theme, and all the character arcs to come seamlessly together and present a unified overall impression.

One of the ways we fail to accomplish that is by creating dead-end events. Every moment in a story should matter to the overall plot. One scene needs to affect the scene that follows. If you build up to a particular event, only to have it fall flat and end up mattering not at all, you’re essentially creating “episodes,” which, of course, are going to lend themselves to this general feeling that the story as a whole is episodic.

As an example, let’s say one of your characters has a cancer scare. He goes in for tests, the doctors hem and haw, and the character himself is an emotional mess as he fears for his life. In other words, the suspense is drawn out to the breaking point as readers hover over the pages, wondering if this likable character is going to survive. And, then, suddenly, the tests come back, the character’s fine, false alarm.

It may happen that way in real life, but in a story that sort of thing just doesn’t work. You’ve drawn out reader emotions for no good reason and disappointed them when the tension then dissipates without warning. They’re not going to like that, and they’ll be much less likely to trust you with the next suspenseful scene. But so long as you make sure every event
matters to the story, all’s well.

Tell me your opinion: How do you keep your story events from becoming episodic?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m in the middle of writing my third book and your blog’s subject is always at the front of my mind. Although I have done chapter outlines, I’m still conscious of the fact that what I am writing has to be significant in some way. Otherwise the writing has no place in my story.

  2. I can definitely see how one of my current WIP’s may get labeled episodic at this stage… that’s why rewrites are so key! That way you get a good feel for what needs to happen, what needs cutting, etc. While a first draft may be episodic, by the 2nd or 3rd, it should have less so and more cohesive.

  3. On the other hand, if the cancer diagnosis results in a heart attack, which then drives the rest of the story, you may have a winner. 🙂 If you’re going to toy with your readers expectations, there has to be a specific (plot-based) reason for it.

    Lauren

  4. @LK: Spot on! It’s true that some stories will necessarily be episodic to one degree or another (TV series, for example), but there always has to be a reason for that choice. Arbitrary episodicness=bad.

    @Liberty: Exactly. We should feel free to write all the episodes we want in the first draft. Sometimes we have to explore an event on paper to see where it’s going to go. But if we subsequently realize that where it’s going is nowhere, we have to be strong enough to cut it.

    @Lauren: You’ve got it exactly. So long as the cancer diagnosis creates important ripples in the story, that’s what matters.

  5. This is a timely post for me. I am editing, and I found a big scene that went nowhere. It has potential to be a powerful image. At least now I can rework it and make it flow into everything else.

  6. Sometimes we have to delete the dead-end scenes, but sometimes all they need is that little bit of tweaking to turn them into story centerpieces. It’s all a matter of being aware.

  7. “Episodic”–I like that term, and it perfectly describes my frustration with some works. Great post, Kim. Bless you!

  8. This post was born of my own frustration with a particular story, which missed several great opportunities by turning plot points into close-ended episodes.

  9. Haha, the example made me laugh! How dissapointing indeed! (And how bad to trip with stories like that).

    Story is a puzzle, just a random bunch of pieces can´t make it, right?

    But writing those scenes is not THAT bad… as long as you remember to delete them before publshing once the story is done 😛

    Thanks for another wonderful post 🙂

  10. Delete or rework so they end up affecting the rest of the plot. Thank heavens for revisions!

  11. The crux of this is that after an ‘episode’, things should not return to the status quo or it’s an excisable tangent. That’s not to say the appearance of return to normality is unworkable, and even in the example you gave.

    One could use that somehow – perhaps the next time there was a health scare for the characters, they took it less seriously and that caused complications, or an analysis comes back later finding something else wrong with the character, or their partner panics about being on their own and secretly starts divorce proceedings.

    The crime in episodic, is stealing your reader’s time and dropping them back where they started.

  12. You’ve got it exactly. Stories are journeys. Each step has to take us somewhere.

  13. to delete or not to delete? That is always the question ^^

    Oh, I loved nicktatorship´s coment! It´s so true! I thing you can think the same way with prologues… people say they for you to start the story twice (and it is truth) the important thing is not to start.., again in the same point. It all needs to matter 🙂

  14. Yep, killing our darlings is always difficult, but too often necessary.

  15. Christine Phariss-Williams says:

    Just wanted to say that I’ve been enjoying your blog. Just one thing, however, the picture of the Downton Abbey folk reminded me that seasons one and two were some of the worst writing and story lines I’ve ever seen. If it weren’t for the beautiful costume and setting, the good acting and the indiscriminate tastes of a large number of viewers, it would have died aborning. Those two seasons were the worst examples of trite, short attention span stories full of the coincidences you mention in one of your entries. But good writing does not always equal popularity! Thanks for your blog.

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