You’re heard me rail and wail about episodic storytelling.
I’ve called it toxic, referred to it as a dreaded story-killer.
Still think that, by the way. But what the heck IS it?
The differentiation between what is episodic and what is not is thin and in constant motion. It is made all the more complicated and obscured by the fact that, in any good story, there is indeed “stuff that happens” along the way… stuff that actually looks, smells and plays just like the very episodic context I’m preaching against.
Confusion becomes paradoxical. But there’s a rule of thumb that helps: do you have a compelling CONCEPT in play?
The ticking off of “stuff that happens along the way” (exposition) that is in support of, pursuit of, and in context to a compelling CONCEPTUAL IDEA (not premise) is, in fact, the stuff of narrative.
Episodic scenes that simply unfold without context or connection to a compelling CENTRAL DRAMATIC CORE QUESTION… ONE QUESTION, becomes that dreaded episodic approach.
The following may help.
This is the kind of issue that needs frequent revisiting from different angles.
A Story fix reader emailed me today, saying that she understood what I’m talking about (episodic storytelling versus, well, non-episodic and therefore better storytelling) in theory, but when it came to her story plan she found herself without clarity. That line was wrapping itself around her outline and choking the life out of it.
This is, edited, expanded and paraphrased, my response to her:
Hi Jane (not her name) — great question. This is one of the toughest things to wrap our heads around, the easiest “trap” to fall into, and often, we don’t even know we’ve done it.
My favorite “episodic” example is this hypothetical: you want to write a novel about your summer vacation. Literally, “what I did on my summer vacation.” Why? Because it was your best summer ever. You did all kinds of stuff. You fell in love. Then had your heart broken. Went to Paris. Fell in love again. Got sick, almost died. Fell in love a third time with the doctor that saved you. Came home a new and refreshed woman.
Sounds like a great novel, right? But a reminder here… “Eat, Love Pray” (which played just like that) was NOT a novel. It wasn’t even fiction.
All of the above “could” be a novel… but unless you added something to it, it would be an EPISODIC novel. And probably, a bad, most likely publishable novel. Not always, not certainly… but likely.
A-list authors can do it, we can’t. Don’t imitate them on this one.
Why? Because a story like that is just a bunch of stuff that “happens,” in a certain order, without a CONCEPT in play. And while the hero did have a “problem” in this story (in fact she had several of them… and THAT is the storytelling problem here)… she didn’t have a CORE problem. She had episodic problems. Stuff that “Happened” to her.
This story has no core dramatic thread. The key word: CORE.
There is no SINGULAR dramatic question being asked in the story. It just goes from one thing to the other.
This is why weekly television is NOT a novel, because each week plays like a mini-drama, then it’s on to the next thing. But a story like “The Following” (the current Fox hit, which is fantastic) DOES play like a novel, even when it has a weekly episode… because the whole thing is in CONTEXT to a SINGLE and powerful dramatic core, asking a single (though complex) dramatic question: will Kevin Bacon stop, and survive, the unfolding evil game playing out at the hands of the psycho bad guy cult leader serial killer?
The key: eEach “episode” takes us CLOSER to THAT resolution, that confrontation. None of the episodes stand alone in terms of drama. Each is a stepping stone toward the COMPELLING higher level of dramatic, conceptual question.
In the summer vacation example above, each episodic DOESN’T take us closer to anything, other then the end of her trip. Each “thing” that happens to her stands alone, rather than expositionally-forwarding the narrative along a path TOWARD an inevitable resolution.
And what IS that question? It’s your concept. Your premise. Your “idea” on steroids. It is the SOURCE of dramatic tension… not just the STAGE for it. Understand that difference and you’ll be on the road to avoiding the dreaded “too episodic” verdict.