The Key to Writing an Inherently Episodic Story… Effectively

Unless something really cool or scary happens, a novel about what happened on your summer vacation probably isn’t going to work.

Yes, “Summer of ’42” (a film based on a memoir by American screenwriter Herman Raucher) was a modern classic.  But really, did you fall in love with a married hottie like Jennifer O’Neal during your summer of “42?

Didn’t think so.

“Saving Private Ryan,” episodic as it was, wasn’t just a cinematic stage upon which the storytellers sought to illustrate the daily grind of Tom Hanks and Company as they plodded across the French countryside.  Yes, it was indeed harrowing and scary – also totally linear, and thus, episodic – but that was never the literary point of it all.

It was never the story.

Saving a U.S. solider named Ryan, for reasons that bore significant emotional weight, was the point of it all.  The mission had stakes.  It gave us a reason to root for the hero as those episodic scenes ticked off.

As an author, you need to be clear on that same dynamic –the relationship between your scenes and the higher, broader arc of your story.  The latter is what fuels the former.

Your scenes depend on, and are trumped by, the context of stakes and ultimate purpose, rather than the in-the-moment experience.  (Writers of epic battles and long days on the trail, take note here.)

And that’s the key to your episodic novel.  Even when your point is to make us feel the injustice of prejudice or the thrill of young love or the drama of a life of crime.

There needs to be more going on than simply what happens, or even what it means in terms of the reality it explores.

Episodic stories can work.

But only if you understand this principle.  Only when there is an over-arcing dramatic question in play.

Anyone who begins the writing of novel has something specific in mind – even if it seems less than specific – at Square One.  At the moment that initial spark of inspiration hits.

A novel about prejudice.  A novel about growing up in Brooklyn.  A novel about a young girl looking for her unknown parents.  A novel about being lost at sea.  A novel about heartbreak.  A novel about the challenges of being in a primary relationship.  A novel about finding a magic talisman that releases the power of an all-powerful wizard.

All are worthy.  And yet, all are inherently episodic until something else — a hero-specific dramatic question — is in play.

Trust me,  despite what the reviewers wrote, “The Help” didn’t work because it illustrated a bunch of episodes with black maids being harshly treated by their white employers, thematic and powerfully depressing as they were.  The story had much more going for it than that, even if “that” was the author’s highest purpose and her initial inspiration

Only rarely is an initial moment of clarity of purpose a fully formed “story.”  Those who begin writing a draft fueled by intention alone – “I’ll figure it out as I go…” – quickly discover there is much more involved, because so much more is always required.

Thinly disguised memoir and fictionalized true stories often fall victim to this trap.  It happened, it was excruciating and thrilling and illuminating and life-changing… and so, in your novel, you show a sequence of things that show “it” happening.  But that doesn’t exempt you from this principle… the story will tank if there isn’t an end-game in play.

To take this point to the next level, consider this: you can’t just toss in an obligatory purpose or dramatic mission as justification for a sequence of scenes, either.  Because it is the very emotional essence, the degree of weight and resonance of that is what readers will engage with…

… not because there is another battle, another abuse, another injustice to behold.  But because of what is at stake.

In the end, episodes aren’t story.  The hero’s goal, the stakes behind the goal, the encountering of opposition to that quest, always trump the hero’s memories and the daily grind of getting to them.

Battle/fight scenes are fine.  But what the hero is fighting for is what makes them work.

If you can’t get past that, consider a memoir instead.

This is why movies based on video games – where the in-the-moment experience is the appeal – have yet to draw a meaningful audience or a place in storytelling history.

The movie Tron was terrible, as a case on point, for just this reason.  As was Ender’s Game, which was based on a much more literate bestselling novel by the same name.

The latter Batman movies were terrific, because each battle the hero engaged in had consequences and backstory-driven weight to them.

The Magic of Story Development

Story development, stemming from whatever the initial idea might have been, always comes with the territory, no matter what process you employ to get there.

There are many dozens of items to check off the roster of what is required of a story that works.  If that sounds daunting, I’ve previously categorized them into six core competencies and six realms of story physics that at least give you something to shoot for.

When your initial spark is indeed the right stuff, the true grist of greatness (as it was in “The Help”), you’ll find yourself building the other eleven elements upon and around that core initial building block.

The acid test here is easy: be honest, what is your goal at any given moment in your narrative?  To plop the reader into a scene, because it happened, or it’s cool, or it’s another example of the issue at hand?  Or, is it to forward the story itself?

Without the latter, the former is always a transitory experience. 

“The Lord of the Rings” worked not because of the battle scenes, but because of the ring and what it means.   The ring was the quest, and thus it – not the endless battle scenes – was the point.  Don’t confuse episodic television or video games or the demographic nature of an audience with the art storytelling in novels.

Harry Potter was always about the hero discovering who killed his parents, and discovering himself in the process.  Every book.  Every magical scene in every book had the shadow of that larger context behind it.

A story isn’t just what happens, in what order.

A great story is more about WHY it happens.  The stakes behind the episodes, over and above the experience of the episodes.

That is the key: the stakes the characters are playing for… fighting battles for… taking dangerous journeys for… taking risks for.  Without the WHY driving those scenes we are left with little more than a diary.

There is no sacrifice when backstory, purpose and stakes enter the storytelling equation to become context for all that transpires.  Indeed, there is hope in all of this.

And in that sense, your initial idea/spark is both a gift and a burden.

Because how you frame it will make or break the story itself.


UPDATE:  the deconstruction ebook using Deadly Faux as a case study is still in development.  If you’ve opted in, you’re on the list.  I hope to get this out in January.  If you haven’t opted in, click HERE for details on how to get this FREE ebook.


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6 Responses to The Key to Writing an Inherently Episodic Story… Effectively

  1. deb

    If I was the inking sort, I’d be finding some skin acreage to have most of this post tattooed on myself so I could read it daily. Thanks for posting it before I put my fingers to the keyboard – again.

  2. Jan Rydzon

    Thanks for the reminder to keep focused on the “ring.”

  3. I like the way you’ve tackled the problem, and promise, of an episodic story (vs simply dismissing it as un-doable).

    Especially liked, “…the relationship between your scenes and the higher, broader arc of your story. The latter is what fuels the former.”

    Thanks so much.

  4. [Anyone else have to post twice to get a reply up? Happens each time I try to post here. Not sure if it’s my browser version or a WordPress glitch…]

    Great post, Larry.

    I especially like the Saving Private Ryan example because it can be easily compared to Band of Brothers. SPR has one main character all the way through, with a clear overarching plotline that is apparent in each episode. Each episode has its own plotline, but that seems secondary to the main line. In BoB, things get reversed a bit. Each episode has its own main character, and even though there is somewhat of an overarching plotline (the Normandy invasion), the plotlines of the individual episodes seem to take more weight and importance than the overarching plotline.

    As I really enjoyed both SPR and BoB, I was wondering what your thought were on BoB and how it works (or doesn’t) from a storytelling perspective. Do both SPR and BoB work because they are two different episodic storytelling models, or do you BoB fails because it pushes the overarching plotline to the background?


  5. I’ve criticized a lot of my own writing as “episodic.” I’ve mentioned before that I have 9 episodic novels sitting in my basement where they belong: they’re not that good!

    But, in a larger sense, all novels are episodic to some degree. As Mr. Brooks notes, the episodes must propel the novel itself toward a larger goal. This was my own failure in those 9 novels: I had a larger goal, but the episodes were filler. We’ve all seen movies or TV shows which contain similar filler.

    This may address some of the points in the other posts. Sometimes a novel can be constructed of several linked standalones that are stories in and of themselves. The movie “Psycho” has two linked but separate stories. In the first, a woman steals money and then gets killed in a motel. In the second, her sister discovers what happened to her. They’re linked, but separate. Each one could stand alone, but they’re stronger together.

    I believe some kind of outlining/planning is essential for understanding this in one’s own work. My original outline for what I hope is my good #10 novel had the line, “Ian and Jasper tour the Ferrist Temple”. I had ambitious plans for the scene, but, the outline showed me that this scene would be clever, maybe interesting, but it did not advance the plot at all. It would be an episode that served only as interesting filler. The pertinent details were revealed in other scenes

    Some readers may be familiar with the original “Doctor Who”. This show was filmed in episodes during its original incarnation. A number of episodes were put together to tell a story. Some were amazing. These were what Mr. Brooks describes as having an overall idea or goal. Others were awful. Many of these were made up of individual episodes that merely padded out the story with an exciting chase or something else that did not advance the plot.

    All of this is a long, padded way of saying that I agree with Mr. Brooks: every scene in a novel must advance the overall story. Episodic novels work if they accomplish this.

  6. martygav

    Great post Larry.

    Was just what I needed to hear, as I am working on something a bit episodic. What you posted here just rang so true as I read it.

    I thought a great example of what you are talking about is in the movie, A Christmas Story.

    A series of events (episodic) happening with Ralphie around the holidays. Funny, charming, nostalgic moments, but always, we are aware what’s at stake for him, what the quest is…will Ralphie get the Red Ryder BB rifle gun for Christmas?

    Thanks for the info. Great site you have here. I am also enjoying your Story Engineering book.

    All the best to you in 2014!