[updated: 09/2020] This post is the second in a series. For the first post (making a case for episodic fiction and emphasizing the importance of having a clear EndGame), click here.
In its Most Basic Form, an Episode is an Event
So, a serial (or sequence) is a bunch of related episodes published consecutively, while an episode is a "coherent narrative unit" describing an event. Episodes have to be:
- Related to each other: A book of short stories or an anthology doesn't count. On the other hand, episodes don't have to be chronological or sequential. They don't have to be about the same characters.
- A coherent narrative unit: This is the biggie. Episodes tell stories. Episodes have an arc with a beginning, middle and end.
Us writers are typically taught to write stories using things like scenes and bridges, ups and down, etc. Anymore, most ebook chapters are typically one to two scenes cleverly ended moments before the actual end or resolution of the scene (so the reader has to start the next chapter to figure out how the scene ends). Because of this, a single chapter is almost never an episode.
Chapters are NOT Episodes
My early experimentation (almost four years ago) with episodes started as a means of developing the backstory of my main characters before writing a novel. Because of this, I typically chose a traumatic event from the character's past, inserted a story arc, and wrote a short story. They involved a moral of some sort (to describe the impact on the main character). They contained short term resolution while opening up longer term questions about the character's future.
I wanted readers to get to know my main characters as masters of their own worlds, and then be curious enough to read a longer story about those worlds colliding.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was creating episodic fiction with each episode (typically around 30 to 50 pages in length). After creating seven shorter episodes and three longer novels in the same series, I realized I enjoyed creating the shorter episodes more.
Episodes are Lightning in a Bottle
Dense, compact, efficient little pops, episodes are like punches from Bruce Lee in comparison to books being like wild haymakers from a drunken Lee Marvin. Episodes have no time for wasted words. Unlike short stories, episodes aren't irrelevant one-offs reserved for snooty and wanna-be-snooty readers alike. (Oh yes I did!)
When strung together, episodes provide genre readers with the kind of content they can't wait to snort on the way to work or during a break or right before bed. Episodes have everything novels have, without the water. When done right, episodes have the ability to become the fodder—the hard stuff—of true fiction addicts. And aren't these the people most indie authors want to write for? (No offense to those of us who have nobler ambitions. Personally, my goals revolve around genre fiction and earning a living.)
Focus on the Arc(s)
When done wrong, episodes become either incomplete (ie. chapters), or they suffer from amnesia/redundancy—starting over too much or too little. The trick to writing punchy episodes that contain the right amount of plot complexity is to remember all of your arcs.
- EndGame: the overarching big picture goal
- Mini-series: for added thrills, bridge a small number (2-6) of episodes together with an intermediary goal.
- Single Episode: every single episode must resolve a problem of its own (with the exception of the cliffhanger two-part episode).
Crafting a Single Episode Arc
A single episode arc should start with the introduction of a new problem/event (or possibly pick up from where the end of the previous episode introduced the new problem). The middle of the episode describes the efforts to come to grips with the problem/event. The middle should include ratcheting tension and stakes. The end describes an either successful or unsuccessful attempt to resolve the problem/event. Commonly, the end will provide resolution of one problem/event just to introduce the next.
There are three common methods for developing single episode arcs:
- linear or chronological
While it is possible to mix and match these forms in a single series, it is not commonly done. Most episodic series will choose one or the other and stick with it throughout. Once again, television provides the most accessible examples for each of these methods for telling episodic fiction.
Crime procedural such as CSI are a popular example of formulaic episodic story arc. Each episode follows a pretty strict formula starting with a crime scene and ending with some form of justice for the victim(s). Of course these formulaic serials also include mini-series arcs that will often times revolve around the central characters (inter-relational arcs or skeletons in the closet are the most common forms of mini-series arcs). While the best of these formulaic episodic series also include a large, endgame arc, this type of episodic story telling is the most common to skimp on the endgame. This is also why so many of these series fade out with a whimper after lasting far too long.
A popular example of character-based episodic fiction is a show like Firefly. (It was popular in my circles!) If you prefer, you can think of a show like Friends as well. While Malcolm Reynolds remained a central character in most of the episodes, most of the supporting cast were capable of driving one or more episodes on their own. In Jaynestown, Jayne takes center stage. In Heart of Gold, Inara becomes the driving character. Objects in Space revolves around River Tam and her past. This type of episodic series is fun when the characters are engaging and their relationships provocative. There is always more backstory to weave into the present storyline, and each encounter makes the whole of the story richer because the relationships become richer.
Last but certainly not least, the linear episodic arc structure is the most common these days. Series such as Breaking Bad, Lost, House of Cards, etc. are all based on this episodic method. While each and every episode does not have to fall into a perfect, chronological order, this form of episodic storytelling is foundationally driven by the unfolding of a central, linear story. This form of episodic storytelling is most likely to have a strong endgame at the sacrifice of individual episode arcs. Many of the episodes might involve cliff-hanger endings or evolve into two-parts. Linear episodic storytelling is driven first and foremost by the urgency of the narrative and the unfolding plot. The television show, Twenty-four, was an extreme example of this form of storytelling.
Stick to one of these forms of episodic storytelling, remember to reference the mini-series arc, always point back to the endgame arc, and constantly spice up your character dynamics with either a death or a resurrection and you're golden. But, we'll have to wait for the next posts to get into the details on these! Next up, we'll focus on episode transitions and incorporating mini-series arcs.
Sound off in the comments if you disagree or have anything to add. I'm by no means the Jedi Master of this stuff (although I have reached advanced Padawan levels).