This post is the fourth in a series. For the first post (making a case for episodic fiction and emphasizing the importance of having a clear EndGame), click here.
If the idea of publishing something with a mistake in it terrifies you, episodic fiction might not be a good fit. Reality will most likely demand that episode one be published before you’ve even thought about episode five. Maybe you’ve got a handful of ideas for episodes. You should certainly know your endgame. But if you aren’t comfortable with being fluid during the process, episodic fiction will drive you nuts. If spontaneity gets you as excited as a Kleenex at a snot party, then keep reading.
Develop a Routine
Whether it’s weekly, monthly or fortnightly, develop a routine and stick to it. A huge advantage of episodic fiction is the ability to engage your readers regularly. That only works if you write and publish regularly. (Shocking!)
In order to do this, you might have to put additional upfront work into a few things:
- character sketches
- world building
The more you do these things upfront, the less time you’ll have to take during your routine to do them, and the less likely you are to change your mind on a critical world element midway through the serial. That being said, don’t be afraid to let your characters and/or world evolve.
Account for Reader Interaction
Live, episodic fiction maintains the possibility of direct reader interaction with the ongoing story. At the extreme, platforms like Epifiction invite and depend upon direct reader involvement to direct the story. Epifiction (delivered to schools as Smart Koala) incorporates reader feedback via online voting. This adds extra benefits and challenges for the writer.
If you are accounting for reader interaction, each episode should provide multiple genuine outcomes crafted with the sole intent of generating buzz and discussion among your fans. If you are not accounting for reader interaction, you might want to ask yourself why the bleep you aren’t. Advances in technology aren’t always positive, but in this case, technology has restored intimacy between reader and writer (storyteller and audience). And in my opinion, this is totally awesome and how it should be.
Multiple Genuine Outcomes (MGO)
MGO is critical for generating reader involvement and fan buzz. But what the frick does it mean? Let’s start easy. Multiple means more than one…preferably three. Why three? It’s more than two and less than four. You know, three–not to complex, but not too simple.
As for the “Genuine” part, this refers to the authenticity of the possible outcomes. Are all the options true to the story and/or the character who would commit them? If the possible outcomes at the end of an episode are: “Challenge the Duke to a laser battle,” “Sit down and die,” or “Use your secret Kill-Everyone-Wristband,” then I’m guessing you have one genuine outcome and two ridiculous ones. In reality, there is only one outcome, and that doesn’t count as reader interaction at all. Bottom line, no one will be discussing the next episode with baited breath. That means you’re missing out on the biggest strength of episodic fiction–reader investment/involvement.
Admittedly, reader involvement and fan buzz complicate the matter of endings. At this point, you may be thinking something like, “How can I be expected to create an episode (something with a beginning, middle and end) with any sort of resolution while still leaving room for MGO? This is starting to feel like a Mexican standoff!”
Massaging Episode Transitions
Episode transitions are tricky, but not impossible. After all, we’ve experienced them via television hundreds if not thousands of times. Some episode transitions piss us off. Some just pass with a sigh. Some heighten our anticipation of the next episode. Those are the kind we’re after. Here are a few ways to pull off the anticipatory transition:
- resolve one problem/event while introducing a new one
- classic two-episode cliffhanger
- resolve the first problem in a chain of progressively thorny problems
- Resolve the perceived problem while revealing the real problem
- Resolve the problem at hand while reintroducing an earlier or ongoing problem
- End the episode moments before the actual resolution (see next section)
Timing Reader Involvement and Fan Buzz
I hesitate to include the final option in the above bullet point list because using it would result in creating episodes that aren’t technically episodes (due to the ending of each episode being stapled to the beginning of the next episode).
While I can’t think of an example of this in television, I can see a place for it in written story telling, specifically in regards to subscription services. If a reader is highly likely to read every single episode, as is the case with Smart Koala and Epifiction, then it is possible to short-circuit the ending of episodes for the purpose of providing MGO for readers.
Making this decision should pivot on when you want to create MGO. If it is critical that the readers participate in directing how an episode ends, go for the short circuit. If it doesn’t matter, or you would rather gain reader participation in directing how the next episode unfolds, then avoid the short circuit approach. Instead provide resolution and then ask for involvement/input on directing the next episode.
Empower. Don’t Insult.
Reader Interaction is a revolutionary force in written word storytelling today. Don’t unleash it’s mighty force if you aren’t ready to live and die by its rules. Rule number one: Readers will know when you are blowing literary smoke up their literary woohoos. If you ask for input/involvement from readers and then discard it (or don’t respect it), your readers will figure it out and be pissed.
No one like to feel like a dupe. Only give readers input if you expect to follow their lead, no matter what they choose. Rule number two: readers will inevitable choose differently from what you expect. It’s next to impossible to emotionally detach yourself from your story (why would you even want to). As a result, when providing MGO, there will almost always be one you favor. That’s fine. But get used to the readers crapping all over your pet outcomes. Then embrace the sultry possibilities behind door number two (or sometimes three).
Now that we’ve discussed the structure, the content and the process of writing episodic fiction, all that’s left is to ruminate on how to bring it to the consumer.
As usual, please speak up in the comments. What are some other ways you’ve ended episodes or seen episodes transitioned well?