I’m still quite new to episodic fiction, only really getting into it about a year ago when I began writing Quest For The Wholly Pale for Fiction Vortex. Even with my studies in Screenwriting, and some experience writing a series of short stories around one character, it’s proving more of a challenge than I initially thought. So I had to get back to basics and ask the Fiction Vortex Team to ground myself back into things—and to get some much needed hot tips and food for thought! Here’s how it went, and huge thanks to Mike Cluff, David Mark Brown and Savy Hulen for taking the time and for sharing 😀
Let’s dive right in. What three points, would you say, mark episodic fiction apart from serial fiction?
1. Serialized fiction can be chapters or even snippets of narrative released in serial. Episodes, in their true nature, have complete story arcs that are part of a larger narrative. Both offer chunks, but episodic fiction gives readers more fulfilling chunks.
2. Episodic is more flexible. Similarly, where a serialized fiction project as a whole creates a singular story narrative, episodic fiction can employ multiple narratives to create a larger world—think Twilight Zone with its crazy array of stories all tied together in Rod Serling’s weird world.
3. The name is different.
Ahahahaha! Yes, the name is different. Episodes are technically events. Episode = Event. Our use of the word “episode” in literature signifies a complete event, typically within a series of other complete events. Thus, episodic signifies the cyclic, or serial, nature of the episodes. It’s like putting tiny, little stories on repeat.
On a practical note, it’s easier to break an already completed story into serialized bites than it is to break it into episodes. It’s possible. But harder.
Any other additional points a writer should consider when deciding whether a story idea is suitable for episodic fiction?
I’ll sort of answer this question: I personally find it easier to write in the episodic format. I have a handful of started non-episodic manuscripts that fizzled out around the third chapter. Breaking my writing into episodes makes the entire project more manageable for me. Not as daunting. So if a writer is freaked out by the idea of a large manuscript, they should try episodic chunks to see if that makes writing easier.
I think any story idea can be suitable for episodic fiction. It is a vehicle for storytelling. It just depends on how the author wants to tell the story. As Mike mentioned, it is easy to get addicted to episodic storytelling, due to the shorter completion cycle and the sense of accomplishment for banging out an entire episode…and then 10 entire episodes!
Often times, I approach episodic storytelling by thinking about which character each episode belongs to. Whose story is this? If the main arc of an episode belongs mainly to such and such character, then I will bring that character under the spotlight for that episode. Then the next episode might highlight a different character, etc. Some episodic series will feature the same main character for every episode. Others will jump from character to character. This can be a fun way for readers to get to know characters who are typically in the background.
In a novel format, these character arcs are usually woven throughout the entire novel. In episodic storytelling, a particular character arc might be intensified in a few episodes and then mostly left alone in the other episodes. It’s a different way to structure the story. Of course, this kind of storytelling is very common in television.
Not only is episodic formatting addicting, but it can streamline plotting. I’m a crappy plotter. But I can plot my episodes and my season without too much brain pain. So if the story you are considering has been giving you pains when it comes to planning, writing, or structure, you might give episodic formatting a try and see if it helps you out as well.
So, obviously, structure of an individual episode is going to be important, as will that of the series as a whole. Do you think the 3-Act structure of screen-writing works well for episodic fiction? Are there other approaches you’ve found useful?
The 3-Act structure is awesome for episodic fiction. Take a episodic season of 10 installments: Episodes 1-3 are probably your set-up (Act I). Episodes 4-8 are your confrontation and rise to the season climax (Act II). Episodes 9 and 10 see the realization of the season climax and the resolution/denouement (Act III) —if you look at a lot of popular television series, those last two episodes usually are a two-part zinger.
However, this is only one of many approaches. Looking once again at television, there are some series like The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and The Outer Limits, that are completely narrative-based and really have little or no continuity from episode to episode.
NCIS, Law & Order, CSI, all of the Star Trek series, etc. that employ a more formulaic structure that is still the 3-Act structure, but repeated within each episode. These still use a story arc that covers the whole season, usually to give us some more depth to the half-a-dozen staple characters, but it isn’t paramount to the series. You could pick up anywhere in the season and not really feel out of place.
I personally enjoy more character-driven narratives. Usually, they still use the 3-Act formula within each episode, but have a tighter focus on the characters and use a stronger overall story arc. Babylon 5, Castle, and Firefly are great examples.
I don’t tend to think in the 3-act structure, even when I’m writing novels (which I don’t really do any more…now that I’m addicted to episodes). But I do still think about events. Episode one might be the inciting event. Heck, episode two might be an inciting event for another character, or the same inciting event from a different character POV. Or episode two-five might be a series of events that ratchet up the tension. Eventually there will be a climactic event, and then a final episode that resolves that climactic event and possibly raises a new dilemma for the next season.
For me, each episode is based on determining the event, who the event belongs to, and what sort of long arcs I want to feature through the event. Do I want the episode to contribute to the long overall arc significantly? Or do I want the event to be more of a fun diversion that details these two characters’ relationship? Those are the questions I answer while figuring out how to structure my episodes.
Let’s talk about pitfalls. You’ve written and worked on hundreds of thousands of words of episodic series. What are the common pitfalls and how can we writers avoid them?
Stop thinking any chapter can be an episode. I’ve come across too many episodes that don’t complete the story arc. An episodic writer needs to think of their manuscript more in the format of scenes, chapters, and episodes rather than scenes and chapters only.
Take it back to television (pre-streaming): Before the first commercial break there is the intro (prologue), the credits, and maybe a scene—this would be equivalent to a chapter. So in a 30-minute episode with two commercial breaks, there are three chapters. A 60-minute episode with four commercial breaks has five chapters.
I agree with Mike on this one. The biggest pitfall I’ve seen is the temptation to keep thinking in novel format…and then chop up the novel into “episodes.” But, as Mike mentioned, these chunks end up following chapter breaks, and not true episodic format. I recommend a writer think through their favorite television show formats, or even comic books, before they sit down to outline or plan. What kind of episodic structure does the writer want to use? Something like Battlestar Galactica? CSI? House of Cards? X-Men comics?
Once the writer has identified this, then he/she can start formulating the long arc of the entire series, the mid-arc of the single season, and the smaller arcs within the season.
Tacking on to the chapter-isn’t-an-episode thing, you don’t have to end your episode on a cliffhanger. I know it’s a useful tool when you are writing chapters and need your reader to start the next chapter at 1a.m. when they swore they were really, truly only going to read one more and go to sleep…Yeah, you get the idea.
When you are working with episodes, the reader gets hooked by the format, by the bite-size bits you offer. You don’t need to leave them hanging in the middle of the climax to get them to start the next episode. You can transition to a new scene with a cliffhanger, if you like, but complete the arc for that episode. If you really want to end your episode on a cliffhanger, make sure it’s not from the driving event for that episode. Or intentionally write a two-parter!
Fiction Vortex stories and Fictionite require collaboration from series writers to flesh-out Storyverses. Tell us more about the concept of a Storyverse and why Fiction Vortex has chosen it over other more conventional systems of collaboration for their series.
There are two driving forces for the StoryVerse. One force is coming from the reader/consumer. The other force is coming out of the need of the storyteller/author. On the one hand, consumers like to gain repeated payout from a single investment. If you think about the time and energy it takes you to discover and get into a new storyworld or series, would you be willing to invest that amount of energy over and over in one-off novels? Or even one-off shows? For most people, the answer is “no.” We enjoy the convenience of diving back into a world, such as Star Wars or Star Trek or Marvel, that we are familiar with.
On the other end of the equation is the author/storyteller. Over the last few years authors have attempted to crank out a book a month in an effort to keep up with reader demand. Readers have grown accustomed to “on-demand” or “streaming” content when it comes to other forms of storytelling. But authors soon discover that even a book a month isn’t enough to keep up with readers who can devour a book a week (or even a day).
The solution to this is to harness the power of several authors all creating stories in the same StoryVerse. Now a reader can invest once in order to receive new content from their favorite StoryVerse on a daily basis. New authors are given a scaffolding to work with and a pre-established audience to write to. Readers can return to the same story-well daily for months or even years.
I want to add to the author community aspect of StoryVerses. For the author there are a lot of benefits to working with other writers in the same world. Everyone is invested in the world-building as well as the quality of the stories that come out of the world. They aren’t just reading your story so that you will read theirs. They can happily point out every time you break the world, or your story, or a character goes out of character. All of this can happen while you are still writing the story instead of finding major mistakes during editing and rewriting half your book.
Like David said, there is a huge benefit to the readers and authors by keeping a sustainable and constant flow of content through StoryVerses. And Savy hit accountability and group dynamics square on.
However, I do want to add onto the group idea. Building a fan-base, a name, recognition, and street cred as an author is hard. Our FV team refers to this as building gravity. By yourself, your initial mass is small and hard to increase, but join up with other authors and their mass, and you now have a synergistic mass that does more to build a collective conglomerate mass that will have benefits for everyone involved. This involves cross-promoting, occasionally including bits of other authors’ stories in your own narrative, and participating in the team dynamic. With a StoryVerse, this is all easier because, like Savy stated, all contributors should be invested in the process.
Another loaded question: how do we keep our episodic series fresh after te 1st and 2nd season? In other words, how do we prevent our series and Storyverses going the way of TV series hemorrhaging viewers?
Easy, kill off characters and bring them back right when things are getting stale in the series! Who cares if it is unbelievable, or improbable, or just blatantly an obvious convenience to the reader/fans! Wait… ugh, I was possessed by the CW for a bit there. Ew. Let’s try that again.
When I was an editing intern for Alan Heathcock, he handed out a form, Alan Heathcock’s 27 Tenets of Writing, to his university students. Here is # 14 from that list: “Reveal something in your endings, creating a convergence of plot and story. Write the ending in a way it doesn’t feel tidy. Be French with your endings.” Successful series use this tool, a lot. If you want to keep someone hooked on a series, make them feel like everything is coming to a resolution, that the happy ending is in sight, that the bad guy is defeated, and that the journey is at an end— then let all of those things happen. The key is to put in a small detail, that nagging loose end, that itch of ‘what’s next?’. Maybe the happy ending turns out to be a case of ‘the grass is greener/ be careful what you wish for’, and maybe the bad guy has a bigger, badder brother that wants revenge, or at the end of the journey there is a new, more exciting horizon.
Done right, this doesn’t cheapen the ending, but instead, makes it into a valuable transition. However, no element of a story should be superfluous, but those elements can seem superfluous until the end. The best stories leave subtle clues throughout that may seem inconsequential, but at the end, when brought all together, the reader will have an ‘aha!’ moment and their imaginations keep them occupied until the next installment is released.
Well, at this point, I haven’t done more than two seasons (20 episodes) in a single series. But I anticipate several of my series extending to 4-5 seasons. I think the key is to envision story arcs early on and then execute them. I am a firm believer in the Joss Whedon ideology of killing off characters. I think this is one possible way to keep a series fresh by keeping readers on full alert. Anyone can die at any moment! Explore relationships. Introduce new characters. Always ratchet up the jeopardy. Create a bad situation for your hero, and then make it worse. If you get stuck, kill someone. And not just someone, but the character you least want to kill. That’s my rule of thumb.
Savy: I agree, envision the story arcs early on. Switch characters. Kill characters. Kill the series. You have a whole world to explore! The readers love the world. You don’t need to keep your series alive to keep them hooked in the world. And if they want more of your characters, plan some crossovers. Those little bits of contact with other series are exciting to discover.
As far as StoryVerses hemorrhaging, I think that depends in a large part on the depth of world building and the variety of authors working within the world. There are worlds that have existed for decades that still have a strong fan draw such as the Marvel and D.C. universes. Listen to your fans (or not. They aren’t always right, especially if there is a larger plan for the world as a whole). Take a risk. And don’t hold so tightly to an idea just because it felt brilliant when you had it, if it holds you back.
Episodic fiction has a long and varied history. Why do you think it will continue to have a future amidst all the changes that publishing has been going through? Do you think it will have to evolve more than it currently has?
I’m sure episodic fiction will continue to evolve. I believe the evolution at this point is being driven mostly by technology. Mobile devices and small screens are dictating how readers consume stories. Episodic structure is a natural solution. Episodes provide the ability to read an entire story in less than an hour, or to binge on multiple stories over an entire evening.
Convenience and time restraints are nothing new. Verbal narratives originated around camp-fires at the end of a hard day hunting or in the field, and the story could only be so long because the morning waited for no one. Written language allowed for a pause option of putting down the book (if you could afford one or knew how to read). Priests read handwritten bibles on the Sabbath, the day of rest. Gutenberg made print affordable for the masses. Queue the newspaper and authors like Dickens who released even more affordable and time convenient narratives. Radio series, to television, to computers, to the internet, to handheld devices. Technology has always driven narrative. Time and convenience determines length. A long diatribe, but what I am getting at is technological development isn’t stopping, convenience is too darn convenient to give up, and time becomes more precious.
People like bite-size chunks for on the go. Episodic fiction fills that need, and since Dickens, it has proven malleable enough to adapt to new changes.
I agree that it will continue to evolve. Stagnation can be deadly. And if we want future generations to read, we need to make sure there is content they want to read in a format they want to read it in.
And finally: three words of advice for episodic writers…
humility, acceptance, growth
dream, write, repeat.
coffee, accountability, wine.
About Mike Cluff
I read, I write, I edit. AND I don’t wanna stop!
I’ve always had my head stuck in stories, whether ones I’ve found or of my own making. Maybe someday all of that will help me grow up and understand the real world, but if not I am okay with that, too. I’ve been with Fiction Vortex since its inception and it’s the only place where I feel like staying.
About David Mark Brown
I kill you!!! No, seriously. I won’t kill you, but I do explode things, so keep a safe distance. As an entrepreneur and a writer I love exploding stuff. Conventions. Stereotypes. Buildings (only in fiction).
About Savy Hulen
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. When I was eleven, my parents limited my reading time to a measly five hours a day with the hope that I would acquire other hobbies. So the first day I ran out of reading time, I picked up a notebook and started writing—that’ll show them!—and never stopped. Now I get to write at work!
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