Check this woman out. She’s writing and drifting off. She knows there’s something wrong with her pages, but isn’t quite sure what. Instead of revising, she’s thinking about a very dry vodka martini with three olives.
Special thanks this week to Tracy from Australia who asks, “I’ve been getting feedback on my book and I have to say that the one thing I am struggling with is how NOT to make it all too ‘episodic.’ I’m trying to tell the story through showing, not telling and making sure that each scene has a point, but how do I string the scenes together to tell the story?”
Unless you’re writing ‘episodic’ television, this is not a word you want applied to your writing. But it’s actually a very common issue among screenwriters and writers of fiction/memoir. How can you avoid having your story play like a series of disconnected scenes, but instead link them so they create rising conflict that leads to a climax?
In other words, how can you make your story build?
First, let’s define what “episodic” means. When a book or screenplay is described as episodic, it means that the scenes play as follows– “this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens…” There are events that take place, one after another, but they feel disconnected and don’t create rising conflict.
Often, you don’t even need to have someone tell you that there is a problem in your pages. As you write, you start to feel bored, fall asleep, or think about cocktails.
Here are three tips to avoid episodic writing.
1) Give your main character a specific goal. This will motivate the character and give them something to pursue– they’ll hit obstacles, find clues, and move forward in their attempt to achieve this objective (which will also create a spine for the narrative and make the scenes feel ‘connected.’) Make sure the goal has an emotional undercurrent (“to find love”) and will be fulfilled by an immediate pursuit in the story (“to be with Jason.”)
2) Create cause and effect between scenes. Not only does each scene need to MOVE THE STORY FORWARD, it needs to cause the character to DO something in the next scene. The scenes should play like this– “This happens, THEREFORE that happens, BUT THEN this happens, THEREFORE this happens…” See the difference? Instead of scene, scene, scene, playing randomly one after the other, each scene comes from what passed before, and leads to what happens next. Again, you’re creating connection and forward movement toward the goal.
2) Embrace classic story structure. If you’re writing a traditionally structured story, your main character needs to pursue the goal relentlessly, hit obstacles, look like they’re going to achieve this goal, then have everything FALL APART. They hit a low point. This is where the goal seems to be unattainable, and the protagonist is furthest from getting what they want. Suspense will build, and lead to a moment where the character must face his or her fear one more time and CHANGE to achieve the objective. This is the climax. Classic story structure creates a framework that holds the reader to the story and invests them in showing up for this big moment at the end, where the question, “will they or won’t they?” is answered. It’s difficult for episodic-ness to exist in this framework because there is a forward moving unity of emotion that demands to be purged through catharsis.
Take action! If you’re getting feedback that your book or sceenplay feels episodic, ask yourself, “Do my scenes create cause and effect?” “Does my main character have a specific goal that he or she pursues throughout the story?” “Do I embrace classic story structure, which creates suspense and leads to a payoff for the reader or viewer?” Embrace these three craft tenets and…
Bye Bye episodic-ness, hello tension, drama, and comedy!
Read a well written script or book in your genre. How does the author utilize a goal, cause and effect, and classic story structure to create cohesion and tension? How can you do the same in your story?
Happy non-episodic Writing!
Sign up here for my free weekly writing tips and inspiration!