This is a photo of a peach tree in my backyard. As you can see, it is literally half dead. In fact, just one branch has leaves. That one branch is lush and green. And yet most of the tree is stark and barren.
I was reminded of this tree a few days ago, when I read some of my own pages. Some of the pages worked, but there were large sections that were deadly dull. Like the peach tree, part of my story was “dead,” and I wasn’t sure why.
I read through the pages again with a more critical eye and realized that they were “episodic.”
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.
Unless you’re writing ‘episodic’ television, this is not a word you want applied to your writing. But it’s actually a very common writing craft issue. So how can you (and I!) avoid having our stories play like a series of disconnected scenes, but instead link them so they create rising conflict that leads to a climax?
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 Stuart.”)
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. I’m stealing this from Trey Parker and Matt Stone from Southpark fame, but 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 momentum through 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 and desire that demands to be purged through catharsis.
Take action! If you’re getting feedback that your book or sceenplay feels dead, is it episodic? Ask yourself, “Do my scenes create cause and effect?” “Does my main character have a specific goal that he or she consistently 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!
P.S. Look what is buried in the part of my peach tree that’s alive.
Sign up here for my free weekly writing tips and inspiration!