Fiction writing–one episode at a time


I had never heard of episodic novels until I read a post by Donald Maass on Writer Unboxed recently. Funny thing is, after reading Maass’s article, I realized I had read a few episodic novels. I just didn’t realize they fell under that category. But I did notice how different they were in the way the stories were told.

While traditional novels take a linear approach to storytelling with each scene leading into the next, episodic novels are told as a series of self-contained stories around a central theme, place or character. Think of a TV series in which there is the same cast of characters each week, but each episode centers around a different problem, like Friends, Cheers or Mash. Episodic novels are told in much the same way. Each episode can stand on its own as its own story, but it still propels the overarching plot forward.

Here are a few examples:

* The Hobbit was written by J.R.R. Tolkien to entertain his children. Each chapter (or episode) could be read to them before bedtime.

* The story of Olive Kittredge is a character study. Each episode of Olive’s life is told from different perspectives, sometimes from a different character who interacts with her. Each story reveals a different side to Kittredge’s character.

* In The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman, the focus is not on a character, but on a thing – a garden that appears to grow from reddish earth beneath it. The story spans several generations featuring the various owners of the garden and their relationship to it.

* Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is another character study of one girl’s unfortunate childhood. The story is never told from her perspective but as accounts from people in her life who interact with her.

Episodic novels can be children’s stories like The Hobbit or Huckleberry Finn. They can be coming-of-age like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or To Kill a Mockingbird. They can be adventure stories, stories of journeys to distant lands, like the Arabian Nights. Or they can be character studies like Olive Kittredge, or an exploration of a time or place, like The Red Garden. Here’s one list of episodic novels but I’m sure you can find other examples.

Note that episodic novels are not the same as a series novel. A series novel consists of several complete books that follow in sequence, such as Harry Potter. Episodes are self-contained scenes within one book,  but they are still integral to the plot. Each episode connects to the episode before and after it.

TCK Publishing describes four key elements of episodic plot:

  • Episodes are distinct but are logically connected.
  • Each episode contains elements of plot (conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, etc.)
  • Episodes contribute to the overall plot of the story without impacting any other episodes
  • The common theme binds the episodes together.

Another common characteristic is that episodic novels tend to be presented in chronological order. So though the episodes might be told by different characters describing the same incident, the story is never out of sequence.

I admit this might seem a bit confusing. After all, episodic novels seem to break all the basic rules of storytelling, and it does not follow a linear structure. Try reading a few of these stories to see how they are different from traditional novels. Think of it as one more way to tell your story.

Then if you feel brave enough, pick up your pen and try writing one. Remember to focus on one specific character, place, or moment in time. Then like a TV screen writer, create individual episodes that can stand on their own while moving the overall story forward to a satisfying conclusion. Writing an episodic novel (or making a valid attempt to do so) may be the most challenging thing you ever do.

Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel? Try These Methods to Get Moving Again

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I started writing my first novel nearly three years ago. After rewriting the opening chapter at least a dozen times and writing a draft of most of the chapters that followed, I’ve landed somewhere in the middle not sure where to go next. So I’ve set the novel aside to work on other projects while I figure out if I should rework the novel or give up on it.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many aspiring authors experience this sticking point. It can feel like trudging through a muddy forest, feet sinking into the ground.

The middle is the largest section of your story, and where most of the action takes place. It’s where your protagonist begins their journey, faces trouble, and meets adventure. Life gets complicated and the antagonist displays all their power. The middle is where you present challenge after challenge, each getting more difficult and raising the stakes higher for the protagonist. Without this series of setbacks, false starts and obstacles, readers may lose interest in your story.

Literary agent Donald Maass describes this middle section as place to play, a literary playground of sorts. “The middle isn’t quicksand; it’s a sandbox. It’s a place to play, the place for surprises. It is the most fun part of the novel because it’s the least burdened with the heavy requirements and rules of set up and resolution,” writes Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel.

If you’ve been slogging through your latest novel-in-progress, and the middle part has stymied your progress, it’s time to step back and review the work you’ve done so far. It may be that several scenes are out of proper sequence and need to be moved around. Or maybe you have provided either too much backstory which slows down the pace, or you have provided too little backstory that readers can’t understand what’s happening on the page.

The good news is there are ways to fix these issues.

First of all, it’s important to relax and keep writing, writes Heather Webb on the Writer Unboxed blog. This is especially important if you are working on a first draft. First drafts are usually messy anyway. Don’t beat yourself up because there is plenty of time to revise it later. Many of the issues related to tension, pacing and stronger narratives can be worked out in the editing phase, Webb adds.

What other issues might you be having with your middle section? Check out the solutions below.

1. Have you done enough research? Most of your story’s research should be done before you start writing. So you might be stuck because you didn’t research adequately, says Webb. You can’t move forward until you know X, Y and Z. Maybe there isn’t enough backstory for your main character, or about a prior event, or maybe there’s a key prop needed to carry a scene. You might need to go back to research the time and place of your story, especially if it’s set in the past.

2. Do you know your protagonist inside and out? The middle section provides the challenges that will test the protagonist’s strengths and abilities, as well as their fears and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what those strengths, weaknesses, desires and special skills are. Understand the flaw or wound that keeps them stuck in a rut and makes them feel they don’t belong in their current environment. Webb suggests journaling in your character’s voice to get to know their motivations and personality inside and out.

3. Have you introduced sub-plots? Focusing only on the main plot can be boring for readers because it’s one note. By introducing subplots, you complicate the protagonist’s story, weave in complex situations and reveal the protagonist’s secondary concerns and goals. “Every scene is a mini-story where the hero struggles,” writes Zara Altair at ProWriting Aid blog. This increases the tension readers need to stay engaged with your story.

4. Have you allowed enough space on the page for your supporting characters? The middle section is the prime opportunity for your readers to get to know these supporting – and sometimes antagonistic – characters. These are the characters who will accompany your protagonist on their journey – or hinder their progress, says Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA. A good example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where readers learn more about Harry’s classmates and teachers at when he first arrives at Hogwarts.

5. Have you tried the rule of three to move the story along?  Pay attention to stories, books, TV shows and films and you’ll notice the rule of three appears somewhere in the middle of their story lines–three ex-boyfriends, for example, who show up to court your female hero. Or as in A Christmas Carol, three ghosts of the past, present and future who appear to Scrooge during the night.  The number three is common, says Pereira, because “it gives us a feeling of completeness. Two is not enough to establish a pattern, and four feels like too many. Three is just the right balance. It sets up a pattern but allows room for a twist in the third repetition.”

Remember, getting stuck in the middle sections happens to most writers. It’s part of the process of creating. It just means you have to step back, re-evaluate your plot structure, and alter where necessary. As Webb writes, “Be patient with yourself and with your story.”