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.