Episodic vs. Epic: Go Bigger with Your Writing

jami-goldOne of the most common reasons given by authors for why they write is a desire to create something meaningful for their readers, something that will stick with them or make a difference. One thing that helps our stories feel meaningful is avoiding episodic writing.

What Is Episodic Writing?

To understand the term episodic, remember what most TV series were like in years past: Each episode was a standalone story, which didn’t affect later episodes. If the main character narrowly escaped death in one episode, the next episode wouldn’t mention the traumatic events at all.

In other words, what happened in an episode didn’t matter in the long term.

Now when agents, editors, or readers say a story feels episodic, they usually mean:

  • The story doesn’t flow: Rather than A causing B, A happens and then Q happens. Twists and surprises are good, but nothing should feel random.
  • Story events lack consequences: An event’s fallout “sells” the stakes. If characters don’t experience consequences, why should readers care?
  • The character’s arc feels weak: Like real life, characters often struggle to change, but events must build on each other to show their growth.

Is Episodic Writing “Bad”?

Episodic writing can work for us. For example, flash fiction and short stories sometimes use a “slice of life” or “vignette” style.

Shorter writing doesn’t need to show growth or consequences over time because the story’s scope simply isn’t that big. However, bigger stories need events to affect the rest of the story in a cause-and-effect chain.

Consequences (good or bad) create a sense of risk—will X happen? That risk creates emotions—tension, anticipation, dread—in readers. Those emotions then pull readers from one scene to another, as they read on to see what happens.

Without consequences, a story’s risks, stakes, tension, pacing, emotional response, and character growth are all weakened.

How Can We Tell If Our Writing Is Episodic?

The creators of South Park came up with an easy test for episodic writing, called the “But” and “Therefore” rule…

episodic writing

Bad: “And Then” Transitions

When we’re describing our story, we might use the phrase “And Then.” A happened and then B happened.

However, “And Then” creates an episodic feel because it doesn’t tie A and B together:

  • She fell asleep, and then the blimp blew up.

Wait… What does A have to do with B?

Good: “Therefore” or “But” Transitions

With a stronger story, we can link our plot events with the phrase “Therefore/So” or “But”:

  • If one plot event causes another (or causes a decision or response), they’re connected with “Therefore” or a “So.”
  • If one plot event causes a setback (impeding goals or actions and causing conflict), they’re connected with “But.”

For example, instead of our clunky sentence above, we could say:

  • She fell asleep, therefore she wasn’t manning the controls and the blimp blew up.
  • She fell asleep, but the blimp blew up over her house and woke her.

Either of those transitions reveals how A and B are connected. We see the cause-and-effect chain. If our events and scenes are connected by a “therefore” or “but,” we’ve probably avoided most weaknesses of episodic writing.

How Can We Fix Episodic Writing?

If we find a lot of “and then” transitions, with scenes that don’t tie into other events, we can…:

A rare “and then” (or a jump to another plotline with a “meanwhile”) transition isn’t “bad,” but each one risks breaking our readers’ immersion in our story, leading them to put down the book, so we want to be careful.

Pushing Our Writing to “Epic” Level

Non-episodic writing ensures that everything in our story happens for a reason—it was caused by previous events. But we can take this a step further by adding echoes that reverberate with meaning throughout our story:

  • Consequences from events and choices continue affecting the story, not just the immediate following scene. (That is, A affects B, G, and Z, not just B.)
  • Issues, dialogue, and situations use setup and payoff to call back to earlier mentions or foreshadow later mentions.
  • Ideas, character growth, stakes, and situations are revisited and layered throughout a story, growing and changing each time.

Whatever kind of scene or event we need, if we choose details or descriptions that echo something else in the story, we give the events a stronger purpose and meaning. Echoes add a weightiness that creates a greater sense of meaning for our story—like it’s more than the sum of its parts—pushing it that much closer to EPIC.

Do you have any questions about episodic writing?
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After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

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21 Responses to Episodic vs. Epic: Go Bigger with Your Writing

  1. :Donna says:

    Yet another excellent post, Jami 😀 Thank you! I love the “bullet point” points <3

  2. Pingback: Writing Links 12/18/17 – Where Genres Collide

  3. Pingback: Transition Techniques: Meanwhile, in Our Subplot... | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  4. “Episodic” is one of those terms we hear quite a bit and get so familiar with that it comes as a shock when you realize you didn’t know exactly what it meant :). Thanks for explaining it so well!

  5. This is wonderful, Jami! Thanks so much for sharing this with other writers. I also write short fiction, YA adventure stories.

    I’ve shared the post online and will connect with you on social media. Enjoy your holiday!

  6. Julie Hiner says:

    GREAT article!!! Very well laid out and really, really helpful. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  7. This is a great explanation for episodic!

  8. June Randolph says:

    This was a timely post for me. I wrote a story. It was too short, so I wrote something happening before the start of the story. Well, it grew. Now, I have two stories set in the same place with the same parameters. I was wondering what to do. I think I will make them Part One and Part Two. They are definitely “This happened, and then this happened.” Calling them two short stories would unlink them too much, I think. Both occur one right after the other, both are instigated by the same person in authority, and both occur while the main character is on vacation. I got somebody to read the story to get another perspective, and without prompting, she suggested dividing the ms. into two stories or two parts. It is too long to change, and I like both stories. This blog post confirmed I need to acknowledge the lack of story linkage. But, is calling them two parts the best way to proceed? Thank you.

    • June Randolph says:

      I know. How about making the two parts Book 1 and Book 2? I will never write out of order again. Normally, I go from the beginning to the end. Maybe writers who use outlines can shift between parts. But I am inclined to think pantsers better not.

      • Jami Gold says:

        Hi June,

        Oh! That’s a really good point about non-linear writing and pantsers. I’ve never been able to conceive of how to mix pantsing and non-linear writing, and this comment touches on the problem. I wonder if others have successfully mixed the two.

        *ponders* I might do a blog post about it. 🙂

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi June,

      Hmm, from what I’ve seen, Part One and Part Two would still have some sort of story through-line. Often those “Part” designations are used to mark really big transitions: from time passage, character POV, or mood/tone, etc.

      Calling them different books might work better, almost like a short story collection with a common theme, setting, or premise. Good luck!

  9. Paula Cappa says:

    Very helpful post today. Thank you! I recently wrote a story for the holidays, a flash fiction, for my blog. Making yourself write “tight” at 1500 words is a good exercise and very challenging, for all the points you make here today.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Paula,

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      I normally write l-o-n-g blog posts, so these shorter guest posts at WHW are good practice for me, so I understand the challenge. LOL! Good luck with your writing!

      • LOL. Sorry for any hand wringing we cause, Jami, but short or long, you craft great posts! 🙂 So glad you tackled this topic and brought up the teachings of Matt Stone. I have read many manuscripts that are otherwise well-written but deep down offer merely a series of unfortunate events thrown at the character randomly. Often I finally tap out because I can’t suspend disbelief any longer, and it is exhausting to read. 😉

  10. JC Martell says:

    This was a exceptionally straight-forward. concise explanation of the “but”, “therefore” , “and so”” (and wicked “and then”). I t will certainly help me with my scene flow!! I have often gotten lost in longer explanations.

    I flipped back to the transition link, also extremely helpful in this context.

    Thanks!!

    I have several subplots. Could you write an article on the “meanwhile” – , hopefully, possible with the same straight-forward, concise explanation that you have done here?

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