One 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…
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…:
- change the plot to create that connection,
- summarize the events in a transition, or
- cut the scene.
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.
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.