The Eight Rules of Writing Episodic Fiction (pt.1)

In case you’ve been so busy shielding your mountain compound against high altitude nuclear EMPs for the last couple of years that you’ve missed it, let me reiterate–the rules for writing and publishing have been burned and rewritten so many times, they no longer exist. Having said that, I'm going to give you the rules for writing and publishing episodic fiction. Like any other set of rules, these rules are meant to be broken. But if you wish to break them correctly, you still need to know what they are.

I also must mention that I'm stealing a ton of this content from the great Edwin Fritz who has been writing episodes for Fiction Vortex over these last few years. On that note, let's dig in!

Rule 1: Episodes are not Chapters

I went into this a bit in my last post, but it is important enough to reiterate. Episodes need to have a beginning, middle, and end. They need to have an arc and tell a story. The last thing you should do (although I must admit I've done it before) is to take a novel and chop it up into episodes and THEN have the nerve to release it serially.

Episodic StoryStructure is Different from Novel Story Structure

Put your reader brain in and think about how annoying that is. Just don't do it. Episodic story structure is different from classic novel structure. One of the biggest challenges of writing episodically is to satisfy the reader's temporary needs while simultaneously advancing the plot-line of a much larger story.

One way to envision this is to picture each episode as “Lightning in a Bottle” while remembering the overall season is the entire storm. Episodes are condensed. I have found that writing them forces me to slash and burn a lot of the fluff that would have made it into a novel.

Due to this shift in story structure, writers will need to also shift the way they plan or plot. It isn't enough to plot the larger story arc for the entire series or even for each of the individual seasons. You also need to have some sort of idea how each episode will flow...or at least an idea of which character each episode belongs to and what the theme of each episode is.

Episodic story structure has more resolution moments. If you can make sure all of those resolution moments come together on the fly, all the power to you. I find that I need to plot out the general theme and endpoint of each episode at least one episode in advance of the one I'm working on. In a ten episode season, I might not have any clue what episode seven will be about. I'll probably have a solid idea of what I want episode nine and ten to look like because I'll need to end at the right place for the reader to be satisfied with the conclusion of that season.

Rule 2: Each Episode Should Belong to One Major Character

Who's story are you telling? Most often, it will be your protagonist's story, but it doesn’t need to be. A solid indicator of strong episodic storytelling is if at least a few of the supporting characters are strong enough to carry the central focus of an entire episode.

I'm a huge Browncoat, and if you've watched Firefly you'll see how Joss Whedon accomplishes this with his supporting cast. Most of them own at least one episode. That is to say, it is their story unfolding.

You don't necessarily have to stick to a single point of view (POV) in each episode, although this will commonly be the case. The trick is to make sure that even when you are in another character's head, the story remains firmly fixed on a single character for the entirely of an episode. If the episode belongs to your protagonist's love interest, make sure that anything from your protagonist's POV helps drive forward their love interest's story.

When planning and executing an episode, I can't iterate how important it is to condense. If you are accustomed to writing novels, episodic format will initially be challenging. Whether you are aware of it or not, novel structure teaches us to draw things out--to sometime embellish unnecessarily to fill out the novel. Episodes force you to boil it down. You have to get into a character's world and tell their story--beginning, middle, and end--quickly.

Your protagonist and love interest are going through a rough spot. Perhaps a parent just died, or worse yet, a child. The episode is about the grief and loss the love interest is experiencing and if the relationship will survive the first Christmas season without the child. The episode should open with that theme, plough through all sorts of tension and conflict, and then come to a resolution by the end. Is your protagonist's relationship with the love interest stronger? Shattered? On hiatus?

Rule 3: You Must Engage the Character Death and Rebirth Cycle

While episodic fiction is inherently plot or event driven, no one will care about the events without interesting characters. An episode is when such and such happens to what’s his butt. Over time, if a serial is to maintain the reader’s interest, the character dynamics must continually evolve.

Joss Whedon is the Master

Before vampire slaying was cool, Whedon gave us Buffy. He later gave us Angel. For those Browncoats out there, he briefly gave us Captain Reynolds and crew. I think one of Whedon’s greatest talents is balancing character dynamics over the span of numerous episodes. A large part of his success in this area is due to his tendency to kill off beloved characters. You might be thinking, “WTF! How does that make a serial anything but painful!” The answer: It keeps you fully invested in every single scene, because you never know when it might be that character’s last.

Writer-on-Character Violence

Like in all things there is a balance when it comes to writer-on-character violence. Too much can leave readers so frazzled that they simply can’t carry on. In television, the successful spectrum of writer-on-character violence can range from the extreme of Twenty Four to the other extreme of Castle.

When Twenty Four first aired, I remember the utter shock of how casually the show would toss away main characters. The character is there one minute, and then “boom,” a bullet to the head the next. Only Jack was safe (and by safe, I mean he could be tortured and robbed of all humanity, but never killed).

I prefer a balance somewhere along the lines of Battlestar Galactica. That show created a large enough cast of important characters to regularly kill/disappear one. Plus, the show devised a complex means of resurrecting characters that allowed for even more permutations for character interaction. And that’s ultimately the name of the game. If you are going to dip from the same well fifty plus times...

You Gotta Shake it Up

When it comes to character interaction, you don’t have to kill a character to radically alter relational dynamics. Falling Skies is an excellent example of this. The show begins with a father protecting his two sons and fighting as part of a resistance community. His third son has been “harnessed” by the aliens. Midway through the first season, the harnessed son is rescued. The son’s living bio-mechanical harness is removed from his spine. The middle son is no longer controlled by the aliens, but he is now known within the broader resistance community as a “razorback.”

By doing this, Falling Skies is not only able to birth a new character into the dynamics, but the series also births a new category for characters in the community. Now there are aliens, resistance fighters, and people who are strangely a combination of both. This dramatically effects character interaction. Some characters are suspicious, some hateful, some compassionate.

This is All Part of Character Death and Rebirth

The most interesting character in Falling Skies is a mercenary type known as Pope. In nearly every episode in which he appears, his character evolves. He ranges anywhere from psychopath, to anti-hero, to renaissance man. He disappears from the show in stretches due to his anti-social behavior. He gains popularity by killing aliens and then loses it by trying to kill the main protagonist.

It is characters like Pope that continually turn the prism of a serial to catch different aspects of the light. No one agrees on how to deal with him, and even individual opinions change from episode to episode. Pope is episodic gold.

Episodes are by their nature formulaic simply due to the fact that they borrow from the same fictional world over and over and over. When done right, the formula becomes comforting for the reader. The fact that the reader already knows the world and cares for the characters can be a huge strength of writing episodically. But the flip side of that coin is the risk of becoming stale and predictable. The easiest means of staying fresh is through character death and rebirth.

Nobody Has to Die

At its most subtle, character death and rebirth can involve shifting the focus from one character to another. If each of your main characters can support an entire episode, all the better. Remove a character from an episode or a mini-series of episodes. Put a character through a life altering event. Bring in a new character. Shift a character’s allegiances. All of these options should remain in your arsenal.

Because the natural way of things is that eventually many of the supporting characters' stories will be as interesting as the protagonist's, this can also be a source of difficulty due to your cast of characters becoming too large & unwieldy to follow through to the end. It may become necessary to kill some of them off along the way, if for no other reason than to trim the fat & keep the cast of characters manageable.

(To be continued in next week's post!)...