What is an Episodic Story?
An episodic story is one told via a series of interconnected scenes, with a theme instead of a question driving the narrative.
A story told in a typical dramatic structure features a clearly drawn plot. The plot begins with an inciting incident. From there, a protagonist recognizes a story problem, embraces it, and spends the story seeking a solution to that problem.
In contrast, an episodic story is more like a journey. It can be a physical journey; a journey of emotional growth; a journey to bond a group.
In an episodic story, there is a lesser sense of cause and effect–no inciting incident that demands resolution. Instead, a character seeks to fulfill a desire, to discover meaning, or to reach enlightenment.
Some familiar examples of episodic stories are:
~ JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, a coming of age story wherein Holden relates to the reader events from a year ago. The episodes are brief: he goes from Pencey Prep, to a hotel in NYC, to his parents’ apartment. The incidents are tied together only by Holden, as he heads toward a mental collapse.
~ Larry McMurtry’s western, Lonesome Dove, features a group of retired Texas Rangers on a cattle drive. There is no story question such as “Who shot the sheriff?” within the story, but there is a story goal: to drive a herd of cows from Lonesome Dove, Texas to Montana and open the first cattle ranch in that territory. There are multiple characters on the cattle drive, with individual reasons for taking the journey.
~ Evan S. Connell’s two novels, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, are episodic stories about the same family, one told from the husband’s point of view, the other from Mrs. Bridge’s point of view. Set in the 1930-40s in Kansas City, Missouri, the novels are structured through short, almost vignette-like scenes. In Mr. Bridge, the central idea is a honorable family man’s frustration as his children balk at his conservative ideals. Mrs. Bridge’s episodes are tied together by her desire to keep the facade of a perfect, peaceful family despite her children’s rebellion and her husband’s emotional distance.
Some other examples of stories told in an episodic style:
~ Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
~ Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
~ Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
~ Candide by Voltaire
~The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen
~ The Reivers by William Faulkner
~ On the Road by Jack Kerouac
As with the typical dramatic structure of inciting incident + story problem + climax + resolution, an episodic structure follows a few basic rules:
1. There is one or a few dynamic characters whose needs and desires are paramount to the story’s goal.
2. A unifying element runs through all of the scenes.
3. Episodes may not be chronological, but there is an order. Part 1 may be in the present, part 2 in the past, part 3 in the deeper past, part 4 back in the present. Despite the lack of strict chronological order, there is a logical segue between episodes.
4. Episodes are not sparked by an event. Instead, they are related by theme.
5. There is a story goal instead of a story problem.
Episodic stories are sometimes compared to slides shows or music videos, in contrast to a story told in typical dramatic structure, which would be like a movie.
Have you read an episodic story that delighted, or frustrated you, as a reader? Are you trying to write one?
Tomorrow’s topic: How to Write a World Changer