In the comments of my posts, conversations often pop up that explore various ideas. Last week, Serena Yung and I were going off on tangents about creating emotions and tension in scenes.
Specifically, we were discussing the use of anticipation and dread to pull readers from one scene to another. But I pointed out that readers’ anticipation or dread doesn’t count if it’s relevant only for events that might come to pass beyond the scope of the story.
For example, if a character experiences a near-miss accident that doesn’t affect them or the story at all, we’re not going to be anticipating or dreading that they might experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of that event twenty years after the story ends. *grin*
Either the events affect the character and the story, or they don’t. One style is common in storytelling, and one might sink our writing.
If we understand the difference, we can fix any problems before we start drafting. (Or if you write by the seat of your pants the way I do, you’ll know how to analyze the story you’ve written during the editing process.)
Let’s dig deeper and explore the different ways our scenes can fit together and learn what to look out for.
Have you ever heard the term “episodic” in terms of a story? Some agents give feedback along the lines of “the story felt too episodic.” (And this is generally considered A Bad Thing.)
Or maybe we’ve heard that “too episodic” complaint about a synopsis. (Which of course, can then lead agents, editors, or contest judges to think the same problem exists in the story itself.)
What the heck does “episodic” mean? Let’s compare styles.
Style #1: Cause-and-Effect Chain
The common approach to storytelling is a cause-and-effect chain. A causes B, which causes C, etc.
Cause-and-effect storytelling is not episodic. Each event builds on the events that happened previously, and later events will be affected by what’s happening now. The past, present, and future of the story all matter.
Even if a story uses a non-chronological story form, it can still follow a cause-and-effect style. The point isn’t the passage of time but the fact that each event affects others.
Style #2: Episodic or Slice-of-Life
On the other hand, if an event happens in the plot (not just shared in summary) and doesn’t affect the character or story at all, we’ve veered into episodic storytelling. The term is most commonly used to describe certain TV shows.
Recent TV series have experimented more with a non-episodic format, but in the past, virtually all TV shows used a style where one episode didn’t affect later episodes. The main character might narrowly escape death in an episode, and the next episode wouldn’t mention the traumatic events at all.
In writing, this style is sometimes also called “slice of life” or “vignette.” While this style works for flash fiction and some short stories, it doesn’t work for most longer form writing.
Longer Stories Need Stakes
Why doesn’t episodic work for most longer form stories? Simply put, storytelling outside of some literary styles requires stakes.
As Serena and my conversation pointed out, anticipation and/or dread pulls readers from one scene to another. Those emotions require risk. There’s a risk this good thing might not come to pass. There’s a risk that bad thing will happen. That risk is what the reader anticipates or dreads and why they read on to see what happens.
But in episodic styles, events don’t have consequences. A plot event won’t have consequences, good or bad, for the rest of the story or the characters.
Some literary fiction styles can get away with a story where nothing changes and nothing matters, but for the rest of us, we need to build momentum and a sense of forward movement in our story. We need tension for that anticipation and dread that carry readers through our story. We need events that build up to a story.
No Emotional Response
All of these issues are related. Episodic styles sink the pace, tension, and emotion of most long-form writing. Period.
The human brain likes seeing meaning and relevance in things. How often do we see intentions behind actions that aren’t really there? Or how often do we see animals in the clouds or among the stars? *smile* We want meaning in our lives, not randomness.
How Can We Tell If We’ve Used an Episodic Style?
The easiest explanation I’ve heard came from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. (Note: Language at that link.) They call it 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.
It’s like a clunky transition:
- She fell asleep, and then the blimp blew up.
Huh? What does A have to do with B?
Many, many synopses are written in this style, and it prevents them from feeling like a mini-story. As I’ve mentioned before, every action in a synopsis should have a motivation (cause) and a reaction (effect), so the episodic style doesn’t work well for synopses either.
Good: “Therefore” or “But” Transitions
A cause-and-effect style means that plot events (or story beats or scenes) should be connected. So we want to be able to mentally replace those “And Then”s with a “Therefore/So” or a “But”:
- If one plot event causes another (or causes a decision or response in another scene), we could tie them together with a “Therefore” or a “So.”
- If one plot event causes a setback from previous events, we could tie them together with a “But.”
- (Note: “But” isn’t just about something unexpected happening. The “But” should impede the goals or action of the previous events in some way and cause conflict. See Janice Hardy’s post for more about this point, with examples.)
For example, instead of our clunky transition 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 sentences show how one event is related to the other. We now know how A and B are connected. We see the cause-and-effect chain. There’s a setup and a payoff, even at this micro level.
That action-and-reaction chain should provide consequences, show growth, add challenges, force changes, raise the stakes, or escalate the emotions. If nothing new is happening and the emotion is the same as the previous event, the action won’t feel dramatic.
Exception #1: “Meanwhile” Transitions
In some stories, we might follow multiple plot lines. In that case, it’s okay to use “Meanwhile” transitions:
- She fell asleep. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, he fought to get the last bull into the holding pen.
However, each of those plot lines would need to follow its own internal cause-and-effect, “But” or “Therefore/So,” chain:
- But an explosion in the sky above startled him, so he lost his grip on the bull.
(Of course, “she fell asleep” isn’t an interesting place to end that first plot line, so we wouldn’t really do that. When switching between plot lines, we’d want to leave off at a hook so readers still want to continue. *smile*)
Exception #2: Occasional Unconnected Events Are Okay
None of this is meant to say that we can’t ever have a plot event that doesn’t immediately tie together. Sometimes the connections between events won’t be apparent until later, or sometimes we need a random event to trigger the next part of the cause-and-effect chain. The point here is that we wouldn’t want more than one of those coincidental “And Then”s or unrelated “Meanwhile”s in a row and that they should be rare.
We’ve probably all read a story that jumped to a scene that seemed unrelated to what was going on. Maybe that scene turned out to be a “Meanwhile” or maybe it was a rare “And Then.” The problem is that jump can break our readers’ immersion in our story, and that’s always a risky thing.
The One-Step Test for an Episodic Style
- If we’re a plotter, we could take our outline, beat sheet, or synopsis and make sure events and scenes are connected by a “Therefore” or “But.”
- If we’re a pantser, we can keep this rule in mind while drafting and make sure one event follows from the consequences of the previous events, but we can also analyze our story after the fact the same way plotters do.
From Janice Hardy’s post:
“Look at your plot and outline a scene using these techniques. Focus on what your protagonist actually does, not how they feel. Those feelings might be the motivators for the therefore or and so connections, but it won’t do much for the plot, because plot is what the character does, not how they feel.
List what they do, what happens, and what they do in response to that. If you find yourself writing a lot of and then, you know you don’t have enough conflict and your character’s goals aren’t being thwarted. You don’t actually have a plot, just a series of scenes.
But if you find a lot of but, therefore or and so, then you can rest easy that you have a plot and it’s driving the story.”
What If We Find a Lot of “And Then” Scenes?
If a scene doesn’t tie into other events, we can either:
- change the plot to create that connection,
- summarize the events in a different scene, or
- get rid of the scene entirely.
Note, however, that scenes can relate in many ways. For example, a sequel to a scene might seem like it doesn’t cause changes, but sequels usually end with a character making a decision for a new goal or action. In other words, the previous scene caused an effect in the sequel, and the decision of what action to take next is a cause for the following scenes.
On the other hand, if we like an “And Then” scene, we may not want to get rid of it. Deleting fun banter or cute interactions can feel like a waste, and if our readers love our characters as much as we do, they might appreciate more vignettes of their lives.
Slice of life scenes can be perfect bonus material for our website (or enhanced ebook). Those readers who love the characters would enjoy reading these bonus scenes, and at the same time, the “And Then” scenes won’t slow down our pacing. Perfect!
Knowing how our scenes or plot events fit together (or don’t fit together) is a great way to improve many aspects of our story. Better cause-and-effect means that our stakes, pacing, and storytelling are all improved too. And that’s a bonus we’ll all enjoy. *smile*
Do you think the episodic style can work in long-form writing, and if so, how? Do you agree or disagree with how all the elements of our story are related (consequences to pacing to storytelling)? Had you heard of the “Therefore” and “But” rule before? Have you ever analyzed your stories with that rule, and if so, what was the result? Can you think of other exceptions or ways to use “And Then” scenes?Pin It