Tag Archives: episodic

Episodic Vs Sequential: TV Shows and Novel Series

TV storytelling has changed with the advent of VCRs, DVDs and streaming services. In the golden age of TV, it was much more common for each episode of a TV show to be a self-contained story.

The reason is simple: showrunners couldn’t presume that viewers had been able to watch the previous episodes. If you were busy during the show’s airing time, then you missed the show. So, it made sense for each episode to stand alone. Title sequences introduced new viewers to the show’s characters, theme and mood. Even if you’d never seen a show before, you could get a pretty good idea what it was about before the day’s episode started. (And title sequences are getting shorter these days, or being left out entirely, now that most viewers no longer need them to learn about the show they’re about to see.)

The problem with episodic storytelling is that it’s more difficult to show long-term character development, or to give events permanent consequences. In its purest form, the end of the episode presses the reset button, returning the characters to the status quo at the beginning of the next episode. Still, some shows developed a certain sense of continuity: origin episodes, introduction of new characters or departure of old ones, key events in season finales.

With the advent of the VCR, people could record shows and watch them later at their convenience. And now, with streaming services, it’s become common for viewers to “binge” on a show and watch the entire season over the course of a few days.

(This is not to say that the golden age of TV didn’t have serials–soap operas, anyone?–or that there isn’t great episodic TV being made right now. )

But general trends changed when it became easier for people to keep up with their favourite shows. When data suggested that people enjoyed viewing shows in a single sitting (or two or three), showrunners naturally made shows catering to those kind of viewing habits. There’s now a strong trend towards “bingeable” shows – long running serials that tell a multi-thread story over the course of a season, and an even bigger story over the course of a series. Actions have consequences, and characters grow and change – but it’s rare for a viewer to pick a random episode in the middle of a series just to “check it out,” now that it’s easier to start at the beginning.

When you’re writing a novel series, which model do you want to follow?

In part, it depends on genre. For example, if you’re writing a category romance novel series, it’s often expected that a new reader should be able to pick up a book at any point in the series and enjoy the story. Additionally, romance stories derive their tension from showing how the hero and heroine get together–tension that’s hard to show once they’re an established couple. As a result, category romance series have developed a certain pattern. Each book in the series takes place in the same world, but each book (usually) focuses on a new hero and heroine. The supporting characters are often either the heroes/heroines of previous books, or future hero/heroines of upcoming stories. As a result, fans are able to return to a world they love, while new readers won’t be lost if they aren’t familiar with the supporting characters from previous books, and the primary tension is still focused on watching a couple overcome their obstacles to be together. However, this formula makes it difficult to show character relationships growing and changing beyond the book that the characters “star” in.

On the other hand, some series all but require you read them in order, or you’ll be lost continuity-wise. For myself, I love a big, ongoing, developing story where characters’ actions have consequences, and the plot unfolds based on the choices the characters made previously. But this technique makes it harder for new readers to “jump in” in the middle.

And some series walk a middle line. Each book is a self-contained arc, but if you put them together, you’ll also see a series-long story arc developing. For example, in some mystery series, a new mystery gets solved in each book, but as the series progresses, the main characters change, develop, and grow, giving the series a sense of continuity and ongoing development.

In large part, it depends on what you as a writer want to do. Do you want to write a series where each book focuses on a different character in the same universe? Do you want the flexibility to add “new adventures” if the series takes off?

Or do you have a long-term vision for a story that’s too long for just one (or three, or more) books to hold? Do you want to show a character growing and changing over the long term, and do you believe that you can convince audiences to care about this character, to choose to spend time in their company over and over again?

If the first book in a series hooks a reader, they’re likely to come back for more—particularly when they feel that the story is “going somewhere” and that each book “matters” because events have consequences. But there’s also something to be said for a format that’s welcoming to new readers, and doesn’t require them to put Book 4 back on the shelf and go looking for Book 1 in order to understand what’s going on. There’s audiences for both types of series (as well as the middle gorund) so choose what method best suits your genre and the story you want to tell.

 

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.

 

Prewriting from a Series Perspective

So you’re writing a series, say the third volume, just to pull something totally at random and in which in no way applies to me. How do you approach prewriting when you’re looking not just at the book alone, but also in its place in the series?

Well, in my dad’s favorite answer to almost any question: it depends.

First off, what kind of series are you writing? Is it the episodic sort in which can go on more or less forever and which a reader can more or less start at any point and easily pick it up? Or is it a closed, serialized story with a clear beginning, middle, and eventual endpoint? Each series type faces a critical issue of balance, but in different ways.

For an episodic series, each entry is a standalone story following (usually) the same protagonist. For obvious reasons, this style lends itself well to procedural-style stories (crimes that need solving or medical cases that … also need solving).

Any series of this sort, one with no planned ending, is operating on a ticking clock. There are only so many stories that are worth writing for a given series. The longer it runs, the more likely installments will begin feeling like retreads. This is doubly dangerous for a series of novels with one writer, who is going to have their own tendencies and blind spots and, unless their name is China Mieville, will eventually start to fall into the same story ruts given the same story ingredients.

That being said, one surefire way to shorten your clock is to break the key elements that make your series work in the first place. Whether it’s author boredom or fear of getting stuck in a rut, I’m talking about change for the sake of change.

To look at this from a television perspective, The X-Files really began to fall apart as a series when David Duchovney’s Mulder left the show (followed eventually by Gillian Anderon’s Scully). At that point, two entirely new characters, Agents Doggett and Reyes, became the show’s new leads. And honestly, they were fine in the roles. If the show had begun with them as the leads, it might have found its own kind of success. But readers had been tuning in for years to watch Mulder and Scully battle the paranormal and their own repressed feelings for one another. In this case, the actors wanted out, and the showrunners can’t be blamed for that. But writers would do well to take note. It’s important to have a good sense of your series’ sine qua non, that which it cannot exist without. Remove or change the central dynamic that makes your series appealing at your peril.

A serialized story with a planned beginning, middle, and end faces different balance challenges. Each volume needs not just to be an entry in a larger narrative, but also to tell a satisfying story in its own right. This requires more work on the author’s part than in our episodic series, where each story is more or less standalone with the same characters and/or settings.

But because our story is fulfilling double-duty, it also has to be a part of a larger narrative (both in terms of plot and character), and that means treating the entire series as one enormous story, with its own sense of rising action and stakes. And this leads us to the great danger of the serialized story: the all-consuming desire to top what has come before. It’s very easy to fall into this trap, to look at each installment as needing to be somehow bigger, with higher stakes, and wind up with a story that is more ridiculous than thrilling. It’s a good idea to approach this sort of series with an idea of what you wish your final conflict in your final volume to be. This allows you to calibrate the individual conflicts driving the individual series entries and make sure you aren’t peaking too early.

Fiction of all sorts is rife with examples of this, particularly with bad guys that are all but unkillable in the first installment and become mere cannon fodder by the final entry. The Wheel of Time makes Rand al’Thor’s first kill of a villainous trolloc an epic struggle in which he nearly dies. By the end of the series, trollocs are less effective than imperial stormtroopers at menacing our heroes. That’s okay in this instance, because Robert Jordan effectively shows the reader how Rand and his friends learn to become bigger and bigger bad-asses in a believable progression. It doesn’t wreck our suspension of disbelief because Jordan puts in the work.

By contrast, when Star Trek: The Next Generation introduces the borg, they are a terrifying and all-but-invincible foe. Two series later, in Star Trek: Voyager, the drive to increase series ratings brings the borg back on a regular basis. Where previously a single borg ship was able to obliterate entire fleets of starships, now the Voyager successfully contends with the borg week-in and week-out. The villains are robbed of their menace.

Writing a series adds several dimensions of difficulty to your job. It means having to keep multiple books in mind at once, both ones that have come before and ones you haven’t written yet. But no matter which kind you are writing, a little thought and planning ahead of time can save you a lot of pain (and painful rewrites) down the road.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents: An Anthology of What Lies Beneath. He lives with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.