Monday, December 15, 2008

Plotting Problems - Episodic Writing Part I

When I was reading email from one of my writer’s groups, the discussion was on episodic writing and I realized it’s a worthwhile topic for this blog. The author of this blog entry, Marg McAlister, encourages others to share the information so I am including her blog here. Credit is at the bottom.

Marg says:
The rejection letter says: "Your story, on the surface, appears to be well-told and has appealing characters. However, the writing is episodic; the story lacks direction."

You frown. Huh? The story lacks direction? How could it? Your main character is on a quest; how much more of a direction could you have than that?

Clearly, this editor doesn't know what she's talking about. Oh well. It takes all types... you bundle up your manuscript and send it out to the next publisher.

Six rejections later, you feel more than a bit miffed. This is a good story; everyone in your writing group says so. Your writing style is smooth and accomplished (even a few editors have said that).

So why the heck do they keep rejecting it? It's something to do with the plot; that much is clear.
But what?

If you're lucky enough to get feedback, look for clues in the comments that have been made. The moment you see the word 'episodic', that is the biggest and best clue you could have. Not all editors will use this term. They might say things like 'what is the story question?' or 'the character has no clear-cut goal' or 'there is no character growth'. All of these things can point to your story being episodic.

What Does "Episodic" Mean?
If someone tells you that your story is 'episodic', they mean that your story is a series of episodes, or events, that are very loosely tied together. The "events" crop up one after the other as a way of entertaining the reader, but there is little character growth between one episode and the next. Nor can we easily see how one event grows out of the one before.
Some examples of how a story may be episodic:

(a) The "Little Tommy had never had such an exciting day!" theme:

FIRST: A child starts out in a normal/boring situation. Then something happens to change things. (A child might find a doorway into a magic kingdom, go on a balloon ride, go to stay on the grandparents' farm etc etc)
SECOND: The child sees a series of amazing sights/takes part in various fun activities/experiences several hair-raising incidents.
THIRD: The child says "What a lovely day I've had. I'll keep this fairy land a secret, but I'll keep going back to have more fun with my new friends!" (Or: "Phew. I'm glad that's over. I'm so happy to be back home!")
What's wrong with this? There is no plot. Just a bunch of 'stuff' that happens to fill in time.
b) The "Fantasy Trap"

FIRST: The main character is drawn into a different world or discovers that he/she is 'the chosen one'.
SECOND: This character is presented with a 'quest' to prove his worthiness to take up the mantle of the Chosen One. (He might have to free a character/being from enchantment or imprisonment, OR to learn to use the magic that is buried deep within, OR to right a great wrong etc etc.)
THIRD: The character sets off on his quest. On the way he is faced with one challenge after another (Menacing Fantasy Creature #1, the Hypnotic Field of Flowers, the Dreadful Sucking Swamp, the Shape-Changer, Menacing Fantasy Creature #2, the Dark and Deadly Forest, the Awful Abyss, the Mountain of Sorrows, Menacing Fantasy Creature #3 and so on and so on...)
FOURTH: The character overcomes each obstacle in turn. He finally frees the imprisoned Queen or finds the Sword of Destiny or whatever. He saves the land from annihilation or closes the door between two worlds and keeps evil at bay for another 1000 years.
Yawn. Another cliched fantasy novel ends. (Continued)
© copyright Marg McAlister

Gail says:
Before forging ahead, study these ideas, then take a look at your work in progress. Can you see where you have piled one episode on another without showing character growth and without providing the character with a driving purpose to continue toward his goal. Is it his goal or a goal given to him? If you spot these problems, the next blog will present the problems with theses stories and why classic fantasies that appear to have the same formula provided the ingredients that make them classics. You will also learn a number of ways you can save your episodic novel and make it a good book.


Syndi Hawkins said...

This really explains the term well. I'd been hearing it from different writers, but wasn't clear on what it meant. Thanks, Gail.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

I thought it was a great blog so I'm glad I shared it with you. Have a blessed Christmas and keep writing.


Kristi Holl said...

This was great--looking forward to clicking over to the next one in this "series." It's an easy thing to fall into...and one of the reasons I do best when I outline first.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks for your comment, Kristi. I have one more entry on the topic. I hope it adds to your information.

Wishing you a happy new year.


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