Some chapters flow together, building off one another so the story feels like it's one seamless entity. Others feel disconnected. Every chapter might work on its own, but the book reads choppy, there's a lack of tension, and the reader doesn't feel like they're getting anywhere, even if the plot in advancing.
The story feels episodic.
An episodic structure often develops when you have a lot of location or goal changes and you lose the thread tying the chapters together. Things are happening, possibly even exciting "doing all the right stuff" things, but information is being put out there and it's not really going anywhere. There's no cause and effect between chapters, even if there is within scenes.
Chapter One starts with the hero going into a haunted house to prove she's not scared.
Chapter Two has her at school the next day dealing with a teacher everyone is sure is a witch and getting fellow classmates in trouble.
Chapter Three has her babysitting her little brother and hearing spooky noises outside and she has to protect her brother.
All of these chapters are leading to the core conflict, but aside from "scary" there's nothing connecting them right now, so readers can't see where the plot is headed. It's just a lot of events strung together that vaguely relate to the overall story. They're very likely things that don't matter much now, but will be important later. It's setup.
To fix this, let's try adding the cause and effect.
Chapter One starts with the hero going into a haunted house with all her friends watching to prove she's not scared.
Chapter Two has her at school the next day, being cajoled into dealing with a teacher everyone is sure is a witch because she was so brave the night before, and this gets fellow classmates in trouble.
Chapter Three has her babysitting her little brother and hearing spooky noises outside and she assumes it's the kids she got into trouble paying her back.
Suddenly there's a story here. The events of one chapter have an effect on the events and character actions in the next chapter. You can see the narrative drive.
You Might Have an Episodic Story if:
You can shift chapters around and the plot doesn't change
This is a big red flag, because it indicates the scenes are self-contained and aren't affecting what comes after them. If six chapters can happen in any order as long as it's before the act one climax, odds are there's a problem there.
Every chapter has a different, unrelated goal
While you want all your scenes to have a goal, if those goals aren't steps in the larger plot, they're not doing much to advance your story. Look at where those goals lead. Is the resolution of one setting up the next? Does the next chapter start with an event or decision created by the previous goal? Does it continue with that previous goal to somewhere new?
The early chapters are setting up later chapters
Foreshadowing is good, but if you have a lot of chapters in a row that are there only to setup later events, you might make readers impatient. They'll want you to get on with it already and have a point. World building and backstory chapters are common culprits here. What happens doesn't really matter because the point is to show some aspect of the character or their past. The scene goal is just something to make the scene work since you need a goal.
Getting Back on Track
Luckily, reincorporating episodic chapters isn't that tough. It usually just takes deepening the connections that are already there under the surface, and adding in a common thread that ties everything back to the plot. Try looking at:
- Goals: How might you connect the goals in these chapters? Can they trigger each other? Are there external events pushing your protagonist toward her decisions that can be connected?
- Internalization: Can your protagonist have a common train of thought that connects the chapters? Inner conflict can work to tie things together if the external conflict isn't linear.
- Stakes: Can the chapters all be ways to avoid the same stake? Different attempts to accomplish a similar task.
- Conflict: Can you bring forward a conflict that these chapters set up? A smaller version of a larger issue that can both foreshadow, and show the protagonist failing.
Episodic chapters can feel like random scenes, but there's a reason you wrote them, so pinpointing that reason is often all it takes to fix it. Look deeper at what's going on and pull out those connecting threads so readers can see the story building.
Have you ever gotten "feels episodic" feedback? Have you even read anything that felt episodic?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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