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Wednesday, September 3

On Tonight's Episode: Fixing Episodic Chapters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. Thanks for all the great advice. There is always somehing to work with. I am off to check now if my chapters jump about like a monkey who's had his banana stolen.

  2. This is perfect!

    I am writing a road trip novel set during the zombie apocalypse, and there's a lot of events that still feel too episodic. I WANT it to feel a little episodic, like most road trip stories do, but I've been trying to come up with way to connect the smaller stories into the larger whole. It's been a struggle. These are excellent guidelines for me to follow!

    Awesome post as usual!

  3. Checking to make sure the events lead into each other -sounds like a trick that would also be helpful for those pesky transitions. :) Thanks for posting this. I did a quick mental check for my latest WIP which involves two narrators in alternating chapters. So far it's not splitting into episodes. :)

  4. Sounds a little like my WIP at the beginning. I had all these standalone scenes and chapters which I glued together to form a coherent story. They were in the correct chronological order, but it took me a while to realize they needed to lead into each other in better ways. When I went back and did that, the story tightened up considerably.

  5. BJ, good luck! Hope they're flowing smoothly.

    Elizabeth, I love that idea. (heck, I love most things zombies) Tricky balance to maintain there, but i know you can do it ;)

    Chicory, it probably would. Dual POVs can really suffer from that. Great that yours is solid!

    Chemist Ken, I bet. It probably also did wonders for the narrative drive and tension.

  6. I think an episodic structure can work, and be done really well in certain spots.

    I think it works better in more literary novels than genre novels, though. Because some of the literary stuff is more character based, has a greater emphasis on style, and is less about plot, I’ve found that I don’t mind when the main plot stops for a section, and you’re given this little, almost short story.

    It’s different, but can be cool.

  7. I had this same problem with a work that I have already put to print. Originally designed as a twenty episode serial audio podcast that never was recorded, it suffered from being decidedly episodic and too much show, not enough tell. In between my current writing, it is headed for a revision, which is hectic, because I am also focusing on one main character, not the entire band as a whole. Also, I got over making multi-narrator stories being episodic several stories ago. I now write a full length story about each narrator (usually one MC in first person) And then blend them together, changing whatever I need to to make the story interweave. Fixed many problems that way.

  8. Sam, if the novel is meant to be episodic, of course. World War Z is a great example. Every chapter is a different person, a different part of the war, even different styles (interviews, narratives, etc). Works awesome. I'm talking more about novels that feel choppy and don't grab the reader because the story never feels like it's moving or getting to the point

    Sirkeystone, sounds like a good plan. I can see how something written for a podcast would totally feel episodic. That was the point!

  9. I'm glad you revived this. It is one of many things I need to work on. I have been writing without a formal plan and just growing the story. I've been jumping to different locations and points in the timeline as I feel inspired and I recognized the danger (which actually made me wonder if I should consider some sort of serialized fiction). I've had a few chapters reviewed and each seems very strong individually as far as action and interesting characters but I recognize that they seem a little too self contained - with very little work each could easily be a free standing 'mini story.' Thanks for the timely (retimely?) article.

  10. The first thing my sister said after reading an early draft of my WiP was, "It's awfully episodic." I've been working on correcting that ever since. Your "getting back on track" pointers are going to help. Thanks for reposting this.