One big novel is great, but what if it was a bunch of tiny novels instead? Or one novel chopped into a bunch of tiny pieces? More than novels normally are, I mean. Today, we’re exploring the topic of episodic storytelling in prose: how it works, why it works, and what the common problems are. We talk about fractal plotting, character-based throughlines, and how you even decide when something should be published in one book or not.
Generously transcribed by Nichole. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Voiceover: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
Oren: And this week I will be separating the opening bit into six parts. You’ll have to tune in next week and then five weeks after that to get the rest.
Oren: Am I not very clever? [Laughter]
Now you have to buy six podcasts. By buy, I mean download for free on the internet. [Laughter]
Chris: But hey, maybe each podcast is really satisfying in itself.
Oren: It might be, who knows? Uh, my evidence suggests otherwise though. Today we are talking about episodic prose stories and there are basically two versions of that. There is a single model with an episodic structure and then a series of shorter connected stories. And we can talk about both, if it’s all right with you two I would like to start off talking about the first one, the single novel of an episodic structure.
Oren: Because I can only think of one book that did this well, and it’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third Narnia book. And Narnia is fine as books series go. It has a lot of problems, especially towards the end, but it’s certainly not what I would consider a brilliant series or foundational to anything in particular. And yet, for some reason, Dawn Treader is the only book I can find that I feel does this internal episodic structure with any success.
Chris: Well, there’s also The Silver Chair and that’s not saying a lot because it is also a Narnia book and is the one right after the Dawn Treader. But The Silver Chair, I think also does it quite well.
Oren: Yeah. That’s a fair point. I hadn’t really thought about The Silver Chair, but yeah.
Chris: But, I mean, that doesn’t really broaden the pool very much because they’re both Narnia books.
Wes: I don’t know, maybe just because this type of story, maybe it was losing steam. Like when the Victorians started giving us the novel. I mean, you know, Dickens, he definitely released his stuff over time as well, but it wasn’t the same type of thing. It certainly isn’t like Gulliver’s Travels, which is, you know, Gulliver having a series of different adventures in different places. Which is similar to Dawn Treader going to different islands and things like that. But I don’t know, maybe it just was never as popular or as good, honestly.
Chris: Well, we tried to read Gulliver’s Travels, and we just got really bored.
Wes: It is boring. I mean, at the time, I’m sure it was fascinating, but you know, we have really good imaginations now.
Chris: To today’s audiences it’s just much too slow and nothing happens.
Oren: Right. Also, I think that Gulliver’s Travels was originally designed as a work of satire. And so, it would probably have landed better with the people who knew the things that were satirizing, would be my guess.
Chris: I do think that many of the works that we know of do fit this format. Some of them have problems, but it’s not always because of the episodic format. Another book that I think is episodic is The Hobbit and The Hobbit has its problems. Right? I mean, one of the biggest problems in The Hobbit is that Gandalf is too powerful. So he’ll hang out with them, and then whenever there needs to be conflict, he’ll disappear and then they’ll get in trouble and then he’ll come back and just rescue them again. And you know, it has its issues, but it’s not because of the episodic format.
Oren: I think I should probably lay out the criteria for what I think a book needs to have in order for this to actually work. And then I can explain why so many other books don’t do it.
So, your standard model of a plot is you have a single throughline and that’s what you’re working on for the entire story. And, you start with the problem as close to the beginning as you can. And it’s the same problem all the way through, and then you resolve it at the end and that’s sort of your standard storyline.
But the episodic variant has a series of connected, but still fairly separate episodes or problems, within the same story. And that seems to be a real challenge. I think there are a few reasons why, and I think one of them is simply that people don’t know that if you’re going to do this, you still want it an overarching plot of some kind, otherwise it’s like, “Why are these being published in the same book?”, but you need to have, it’s the right kind. I’ve actually encountered a number of stories, especially client stories, that want to do this kind of episodic storytelling. But then they put some kind of overarching goal with a time limit and it’s like, “Wait, hang on, no”. If it’s got a time limit now everything has to be about going and getting that thing. Cause it’s like, “We don’t have time to mess around here, man. The time limit is going to run out”.
Wes: This isn’t an open-world role-playing game. [Laughter]
Chris: So the way that I would define what makes it episodic, to clarify this a little bit. Is the relative tension between the throughline and the child arcs. Okay. So in a normal novel, usually the through-line, the big arc that is the problem addressed throughout the whole story is providing the most tension. It has the highest stakes. And your child arcs and they’re important to the through-line, but they don’t, they aren’t substantially more tense than the through-line itself. And the through-line again, that has a ticking clock. That’s normally a great thing, but in an episodic story, the through-line has a lower tension, usually because it has less urgency. It still needs to be important to the main character and all the characters who are, you know, if it’s a travel story, which a lot of these episodic stories are, they don’t have to be travel stories, but traveling is pretty typical. So they need reasons, important reasons for them, to be on this journey, but it’s not usually urgent and therefore the tension is lower.
Which means that it’s the child arcs of the problems that they encounter on their way to doing this through-line, that are front and center because they have the most tension. So if you look at Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, they’re similar in a lot of ways, but Lord of the Rings has a higher attention through-line than The Hobbit does. And so it’s not really an episodic story.
Oren: Right. Like they do travel in Lord of the Rings, but the things that they do as they travel are only important in so much as they affect the journey to get the ring to Mordor. Whereas in episodic stories, those things are often important for their own reasons.
I think one place that a lot of authors trip up is that individual episodes need to have their own three essential elements for a story. Which is; a problem, a turning point, and a resolution. And I found that a lot of stories that look like they’re trying to do this episodic format are really just kind of meandering.
A Long Way too a Small, Angry Planet is like that. Where it looks like it’s supposed to be episodic. We have like an overarching problem that we’re told is not urgent, even though it seems like it should because it’s a really important government job, but you know, whatever, we’re told they don’t really have a time limit. And so that seems like that would be a natural fit for episodic storytelling, but the places they go don’t have a problem or a turning point or resolution, most of the time. It’s like, “here we stopped at these guys’ place and we hung out with them for a while and talked, and then we went to this place and did some stuff. And then we went here and did some more stuff”. Right. There are a lot of storylines that have those issues, which is why the story can feel kind of boring.
Wes: It’s just that they wanted to have scenes, not really episodes. Like, “Oh, I’ll set a scene over here and that will be new and novel and great”. And you’re like, “Okay, why”?
Oren: Well, you’ll just want to see this character interact with their friends. And you know, if I really liked that character maybe, but imagine you could have that and also have a problem, a resolution and a turning point, and a resolution, which would make me be interested in that even if I don’t love that character enough to just want to watch them talk to their friends.
Another thing that I would say that these stories need is that they do need, the episodes need to build on each other, to a certain extent. If it starts to feel like you could just take out certain episodes and the rest of the story would be the same, that’s a problem. And that’s actually the problem I would say the novel Lovecraft Country has, because Lovecraft Country actually does have each episode has its own problem, turning point, resolution. It’s just that they’re so disparate, that half of them, you don’t even need to read to understand the main plot.
Wes: It’s true. You could, and it’s kind of funny watching the show, I’ve only done a few episodes, how they’ve decided to keep the main character of the first story, Atticus, they really want him to just be the main character in the show.
Oren: That is the correct choice.
Wes: Which is fine. But then in the books, I was, by the way, taken back when I opened it up, I read the first story in this episodic novel that was called Lovecraft Country. And then I turned the page and there was a brand new title. And I was like, “I thought I was reading Lovecraft Country.” [Laughter]
Um, but you’re right. The first story introduced the main characters that were there in the last story, but you could just read the first and last story and would be like, “Okay, I know why they did, what they did, at the end.” Some of the means that they got, to achieve what they did at the end, was possible because of a few of the stories. But you’re right, you run into a problem…It’s like an interlude, here we are watching people eat popcorn or doing other things that interludes do. Scare quotes.
Oren: Did the chapter where the lady went to the haunted house ever have an impact on the ending? I can’t remember. In the novel, I cannot remember if that actually had any kind of impact.
Wes: I think that they made that the second episode of the TV show. They call it Dreams in the Which House, but like W-H-I-C-H. And the point of that story is that Leticia gets a bunch of money that she thinks is an inheritance from her mother, and she buys a house in a white neighborhood. This house is super haunted by an old ghost. And in the book, I won’t speak to the show, cause I liked how the book did it better. The turning point. Well, basically the conflict that happened, is that the house is trying to kill her. And the turning point is basically, ends up being, this kind of battle of wills, that she wins and begrudgingly earns the ghost respect. In another story. Well, we learned the name of that ghost, who used to be associated with this Titus Braithwhite and they were rivals. And so, we kind of learn that her getting that ghost on their side was important and what they did at the end of the book.
Oren: Okay. Right, right. And that’s what it was. Yeah. I remember the book kind of, it felt like it was kind of stretching.
Wes: Yeah, it did stretch.
Oren: Okay. See, there was this thing that happened in that otherwise unrelated story, and it’s important now at the end, I was like, “okay, I guess that’s better than nothing”.
Wes: It’s tough because I mean, I enjoyed quite a lot of the characters in that book, but I don’t think a lot of them really need, and certainly a few of them didn’t need their own real stories. Which puts a strain on your resources as a reader. You know, so it’s easy to miss those things. I had to go back and check. That was why. I was like, “What, how did they know how to do this? Oh, they befriended a ghost.”
Oren: I really liked the main character in the first story. I was not happy to suddenly be not reading about him. You hooked me with that character. Why are you changing it to be a different character and starting over from scratch?
Wes: There’s one story in there in the middle and the main characters of that story were Atticus’s uncle and dad. And for whatever reason, they had to break into a vault in a museum to steal this magically guarded book or something like that. And Atticus is with them. I had to reread it. Atticus is with them through the whole thing and really doesn’t do anything. I’m just like, “But you were great in the first story. I mean, you just took charge. You have a military background and you’re confident and you know what to do. And I guess, you just don’t want to upstage your uncle and your dad”. [Laughter]
Oren: He was around.
Wes: Yeah. [Laughter] So, don’t do that. Danger.
Chris: When it comes to looking at how these episodes fit into the throughline. I do think, for one thing, they really should feel like child arcs of the throughline. Right. They should feel like steps in that through-line. But in travel stories, I think it’s a little more intuitive to have episodes that are important waypoints along the journey. I think it probably gets a lot more tricky if you’re not doing a travel story because then you have to come up with another framework for why all of these events have to have to happen in sequence for the story to work.
I do think it’s worth looking at, going back to Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, admittedly, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is pretty loose with this. It does again, the islands that it stops at our all stops along the way. The other thing it does is there on a quest to find these Lords that went off and disappeared. And so, periodically at their islands, they will usually find a clue. They’ll either find one of the Lord’s. Actually most islands, I think they find at least one, a dead Lord, sometimes a living Lord. So they kind of pick them up along the way. But frankly, in that story, it wouldn’t be too hard to extract one of those islands and move one of those Lords to a different island or something like that.
But in The Silver Chair, most of the episodes are a lot more instrumental to how the characters find their way. Like the first stop and see, they go to the palace of Narnia and they learn about the problems that are happening. Right. That’s clearly unextractable and then they go other places that give them a clue that tells them where they need to go next. It’s not intuitive. Like, “Oh, here we have to actually go underground. We see this big message. That gives us a hint and now we go underground” and there’s just no way that would have happened without that kind of important episode that’s built around that. So in Silver Chair, it’s similar in some ways, but definitely, the episodes are less extractable than in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Oren: Dawn Treader also does a certain amount of character development as the goal of various child arcs. Like sometimes when they stop at an island it’s to learn something about themselves or whatever. For better or worse. Sometimes the things they learn are good. Sometimes not so much.
Chris: Yeah. One thing that I think Voyage of the Dawn Treader does well that somebody doing an episodic story should also keep in mind, is how do you escalate the story? Cause you do still want it to have an escalation as it gets towards the climax. And there’s different ways to do that. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it’s the sense that they’re getting farther and farther away from home, into weirder and weirder lands. So it has a sense of something building. They’re building towards getting to like the edge of the world. It also has increasing novelty, as the places that they go get stranger. Right. Which is a little more unusual, most stories with built a lot more tension as it goes. And Dawn Treader doesn’t so much, but it has increasing novelty. It’s like towards the end when you get to look through the water and see all those mere people hanging out, there’s some wonderful description in that book.
But oftentimes, and other books, you would have increasing tension or I think it’s totally viable to have the story be more episodic towards the beginning. And then escalate the tension of the throughline later and have it become less episodic as you get more towards the end and then use that through aligned to kind of pick it up.
Oren: This is also a good way to use a character’s emotional growth as a throughline. For example, if you wanted a story where the arc was the main character learning to care about this new town that they’ve moved to. You could start some kind of political problem, local politics. Like, “I just moved to this town and now someone wants to install a waste dump next to my kid’s playground. And that’s something I gotta stop”. And, you know, this gets them involved with the local community groups and this gets them some friends. And then something they had to do in the short term that will give them some longer-term emotional connection. And then in the next step, the town gets attacked by corporate bandits. [Laughter]
Chris: Corporate bandits.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, they’re mad cause you wouldn’t let them build their toxic waste dump there or whatever. And then you get like, I don’t know, some kind of cool sci-fi gun or whatever. And then in the last episode, the CEO of the evil corporate bandits is running to be mayor of the town. So you have to run to be mayor of the town to beat them. And now look, you’ve decided that you care about this town that you live in and you’ve completed your emotional arc. I think that’s a useful thing for authors who care a lot about their character’s emotional state and really want to develop it. And aren’t so into a continuous conflict-driven throughline. This is a good format for that.
Chris: Yeah. I think the main thing about that is, first of all, you do have to make sure that the character’s problem really stands out since it’s the throughline. We have to be very clear about what that is. And then once again, figuring out the logistics of how the episodes build on that so that we feel like they are, they are part of that internal arc.
Oren: Yeah, that’s true.
Chris: I think, definitely think some things about that would be a little tricky. Totally doable. But a little tricky.
Oren: Alright. Well, shall we talk about the other kind of episodic prose story, which is a series of shorter stories published in a series?
Wes: Cause you know, that’s basically Murderbot and Murderbot is very good. So I guess all stories that format must be good. (laughter) That’s my new theory. (laughter)
Chris: Well Murderbot is also an example of the internal arc, of the character being what kind of binds that kind of books together. I mean, there are some external plot points that appear multiple times, but it really does feel like the character progression is what holds those stories together in that case. But those very much stand alone. Right, whereas usually when we’re looking at an episodic novel, we want something that’s bound together a little bit more tightly than the series of Murderbot novellas.
Oren: Yeah, that’s true. It would feel a little weird if all of the Murderbot novellas were published as a single book.
Chris: It has to have escalation towards a climax for all four of them. And, you know, it’s more episodic than even an episodic novel would normally be.
Wes: It’s fascinating. Just how it ends up getting distributed affects this. The issue that we’re faced with. Are there really, besides like Dawn Treader, like good examples of an episodic novel, because it’s all bound into just like one book. The preferred medium for this kind of storytelling is visual. It’s just dominated by that. I just am musing on the expectation of holding something in your hand and expecting it to be a complete story. Unless it’s a comic book, you know, or like a comic book or graphic novel, that’s part of a series like that’s episodic think of like Sandman or something like that.
Chris: Yeah the expectations that we have for comics are similar to other visual mediums. Like TV shows.
Wes: Yeah. Very much.
Oren: I mean, I would say it’s worse with comics because with comics, if you buy them as they come out, very often, what you get is significantly less story than an episode of TV.
Wes: Oh yeah.
Oren: It’s more like you just bought the first act of an episode of TV. [Laughter] Which is one reason I don’t read comics. [Laughter]
It’s because it’s really hard to keep track of them. Like which issue I need to buy? And when it’s available and should I get them as they come out or wait until they’re all done?
Chris: Wait until they’re bounded to volumes. Because a lot of times it feels like that episode is at the volume level.
Oren: I just really am glad to see more stories using the novella series format. I just think that’s underutilized for prose fiction. It allows you to tell a story that isn’t enough to fill an entire novel. It’s just not big enough for a novel, but it’s still a cool story and I’d like to read about it, and it benefits from being in prose form.
Chris: Some writers do a lot better with plotting when they’re doing something shorter. Because they don’t have as much room to like futz around and go on side quests and do other things that really shouldn’t be in there.
Oren: Rude of you to call out the first Murderbot novel like that. [Laughter] But yeah, you know, that is kind of what happened. Although it’s not exactly, the part of the issue is simply that it really felt like the problem that they were dealing with in the first novel of the Murderbot series should have been bigger than the ones they were dealing with in the novellas. But it was basically the same problem. You know, will Murderbot and it’s humans survive? And that’s always been the problem we were dealing with.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, we can do a whole conversation about the Murderbot novel, but I think of novella as movie length.
Wes: No, I think novella is like an under-appreciated length, you know? And I hope that more people pursue this. It affords you just so much more room to express a complete thing, without getting bloated. But I don’t know if there’s pressure to get to that 300-page mark for your novel or something, or the short story is too long. It’s definitely a tight rope you got to walk.
Oren: Well, I mean the publishing industry definitely prefers novels.
Wes: Yeah, they do.
Oren: There’s not a lot of money to be had in short stories, even less than there is a novels. And they just don’t have the same cultural impact. Right? That’s one of the reasons why I don’t critique short stories that much, on the website. It’s just because, it’s very unlikely anyone will have heard of them. Right. It’s like, “Here’s this short story, I’m going to talk about it”. And people will be like, “Oren what do you mean?” Whereas if I use a novel, there’s a reasonable chance people will have at least heard of it, if not actually read it.
Chris: Yeah. That’s unfortunately true. But I think one of the interesting things about series of whatever the level is a novella or a novel, what have you, is that the expectations that we were talking about or just wide open. It could be anything, they could be entirely separate stories. To basically the same story just chopped up. Now that’s not very fun. I think that each book in a series should have its own arc to some degree, but you could get anything.
Wes: What if we just took every Discworld book and made a mega bind, like thing? Would that be the ultimate episodic novel? [Laughter]
Oren: I don’t think my bookshelf is big enough.
Wes: No, I don’t think anyone’s is.
Oren: But I mean, the episodic novella series has the sort of the same feeling as a TV show in that, you know, I want to put on an episode of Murderbot and just watch Murderbot for awhile. It allows you to get, I would say more character focus. Because you still need a plot, right? You still need conflict, and turning point and resolution. But when it’s over a series of separate installments, the main character can be the thing that keeps you watching. And, you can get the same feeling of like, I’m putting on an episode of TNG because I want to watch the Bridge Crew mess around. And I’ll put on an episode of Murderbot cause I want to see Murderbot do something.
Chris: That’s why it’s aggravating when people switch up the main character between a series.
Oren: Yeah, errrr.
Chris: It’s really de-motivating. I do often wish, like, write another story where your side characters the main character, you know, that’s totally fine. But making it part of the same series arc is kind of mean, right? Like they can have their own story and their own arc that people can read separately, that’s in the same world. But when you switch it out for the same plot arc, the series throughline, then if people want to continue the arc, they have to leave behind the character that they grew attached to.
This is exactly my issue with Gideon the Ninth, right? Where it’s like, no, I don’t want to read about Harrow. I didn’t even like Harrow, right. Didn’t even succeed…Like besides the fact that she’s a sidekick to me, she wasn’t even likable. So no, I’m not going to continue the series. Even though I enjoyed Gideon the Ninth. And was also frustrated with Gideon the Ninth. But I still enjoy Gideon the Ninth.
Oren: Yeah. For Gideon especially it was a weird choice because it’s so character-focused, yet theoretically, there is a plot with the empire. But does anyone care? Like seriously? Is anyone reading this being like, “Oh yeah? Well, I definitely care about that empire thing.” I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure it’s Gideon that everyone cares about. Now certainly I think some people have transferred their care of Gideon to Harrow because they were really into that romance, and now they’re like “we want Harrow back”. And also Gideon’s body got stolen, so that kind of implies she’s going to be resurrected. Which I think is just irritating. Don’t kill characters if you just going to bring them back. But I think that’s also a thing that people are kind of counting on. We’ll see, then we can have Gideon the Ninth Two, Electric Boogaloo.
Finally, there’s one last thing I want to talk about. Which is not exactly the same, but it’s related. And this is the anthology story. And this is a story that has something in common. Can be the main character. It can be the setting. Where, like, whatever that thing is, is the main draw. They’re interesting. Like Sherlock Holmes is an anthology story. Very few of the Sherlock Holmes stories are connected in any way. And there isn’t really a character arc that Sherlock Holmes is going through the way we have with Murderbot. So you can read most of those stories and any order, it doesn’t really matter.
Wes: Yeah. I think it’s interesting too, just when you do read the collections, when he published them, that eventually when you get to the final problem, which isn’t really that many stories in, that he’s like, “okay, I need to kill Sherlock Holmes because he’s boring”. And then everybody’s like, “No how dare you? Bring him back.” And he’s like, “Well, I do have a fierce gambling addiction, so I might as well publish a few more stories”. But then it got kind of wild when he got through his Holmes phase and then started doing those Challenger stories. Cause that started with a novel, I think it was Lost World. And then, you know, where they go into to the Amazon and discovered dinosaurs. I don’t know, things happened. But then Professor Challenger in the other stories, there was a novella and a couple of short stories and the short stories are just weird. Oren has a critique on, this is an old one, like a machine that they go investigate cause the Russians working on it or something like that.
Oren: I hate that story. Oh my God. It’s so bad.
Wes: It’s terrible. I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. There’s another story where he has a theory that the earth is actually a sea urchin. So he digs a hole in England and he makes the earth respond. I don’t know, by poking it. [Laughter]
Oren: Yeah. [Laughter] That may as well happen.
Chris: Sounds like a sea urchin on the beach, you know poke it with a stick.
Wes: Oh, there’s another one where everyone on the planet dies for a little bit, except them, because he figured out the earth was going to move through some cosmic gas cloud.
But anyway, I’m saying this cause then the novella, which I think he wrote before he did those other weird stories, confronts ghosts and the afterlife and it pushes Challenger to have this come to Jesus kind of moment of like self-actualization. That apparently he just threw out the window and wrote a few more stories, but it just defeats the purpose if you’re going to do a series of stories connected by a character that the writer, or maybe the readers find interesting and you have the growth happen, but then you write more stories that don’t address that in any way.
Oren: It’s like you have character growth and then we reset it at the end. Right. That’s your Voyager problem. Where it’s like, “A lot of stuff happens to them.” Like, oops. “At the end of the episode, we press the reset button and. Everything’s back to the way it was.”
Wes: Yeah. Your producers are like “Okay, you need to do this again. And we liked it better when the main character was meaner and less relatable. So why don’t you bring that back.” [Laughter]
Oren: All right. Well, I think that we’ll go ahead and round out this episode. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants dot com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he is a fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo she lives at the Rambo geeks dot com. We’ll talk to you all next week.
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