Battling Episodic Writing in a 30-minute (or 1-Hour) TV Show World
By Missy Tippens
Missy, here, talking about episodic writing today, and also sharing photos from the 2012 Southern Kentucky Bookfest. I know we’ve already had fantastic posts on the topic of episodic writing. One by Cheryl Wyatt sharing input from her editor, Melissa Endlich. And another from Janet Dean where she touched on the problem in her post about scene and sequel.
Though I honestly think I’m doing better, episodic writing is still something I’m working to avoid. I hope you don’t mind going along for the ride as I try to figure out why this is a problem with so many writers.
First, what is episodic writing? Have you ever gotten feedback from an editor or agent or contest judge with this term? According to Cheryl (via Melissa), it’s “…when one scene happens then another and another and so on but there is really no point to the scenes. They end up trumping the overall story arc but do nothing to move the plot forward.”
|Missy Tippens signing beside Allie Pleiter with Virginia Smith in the background .|
My own take on it is that you end up with episodic writing when you write lots of fun, cute, interesting, scary, exciting (or whatever type) scenes and string them together into a story. The problem is, they often don’t have much to do with the overall story arc or with advancing the plot.
And I think one of the reasons we tend to do this is because we live in a culture where we spend a lot of time in front of the TV. (I know there are probably those of you who don’t watch TV at all. But I still think the majority does watch at least one favorite show a week.)
|Ann Gabhart and Allie Pleiter|
Okay, time to admit how many shows you watch or record/DVR each week. I admit I have several that I DVR and watch late at night. There are some, like Project Runway or MasterChef, that probably don’t affect the flow of my writing. But when I thought of others, like Castle, Pretty Little Liars (a big weekly event my daughter and I share), Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood, I realized how the flow of these episodes (key word!) could affect my writing.
|Lori Copeland and Missy Tippens|
On the one hand, these type shows are great for teaching how to write a fantastic scene or chapter hook. Just think how long the week between episodes seems! (Who else out there is about to DIE for the next season of Castle to find out what’s going to happen?)
But these shows tend to have the main character dealing with one problem each week, solving it, and then possibly leaving you with a new problem introduced or a hint at what’s to come. The thing is, there may not be much of an overall season-long story arc. Each episode is stand-alone. And that can be a real problem in our writing.
|Trish Milburn and Missy Tippens|
So how do we battle episodic writing in a world where we watch weekly episodes of our favorite TV shows? Here are some of my tips:
--The most logical way would be to watch less TV and read more. :) I’m smiling but serious. The more we read, the more we “soak up” the natural flow of storytelling.
--Use the basics from The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success by Stanley Williams. You can read Dr. Williams’ guest post on our blog by clicking here for a brief explanation. I’ve found his work has been influential in helping me make sure all my scenes relate to the premise and that they serve the purpose of tying in to progress toward the overall story arc.
--Make sure your main character has a story-long goal that she has to achieve and that she’s taking some sort of step to pursue it in each scene. Not only does this help with story drive, but it also helps make your character active and not just reactive.
--Also, make sure the conflict (the obstacles to her goal) get worse as the story progresses. This assures you have escalating conflict. I usually make a list of all the ways she can fail to reach her goal and then order them from mildest to worst.
--Make sure your story has a sense of drive, of moving forward. This is related to the previous tip. But I like to check this using action and reaction. My main character takes a step toward her overall story goal. Some obstacle stands in her way, so she reacts by making a new decision or plan of action. Then repeat. (I even create an action-reaction chart to check myself on this to make sure my character is always proactive.)
--Don’t fall into the trap of feeling like your story needs to move chronologically like you do in living normal life. If you end one scene at bedtime, don’t feel like you have to open the next scene at the breakfast table the next day. Think more in terms of what your character’s next step is in achieving her goal rather than in terms of a clock or calendar.
|Alecia Whitaker and Missy Tippens|
So now it’s your turn. Share what shows you like to watch regularly. :) And also what you do to make sure your writing isn’t episodic.
If you’d like to be entered to win a critique of the first five pages of your novel, please TELL ME SO in your comments. I’ll announce one winner in the Weekend Edition.
|Heather Graham and Missy Tippens|
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