One of the many benefits of Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 group is the Manuscript Makeover section in the 12 x 12 forum. Members post their picture book manuscripts in the forum and critique ninjas pop in and offer critiques. Last month, I had the pleasure of being a critique ninja. I’ll be returning in September for another month as ninja. There are many talented writers in 12 x 12, and I read lots of stories – some fun, some funny, some touching – all creative. I found a pattern in many of the stories I read. They had elements of episodic storytelling.
Following, I provide a brief overview of episodic storytelling in an abbreviated lesson from my online picture book manuscript writing and analyzing course Art of Arc.
A while back, in response to a critique I had done for a chapter book, the author responded, in part, with the following:
“For me, rising action means adding story problems! Rising chaos!”
That’s one way I would describe an episodic story. While the story might be entertaining and move forward, it meanders. An episodic story reminds me a bit of the expression, “The tail wagging the dog.” For a while, the story is taken over by some fun and entertaining scene(s), but eventually it has to get back to the story as a whole – the one with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end. The entertainment is the tail – the dog is the main character who is being wagged by the tail – and as a result, your reader is also being wagged by the tail.
The story takes the reader down a meandering path that is disconnected from the other parts of the story. Perhaps the path is loosely connected because the protagonist is involved and there is some sort of loose connection to the character’s problem. But the question to consider is, how connected is each scene to the scene that came before and the scene that follows?
The goal in a picture book with a classic arc is to have scenes flow seamlessly, building off each other until they are so blended you don’t even notice the changes that lead up to the end.
In an episodic story, the scenes often feel disconnected.
The scenes feel erratic, and even though the scene itself might have some tension, it doesn’t add tension to the story as a whole. The story might be moving forward, but the reader has a sense that she is not getting anywhere.
In the picture book manuscripts I critique, I often find main characters taking action, going from one place (or one thing) to another with no real reason. It’s a little bit like the main character is playing a game of Whack-a-Mole. To the reader, it feels like the main character is spending all his time reacting to any obstacle that pops up. He has no real plan or reason for his actions – no real direction. Episodic stories lack focus and direction. Many times circumstances or other characters drive the direction the story takes, and the main character seems to go along for the ride. We see no change or growth in the scenes or in the story. One way that change and growth are revealed is through decisions.
SOME WAYS TO TEST YOUR PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT FOR EPISODIC ELEMENTS
DOES IT MATTER WHERE EACH SCENE APPEARS IN THE STORY?
With storylines built via cause and effect, scenes rely on each other to tell the story and to build tension. What if you moved your scenes around? Would the plot change? If it doesn’t matter where a particular scene happens in the story, it is likely episodic.
ARE SCENE GOALS RELATED TO THE STORY GOAL (larger plotline)?
Although scenes stand alone, they also need to be steps in the story plot. How does each scene advance the story (related to the plot as a whole)? Does the resolution or discovery made at the end of one scene set things up for the next? Or stated differently, does the next scene start with something that stemmed from the prior scene – an event, a decision, an action – and then move on to something new that leads to the next scene?
IS THE RISING ACTION, RISING CHAOS?
Are the main character’s challenges independent problems that create a meaningless (as related to the big story problem) obstacle course for the main character? How can the challenges all be connected to the common thread of the story? Resist causing unnecessary trouble for the main character. Even when the trouble is entertaining, fun, and exciting, if it doesn’t have “whole story” purpose, it is probably episodic.
Each of the main character’s challenges should involve the following:
- Overcoming the obstacle for that portion of the story.
- Have significance to the bigger story. Remember, the main character has a big story goal and then smaller goals as the story builds. The smaller goals should not be too far removed from the big goal.
IS THERE A GOAL DRIVING THE SCENE?
Why is the main character in this scene? Why is he taking action? Is he taking intentional action or is he just reacting with no goal in mind?
DO THE SCENES INFORM THE READER?
- What will the reader learn about the story (as a whole)?
- What will the reader learn about the main character?
- Do these events and actions move the plot forward in a way that makes the reader care about the main character, become curious, want to know more?
- What is the purpose of the scene?
At the end of this post you will find a couple of links that will lead to excellent posts on episodic writing. Although they are not about picture book writing, they still help clarify what an episodic story is and why it can be problematic. Although some people write episodic stories intentionally, I believe there is no room for episodic storytelling in picture books. Young children do not have the attention span to follow the chaos that is created in such a story.
Let me be clear about the above statement. I am talking about classic stories. There are picture books that may seem episodic, and at times that’s okay. Concept picture books are a good example. The reason these books can be episodic is because they are built around a theme or concept. Take a look at THE BELLY BOOK by Fran Manushkin or EVERYBODY SLEEPS (BUT NOT FRED) by Josh Schneider. Many of the events in these books could have happened at any point within the book (or story). But these books are not built around a classic arc. Every story you write will NOT need to be analyzed for episodic elements. However, if the story you are writing is built around a classic arc with rising action and cause and effect, watch for episodic elements.
In the Art of Arc Course, I list some books in the cause and effect section that have somewhat episodic segments, but they are still built around cause and effect. NO DAVID, by David Shannon and WHAT IF EVERYBODY DID THAT, by Ellen Javernick are a couple. Although many of the segments could appear anywhere in the book, these segments each have their own cause and effect.
In NO DAVID, David’s actions lead to a reaction from his mother. But eventually the sum of the events lead to a reaction from David and that event leads to the final reaction from his mother.
In WHAT IF EVERYBODY DID THAT, each time that question is asked the reader sees the effect.
In BECAUSE I STUBBED MY TOE, by Shawn Byous you will find a perfect example of how important the order of events can be. Everything that happens in this story is a result of the boy stubbing his toe, but it is also the result of the event that came before it. This is a true cause and effect book.
Copyright Alayne Kay Christian 2016
LINKS TO ARTICLES ON EPISODIC WRITING
Plotting Problems – Episodic Writing
By Marg McAlister
From Moody Writing
Episodic Storytelling is a problem
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CAUSE AND EFFECT, EPISODIC STORIES, OR STORY AND CHARACTER ARCS contact me and ask about the new TRY IT plan where you can try the first five Art of Arc lessons for $35.00 – purchased with no obligation to buy the remainder of the course. You may contact me using the “contact” tab at the top of this page, or via my Art of Arc webpage.
An outline of the first five lessons follows:
The welcome section includes a nine-page supplement demonstrating sixteen different picture book structures with diagrams, descriptions, and book titles.
LESSON ONE: BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS
- Who is your protagonist?
- What drives your protagonist?
- Beginnings and hooks.
- Who, what, where, when, why?
- Story promise, reader’s expectations, and story questions.
- How the whole story connects to the ending.
This lesson includes supplemental materials that demonstrate the components of strong beginnings and endings. It also includes worksheets for analyzing published picture books and your manuscripts.
LESSON TWO: BEYOND THE HOOK
- Setting the hook.
- Creating a connection with the reader.
- Inciting incident.
- Ways to keep the reader reading.
- More on page-turners.
This lesson includes supplemental materials that demonstrate the components of strong beginning and endings. It also includes worksheets for analyzing published picture books and your manuscripts.
LESSON THREE: OVERVIEW OF PICTURE BOOK PLOT STRUCTURE
- Story arc (plot development)
- Character arc (character development)
- Questions to ponder
- Small, scene goals
- Character turning points
LESSON FOUR: CAUSE AND EFFECT
- What is cause and effect and why is it important
- Writing exercises
- Bonus supplement with links to additional info
LESSON FIVE: EPISODIC STORIES
- What is an episodic story?
- What causes a story to be episodic?
- Worksheets and tips for testing your story for episodic elements
- Links to additional info