One of the main causes of the saggy middle syndrome many books suffer from is episodic writing. Episodic writing also makes our books feel slow to the reader.
“What’s episodic writing?” you might ask.
Episodic writing is when your story is composed of a series of loosely related events. Those events might be exciting. You might even have a few scenes that tie tightly together. But when you look at the big picture, something still seems off and the story feels like it lacks direction at times. Readers are easily able to put the book down and feel no compulsion to pick it up again.
If episodic writing is something you’ve struggled with in your past (or present) manuscripts, here’s how to fix it in three steps.
Step 1: Give your character a story goal.
The story goal is what they’ll be pursuing over the course of your book.
Sounds simple, right? Where most of us trip up on this step is confusing a goal with an ambition.
An ambition is vague. You can’t take a picture of it.
A story goal is concrete. It’s clear by the end of the book whether our character reached her goal or not.
Ambition: Be a successful author.
Okaaay…but what does that look like? How will you know when you’ve achieved that?
Goal: Hit the top 10 on Amazon’s bestseller list for my category.
Do you see the difference? One more example before we move on to step 2.
Ambition: Have a well-behaved dog.
Goal: Have a dog who sits on command, comes when I call, and doesn’t bite the mailman.
Because ambitions are vague, they can mean different things to different people. Goals are specific and clear.
Step 2: Build a chain link from beginning to end.
To reach her big story goal, our character will be attempting to take a tiny step toward that goal in each scene.
Where most of us tend to stumble on this step is that we’re either too nice and the story lacks tension because our character reaches her scene goal too easily, or we’re too mean and we stop the story dead.
In other words, when asked whether our character reaches her scene goal, we answer with a simple “yes” or a simple “no”
I’ll give you an example.
Scene Goal: Go to the murderer’s house and arrest him.
Does our character succeed?
…Now where does our story go from here? Is it over?
We often think this is the way to make sure our plot has forward progress. After all, doesn’t our main character need to succeed at least sometimes if they ever want to achieve their goal?
They do need forward progress and some success, but this is the least interesting way to go about it.
The murderer wasn’t at his house so they couldn’t arrest him.
That grinding noise you hear is a writer’s brain struggling to decide what to do now. We threw a disaster at our character, why isn’t it working?
A straight “no” can work, but more often leads to episodic writing because we’ve brought our story to a complete stop. Too many simple “no” results in a row can mean the story feels static and lacks that sense of escalation that readers crave. If we back our character into too deep a corner, they can sometimes end up seeming like too much of a weakling failure or waiting passively for outside circumstances to change.
The solution is to create variations on these answers.
Answer: Yes, But
Yes, they arrested him, but some of what they saw in his house called into question whether he was truly the murderer or not.
We allow our character to succeed, but we introduce a consequence or complication.
Suddenly, we have forward motion. Our character makes progress, in a way where each scene is directly connected to what came before, but it also creates excitement and a sense of escalation. The reader keeps reading because they want to find out what will happen next.
Answer: No, And Furthermore
No, they didn’t arrest him, and furthermore, he’d rigged his house to explode and our main character’s partner was injured. Now they’ll have to either continue investigating alone or accept the help of the rookie cop who screws up everything he touches.
These endings work because we’re continuing to increase the stakes and obstacles, consequently raising the tension in the reader. Because too many of them can stall the story out in the same way as a simple “no,” they’re often best saved for the big turning points in the plot.
Both “yes, but” and “no, and furthermore” build a chain link that leads you from the start of the story to the end because each scene directly connects and grows out of the one that came before.
Which leads us on to…
Step 3: Escalate the failures from bad to worse.
It’s not enough to throw “but” and “furthermore” at our character. Each one needs to present them with a bigger challenge, push them harder toward their breaking point, and require more ingenuity and grit to overcome it.
Have you ever struggled with episodic writing? Any tips you’d like to share for how you overcame it?
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Image Credit: Michael & Christa Richert