I LOVE the rhythms of episodic storytelling. There’s the anticipation of setting the scene, the cold open that makes the play for your attention and emotional investment right away, and the momentum that builds through a number of scenes, action set-pieces or conversations that build to a climax that ties the entire episode together through theme, action or consequence. And, of course, the final scene or image that teases the fallout from what’s just occurred so you just have to know what’s going to happen in the next installment.
Like most of the rabbits in my generation, I grew up learning the ebb and flow of these kinds of stories. Each episode broken up into three or more acts; each act fulfilling a purpose that is necessitated by the act that follows; each scene establishing or deepening character motivations, developments and setting in order to provide the biggest payoff for what’s coming at the end of the episode, the run of the season, or an entire series. I’ve always been fascinated by the trick of keeping forward momentum, of knowing where to place the scenes that slow things down to keep things from moving too fast, of mastering the speed you move through plot so that turns are sharp but not derailing.
The best TV shows and comic books know how to work within the limitations of their allotted space and format, even turning these restraints into features that enhance the storytelling. Say what you want about LOST and Battlestar Galactica, but at the height of their stories there was almost nothing better. Each week — each commercial break — was an interminable gulf through which you had to wade in order to learn how the story ends.
Great episodic storytelling is as much about building anticipation as it is rewarding it with satisfying the wait. I love shows and comics that can pull me into the story so deeply that I’m completely immersed in it while I’m there and I totally forget that it’s set to end until, suddenly, it does — and then I have to think about how everything that’s happened will lead to even more intense consequences for the characters and the world they live in. It’s such a sweet agony. I love feeling that anticipatory, excited impatience.
This is something that I’d love to learn how to cultivate with the Jackalope Serial Company. The first serial, THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, features a pair of police officers caught up in an investigation that uncovers — what else? — something that’s been lurking in the shadows of their city for some time. The more they uncover, of course, the weirder things get…and the more the protagonists are irrevocably changed by their experience.
The premise is to submit an “episode” of 1,500 – 2,500 words each week, with four or five episodes bundled together to make up a distinct ‘chapter’ of the story. Committing myself to that kind of deadline has been all kinds of educational for me; it’s helped me to learn exactly what kind of space there is in that word count, how each scene needs to pull its weight within the limits of that format, and how to build momentum in a story arc while maintaining interest in what’s happening right there and then. The demands of episodic storytelling are surprisingly varied and strict, and I don’t think I really understood just how good you have to be at managing the pacing of the story until I started doing it.
It’s interesting to find myself developing a whole new appreciation for the craft by attempting a version of it myself, and I’m glad to talk about it — even if that means it might not be the best commercial for the Jackalope Serial Company itself. Even still, I’m glad that I’m realizing what I am and that the lessons I’m learning through the experience are being applied to the story in real time. As I write each part and move through the outline, I’m finding that my grasp of character, dialogue, plot and momentum grows steadily more sure. I’m a fair bit away from being a really GOOD storyteller, but the enthusiasm I have for the story and the craft involved in telling it is pulling me through this first little bit. I’d like to think that that translates into an enjoyable tale that has its flaws but is worth the time regardless, but we’ll have to see. I do think it’s getting better all the time, which is the most important thing.
In the meantime, looking at the television shows that I’ve been really impressed by and trying to reverse-engineer them to see how they work has become a favorite pastime. How *does* Daredevil manage to explore its main themes without feeling like it wallows in them? How does Breaking Bad put its protagonist through such a clear arc from season to season? How does Battlestar Galactica tell such a sprawling, epic story while still keeping itself grounded in these flawed and fascinating characters? And how can I use those lessons to inform my own writing? This is all wonderful stuff to think about — but it’s even better to talk about.
What are your favorite episodic stories, and what lessons of writing have you taken from them?