What Are Episodic Novels? How Do I Write One?

Episodic novels are a tried and true literary form

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What Is an Episodic Novel?

An episodic novel is a narrative composed of loosely connected incidents, each one more or less self-contained, often connected by a central character or characters. It is one way of constructing a plot. Typically, characters change very little over the course of an episodic novel, though a relatively simple story may unfold.

To get a feeling for an episodic novel, think of the television series of the 1960's and 1970's.

The characters and storylines could be carefully crafted or merely sketched; the subject matter could be dark or humorous; the "message" of the show could be non-existent or quite deep. But no matter what occurred in any given episode, the character, his or her motivations, and the relationships among characters would change little or not at all. Even when characters encountered new people and places each week, no episode would have any significant impact on the protagonist.

The History of the Episodic Novel

The very first episodic novel (and arguably the very first novel ever written) was Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554. Lazarillo is not only the first episodic novel, it is also the first "picaresque" novel. Picaresque novels tell the story, often from the first person, of a lowborn person or "rogue" who drifts from place to place and adventure to adventure.

Lazarillo was an inspiration to Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the episodic, picaresque novel in 1605.

From that point forward, the genre became much more popular. A few famous examples of episodic novels -- most of which could also be considered picaresque -- include:

  • by Jonathan Swift
  • by Charles Dickens
  • by Henry Fielding
  • by Mark Twain
  • by Jack Kerouac
  • by JRR Tolkien (the prototype for hundreds of similarly episodic fantasy novels and series)

    In short, the episodic novel has become an entrenched entity in the world of fiction writing. Perhaps not surprisingly, most famous episodic novels are written by men, and most have male protagonists. This is partly an outgrowth of the reality that it has always been easier for boys and men to be footloose adventurers.

    Creating an Episodic Novel

    It is relatively easy to plan out an episodic novel. You start with a character who, for one reason or another, is launched into a situation that involves travel and a series of adventures with different groups of characters and challenges. In the end, the protagonist finds happiness (or, at least, a satisfying outcome).

    • Sixteen year old Joe runs away from an abusive home and finds himself drifting from job to job, sometimes finding kindness and sometimes encountering abuse. In the end, he falls in love and gets married.
    • A young centaur is told that his world is crumbling, and he is the only one who can save it. He is given an amulet and a map, and sets off to find the spell that protect his world. Along the way he meets...  in the end he finds...
    • A middle aged man loses his wife, quits his job, and sets out to discover his true self. Along the way he meets... in the end he finds...

      While this type of structure is sufficient to outline an episodic novel, it is by no means enough to craft a satisfying set of characters, situations, tensions, and outcomes. In addition to these basic elements, you will need to:

      • Create a fully rounded protagonist and, most likely, at least a few additional fully conceived characters with whom your protagonist can interact.
      • Invent tensions that not only motivate your character but also draw your reader along. Everyone knows that your character will save his planet, his soul, etc. in the end -- so internal tensions will be as important as the general direction of the plot.
      • Conceive of a meaningful outcome. Your story may start with the question "Will Charlie the Centaur save the world?" But since your readers know the answer before they start reading (of course he will!), you will need to think more deeply about what happens to Charlie and his world by the end of the story.

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