I remember getting a comment back from an editor on one of my early stories that said my writing was episodic. I didn’t know exactly what was meant by that, but I knew it wasn’t good.
It took me awhile, but I finally figured out what episodic meant. It meant there wasn’t enough character arc or story arc, and that the chapters were too neat, self-contained—like an episode. So I tried to correct that. I was more conscious of having arcs, of crafting scenes that built upon one another and of creating characters that pulled you through the story, which is good for a novel.
I’ve recently read a novel, though, that is unapologetically episodic. In fact it doesn’t have chapters. It has episodes. The Human Division was first released as three ebooks, and then several months later the hardback and audiobook were released. At the same time a new ebook came out with the complete book plus a couple of extra codas that the hardback and audiobook book had as extra features. I think the book needed to be episodic because of the way it was first released, which was similar to the way the stories were serialized in the paper. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
When I heard about this book I was curious to read it. I’m also a big John Scalzi fan. His book Redshirts is one of my all time favorites. I have to say I think it was very effective. It’s different from his other novels. It’s very much like a TV show, similar to Babylon 5 in structure. And while there aren’t big character arcs, there is some character growth and there is definitely a story arc. And there are enough twists and questions raised that kept me guessing and wanting more. In fact I think that was what made it so effective. I didn’t know where the story was going next. In a novel you can see ahead and figure out the likely path the main character will take. And while there will be story twists along the way, you know the general direction the story is headed in. With episodic writing, because each episode concludes, you really have no idea where the next episode will start. Several months could have passed, you could be with a different set of characters in a different part of the galaxy, you might even be in the enemy’s camp. It kept me interested and excited to see what would happen next. Because I’m a writer and so into plotting (my favorite part of writing) I often know where the story is going and what’s going to happen. It takes some of the fun out of reading but I have to say I had no idea what was going to happen next when I read The Human Division. The book ends in a place that sets you up for a sequel. I’m really curious to see if the next book follows this pattern or if it has a standard novel structure. Regardless of its structure I plan on reading it as soon as it comes out.
John Scalzi is a wonderful writer. He creates some of the best science fiction out there today. And I like the way he continually surprises me with his work—in story content and structure. He makes me want to try episodic writing again in the future. When it’s done right, it works fine in a novel format.