From The Writers' Room Featuring Bookburners

Advice from Max Gladstone on Writing Episodically

Serial fiction is a wonderful weird beast, and hasn’t been the dominant medium of fiction for a while—but whether we realize it or not, we have a ton of experience with serial storytelling to be drawn upon when we come to write serials.

Television, especially episodic television, is critical source material. I say episodic for a reason—the HBO multi-threaded model of television storytelling has left behind some of the old constraints of the episode, confusing storyteller instincts. Yes, the reader should leave the story wanting more, but you get the reader to want more not by giving them a ton of unanswered questions, but by giving them a deeply satisfying story with immense forward momentum. The “wow” as the credits roll propels us straight into the next episode. “It all came together! I can’t wait to see what they do next episode!”

I’m borrowing this point from Film Crit Hulk’s essay on Luke Cage, which really resonated with me in its praise for solid storytelling structure. In a way it’s harder now to get a leg up on this sort of thing than it was in the 90s, because modern prestige TV creators take pains to hide their episodes’ structure. If you sit down with an episode of The Wire and detail precisely what happens in each scene—literally pause at each scene break and write who the players in the scene are, what they want, what they do, and how the scene changes the status quo—the strength of the show’s structure becomes clear, but it’s not so blatant as an X-Files episode.

For my money, the best place to see great structure at work in The Current Year is to look for ten minute story-driven animation—stuff like Over the Garden Wall and my personal favorite, Steven Universe. There’s no slack in ten minutes. No room for faffing about. A ten minute episode has to establish characters and arc, twists and resolution and form, in perfect step, while advancing the overall plot, while welcoming new viewers. Watching these shows in action, with sensitivity to their use of time and structure, inspires a kind of structural awe in me—they’re poems of story. Twenty minute episodes, let along hour-long dramas, feel almost wasteful by comparison.

So: look at episodic stories you know. See how they use their form. See how they welcome new readers. Pay special attention to what they resolve, and how, and how they push into the next episode—you’ll learn what works, and what doesn’t.

Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Full Fathom FiveThree Parts DeadTwo Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. He tweets as @maxgladstone.

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