We are surrounded by episodic stories. On TV and online, in newspapers and magazines, even Hollywood feature film franchise sequels are effectively episodes of a macro story. The art of the serialised story told in parts is one that has a long history and deep penetration in our culture. The current golden age of episodic broadcast TV we appear to be in is matched by the wave of quality online TV and original web-series that operate to huge potential audiences in an on-demand narrowcast manner. And, just as Charles Dickens understood the power of the serialised story to engage a long-form narrative in literature, so to are we in a period of popular engagement in high quality screen-based episodic forms.
But Why do ‘episodic’? Why break a story into parts and instalments? Is it just because the story is long and no one will watch an 12hour movie (though the increasingly common practice of TV binge-drinking that shows like The Wire seem to induce might argue the counter.)
Is there something else to episodic serialised stories? Is there something about episodic narratives that makes them more attractive? Is there some essential quality that makes the staccato rhythm, breaks, recurrences and patterns of watching embedded in Episodic stories more compelling?
Dickens understood, and deftly exploited, the crucial Returnable Element of serialised stories; the embedding in a long story the element that brings the reader back over and over. The Returnable Element may vary enormously between different stories but without it episodic narratives die.
To address the powerful attraction to episodic screen stories we need recognise and articulate both the returnable element and the episodic pattern structure that enables and empowers the returnable element.
In observing episodic structures and articulating them in a functional way, we might identify 4 fundamental patterns. These patterns don’t just apply to ‘TV’ as we traditionally know it but may be seen as patterns with applicability across episodic storytelling irrespective on the medium of delivery. The guiding principle of these specified patterns is Closure; when, how often and in what rhythm story closure is offered to the viewer between the two defined time paradigms - the Episode and the Series.
This pattern is the simplest structure whereby each episode operates as a self-contained story arch. Whilst characters and settings may be continuous, each episode resolves its discreet story over the course of a singular episode. Whilst there may be consistent thematic elements there is little or nothing in the way of macro narrative over the season. Shows such as Law and Order exemplify this episodic pattern where by the procedural solving of a criminal case is unique and self-contained to discreet episodes and there is virtually nothing by way of macro-narrative or a series story-arc. Episodic documentary series may often use this pattern where by individual eps are self contained relating to each other thematically and conceptually but not narratively. A prime example may be seen in the exceptional doco series 7 Wonders of the Industrial World. Here each episode tells a singular story with no narrative continuum to episodes preceding or following. What connects the episodes together as a series is a consistent theme and idea but not an over-arching plot or progression..
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Self Contained pattern is the Serial. This episodic structure denies closure at the level of individual episodes and focuses on a single ongoing narrative arch that spans a season. The Serial pattern can be deceptive in the kinds of narrative complexity it supports. At one end, soap opera like Neighbours is firmly within this pattern where each episode spills into the next with no discreet closure at the end of episodes. However much more narratively sophisticated dramas such as Deadwood also fit within and exploit the Serial pattern. Deadwood doesn’t seek closure within discreet episodes, rather (much like soap opera) Deadwood story-lines are ongoing and spill one into the next. The closure of some story-lines and the instigation of others can and does happen at any given point in any episode. The murder of Wild Bill and the recovery of Swerengen from kidney stones as examples both offer closure on defined story-lines but these arcs are not directly connected to an episodic pattern’ rather are part of a macro-series arch that operates in an ongoing serial fashion.
If the Serial and the Self-Contained represent polar extents of the episodic continuum, then the Micro-Macro occupies a missile space that exploits the tenets of both. The Micro-Macro structure - which is widely common in television drama - sees the parallel execution of self-contained stories within a single episode (where closure is delivered at episode end) in combination with a series-long story arch that is given closure over the course of. Season. Each episode therefore devotes itself to contributing incrementally to the larger narrative whilst delivering a self-contained story in parallel. Many police-procedurals function on this level where a case is solved each episode but the broader lives of the characters, or an over-arching macro-plot is persistent. The superb Australian drama East West 101 works exactly to this model where by the first season series arch sees Detective Malick pursue the case of his fathers attacker outside (and in breach of) his role as a detective solving individual crimes in each episode.
The key advantage of this model is that it is able to deliver consistent weekly closure and resolution whilst still maintaining a more sophisticated macro-level un-resolved driver to act as a returnable element.
Acting with a higher degree of flexibility and sophistication is a pattern we might call Tiered. With three levels of narrative pattern this structure seeks to leverage both creative and practical solutions to episodic story-telling.
In a Tiered structure we see, in addition to self-contained episodic arcs and macro-level, series-long arcs, a third form of multi-episode arcs. These ‘to be continued’ segments, than span and join several episodes together, provide periods of a serial experience within an otherwise self-contained structure.
Battlestar Galactica stands as a very prominent example of the style. Each season as a clear set of macro-level series story-lines that are contributed to incrementally. In tandem are self-contained story-lines that offer closure at an episode by episode level. Operating amidst this are clusters of multi-episode arcs that deliver a third form of closure to a story-line played out over several episodes grouped together.
The common manner for this kind of delivery is to place these multi-episode arcs at the top and tail of a series. The season kicks off with a cluster of episodes with cliff-hanger continuations; it then moves into self-contained stories through the mid-season and then builds to a final multi-episode finale. The objective of such an approach to Tiered episodic patterns can serve a decidedly practical purpose tied to broadcast distribution. The use of a blend of stand-alone and multi-episode arcs is an attempt to please both dedicated viewers (who commit to the whole season) and casual ones (who may drop in and out of series, watching occasional episodes.
What is interesting in this context is the changing nature of broadcast distribution for long-form drama. Time-shifting, on-demand, download and the persistent presence of the dvd box-set for (what has traditionally been called TV) means that the traditional mode of watching weekly to a set schedule is quickly losings its relevance (if indeed it hasn’t lost it already). There is a perception that the role of the old ‘weekly scheduled broadcast’ has shifted in recent years to one where it serves as sampler and promotion for the sale of the series in a different medium than the prime advertising sales point.
In this light it is interesting to consider how this shift in viewing habits may effect episodic structures. The Tiered structure in particular was driven by a distinct mode of broadcast distribution and consumption; a mode very much decline. With that mode evaporating does there remain narrative reasons and engagement benefits to be exploited by using a Tiered mode?
It is Important to recognise that these structures are not rules or formulas but rather observed patterns to prompt writers to think about the two most important elements of episodic stories - Closure and the Returnable Element. It is these two that make episodic stories distinct and point us toward that appeal that Dickens and Victorian novelists understood so well. If you can develop your project with clarity in regard to how and when closure is offered and identify what it is that will keep viewers returning, then you’ll be in a more empowered position to devise and exploit an episodic pattern and structure that supports and elevates the experience.