Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Plot versus Episode

I was talking to a new friend named Don Lee yesterday over a few cold brews and we were on the subject of writing. I mentioned that I’d found my Taleran novels quite a bit easier to write than Cold in the Light, and as I started “trying” to verbalize why I think it finally came to me. The Taleran novels are “episodic” books while “Cold” is much more plot driven. The Taleran novels have a beginning and an end, and a bunch of linear scenes strung between those two points like beads on a necklace. “Cold” is more like a Mandela, or a maze. The scenes are all dependent on each other whereas in the Taleran books the scenes can stand alone more easily. In fact, I could have rather easily lengthened or shortened the Taleran novels by adding or deleting scenes with a minimal amount of rewriting, almost as if they were constructed on a modular pattern. To substantially lengthen or shorten Cold in the Light would have required major reconstructive surgery on the whole book.

This got me thinking about whether other books fall into these patterns, and I think clearly that they do. Sword & Planet books, in general, are episodic. So is most Space opera, and so are most westerns that I’ve read, particularly the works of Louis L’Amour. Thrillers are typically not, though, and I suspect that most mysteries are not. What about romance novels? The ones I’ve read, which is admittedly not many, have been pretty episodic. Most horror novels are episodic, although Peter Straub’s work shows us that not all are.

I’ve also realized that my “preferred” reading is for “episodic” works. I certainly love good plot-driven works and some of them, like Ghost Story, are among my favorite reads ever. But typically, when I reach for my to-be-read pile and grab the first book that strikes my interest it is episodic in nature. I wonder why.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this subject?


Sidney said...

I guess you could almost say it's a linear and non-linear consideration. "Ghost Story" to be sure jumps around in time even though it's generally unfolding a present-day narrative.

A Ludlum novel or an adventure is more "present" with one incident driving another.

I guess it depends on my mood at the time. I love page turners the reel from incident to incident, and I like the immersion of a novel like "Ghost Story" when I have more time.

Interestingly I recently read "Ignition" which is fast paced and has some but not the deepest characterization because that would inhibit the flow.

I guess a lot of it is in getting mixtures right.

Lucas Pederson said...

I enjoy episodic stories, I just got into David Gemmel's "The Stones" of Power series. I also enjoyed The Green Mile. I have and love Ghost Story. A great read. Sidney is right though, for me, it depends on my current mood. If I feel gloomy and need a kick in the pants I read something by Elmore Leonard or maybe James Patterson. If I'm feeling a bit dark and craving horror, I read Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Brian Lumley, or delve into a few magazines such as Cemetery Dance and City Slab.
Adventurous...H.P Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker.
It just depends on how I'm feeling at the time.
Great post!

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

charles, there are a few mystery writers that might be considered episodic with a stretch. michael connolly does quite well with his harry bosch novels because bosch ages with his appearances, unlike, say, the cops at the 87th precinct in ed mcbain's books. i don't read much sword and sorcery or space opera, so i can only comment on what i know.

the walking man said...

Now that you made me think of this stuff I can say i have written both types of novels but the eposidic ones although they tie together with a story line are much easier to go back and do the rewrites and edits without changing much but the plot driven ones ...well sometimes I have to delete thousands of words because my mindset is changed after a couple of years and so the sense of them has changed as well.

And also professor, you jerk, have reminded me that I still have two waiting for their fist and second edits. *sigh* Oh well I guess it's not that bad a thing seeing as I have time. And you're really not a jerk, just a teacher reminding me i have papers due.



Bernita said...

Episodes may build tension within a plotted story arc.
Too much mandela and the reader is wondering just what is going on and when will we ever get there. The method may take more skill ( as some claim) or may just be a different construction.
Think I prefer the episodic, both to read and to write.
Perhaps I'm just lazy.
And I wonder if genre predicates episodes as preferred.

Lisa said...

This is an interesting topic, as I just finished reading Aristotle's Poetics. His position is as Bernita said; that episodes work if they are linked by necessary or probably connections within a larger plot structure.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sid, yes, I think there's definetely a linear quality to episodic books, and at least somewhat less so to plot ones. Ludlum is a good example of episodic I would think.

Lucas, mood affects my choices as well, but my most common mood is to reach for an episodic work.

Wayne, I've heard a lot about Connely and I have one of his but so far haven't read any.

Mark, I do what I can.

Bernita, that's a good point. Even in a plotted story there are episodes, but I guess they are not strung like beads on a necklace, more like on several connected necklaces.

Lisa, agreed. I have to look for "The Stones of Summer."

LoveRundle said...

Now I'm curious, I'll have to read Ghost Story. I'm reading Spirits in the wires by Charles De Lint and I'm not sure where that would fall in to all this, but that story is just awesome.

Shauna Roberts said...

I, too, like episodic books, although I like plot-driven books too (and books with weird structures). I thought The World According to Garp was great because everything in it tied together, with no loose ends. But the world of The World... felt artificial, since life is episodic.

You asked about romances. As I understand it, romance editors want stories to build constantly on themselves and explicitly say they don't want episodic books.