Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Episodic Scripts

Is there any chance of a posting about how to avoid an 'episodic' script?


There is no reason to actively avoid an episodic narrative. It’s a valid and useful storytelling technique. Like passive protagonists, the use of an episodic narrative from a new or inexperienced writer might be left alone until a more confident grasp of style and craft has been achieved.

An episodic script is often frowned upon because it doesn’t develop the characters or story to the same satisfying level as a typical, traditional mainstream film. But that doesn’t mean that stories cannot be driven with an episodic narrative. It just means that the episodic nature has to be valid and entertaining to the style and structure of the story you’re trying to tell.

In general, an episodic narrative is a story that relates a single episode or event which in turn relates a series of events that may not be closely connected. Episodic narrative could also tell a story of someone’s search for an important goal but it goes unresolved.

Examining and understanding the style and craft of episodic narrative is dandy but perhaps the question is to do with avoiding an episodic feel to a script when you’re trying to establish a more coherent story arc. This is where assessing and implementing a rigid story process can help rid a script of its episodic blues.

If a script has an episodic narrative when you’re trying to avoid it, it’s probably best to assess the specific structure (and nature) of the story to see how the plot can flow with a more causal and natural ease. Having an episodic plot could mean that you have basic ideas and intentions with regards to characters and scenes but the story is not gelling them in a consistent fashion to make for an engaging narrative.

Assessing the specific structure of the episodic narrative means breaking it down to its key components through index cards, outline, whatever. The story’s skeleton will probably tell you that it’s chopping and changing from one idea/scene to the next but you’ve lost sight of the character’s desire, and/or significant subplots, along the way. By focusing on what’s important to the character and the story, you should be able to build a better framework for a more coherent emotional arc.

The most important matter is this. Don’t panic. Perhaps an episodic narrative is ideal for the story that’s trying to emerge. There are many successful episodic films. Pulp Fiction. Mulholland Drive (debatable, hell, the whole thing’s debatable). Memento. Twisty psychodramas/thrillers use the technique quite a lot to maintain their mystery. And a lot of romcoms have started using ‘titles’ or ‘segments’ to break down the various stages of the relationship/story. (Any more examples?)

Style and structure. That’s what it’s all about. If it’s got an episodic narrative, so be it. But be consistent and true to the form rather than incoherent and insecure with the technique.

22 comments:

Tim Clague said...

Aren't better examples of the episodic structure Falling Down and of course Alice in Wonderland. We find and then leave characters constantly throughout both those films. Real life I think is more like that but then that's for another day.

Danny Stack said...

After Hours. Dazed & Confused. Four Rooms...

Anonymous said...

Brilliant!

thanks Danny!

Amy

Lucy said...

Traffic. 2 Days in The Valley. Anything with an ensemble cast, really in my view - if you're going to concetrate on more than one story and more than one character you have to have mini-chunks or the whole thing goes to hell. Having said that, I don't like episodic films as a general rule. I never realised I was such an old stick-in-the-mud til I came here!

Robin Kelly said...

I would go further and say I hate episodic films but there are people that love them and should write them if they want. I used to beat people up for liking the very popular Forest Gump but now I'm a bit more tolerant.

And life is not like a bloody box of chocolates and you'd know what you get if you look at the bloody descriptions on the bloody box!

By the way, I don't count Falling Down and After Hours. In Falling Down he has a clear objective he's going for, the 'episodes' are just obstacles in his path.

Danny Stack said...

I'd agree with you about Falling Down, it has more of a sequential narrative of the things that piss him off/get in his way.

But After Hours stands out as an episodic narrative to me, although it's been a while since I've seen it..

Lucy said...

Yes I agree re: Falling Down Robin and actually I hate episodic scripts too, I just didn't want to be thought of as uncool... Now I can be in YOUR gang! ; )

Never seen After Hours though I'm rubbish with names so it's always possible I have, who's in it? What about BOOGIE NIGHTS - is that episodic in your view Danny?

Optimistic_Reader said...

Interesting post Danny. I'm in the pro-episodic scripts, provided they are done well which of course is difficult. I really liked Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, Dazed and Confused, Lost in Translation and Naked, but hated 16 Years of Alchohol, which to me seemed to just string together events but without ever offering any insight into why the lead character behaved the way he did. I've even written an episodic script I think, I just never really considered it that at the time!

Robin Kelly said...

I was going to concede defeat on After Hours but thinking about it, it's maybe in a grey area. From memory, the episodes are all connected to him trying to get home and they seem part of the same story rather than separate ones, to me anyway.

Like Falling Down, the time scale is just a few hours. Part of my hatred of the episodic films is that they usually break Aristotle's 'unity of time' rule and take place over several months if not years.

Anyway, it stars Griffin Dunne and was directed by Scorcese. A bloke goes on a hot date and ends up, through various misunderstandings, being chased by a vigilante mob.

Danny Stack said...

Boogie Nights has episodic elements all right but I never thought of it as an episodic narrative before...Hmmm...

Robin Kelly said...

Boogie Nights is based on a true story. Biographies are the worst for episodicness (yes, it is a word) but the best ones re-structure the facts and ignore inconvenient reality to give the essence of someone's life but in a traditional satisfying story structure.

Bill Cunningham said...

Uh, guys?

PULP. FICTION.
KILL. BILL.

Danny Stack said...

Yep, Fiction got a mention in the post. Any of QT's films could safely rest in the episodic file I s'ppose...

James Moran said...

Robin: you're right to beat people up for liking Forrest Gump, keep doing it. I usually go for a throat jab first, then work on the stomach for a bit.

Not because it's episodic, but because it's shit. I'm not a smart man, but I know what shit is...

Lucy said...

"Any of QT's films could safely rest in the episodic file I s'ppose..."

And that's why I hate him so very, very much! Even when everyone loved him in 1994 AND I was an impressionable teen. Oh yes.

And "episodicness" is totally a word Robin. Because I say so and I am the English Language Queen.

freddie said...

I love Mr Gump! And Pulp Fiction, Dazed and Confused and... well... most of 'em really.

In fact, all this discussion of episodicness has inspired me - think I'll go write one...

Bill Cunningham said...

Aha! Didn't see it...

I need more coffee...and new glasses.

;D

Eoghan said...

Factotum. I've never left the cinema before the end of a film, but I was close on that one.

Christopher Banks said...

Hi Danny,

Thanks for your post which I stumbled across today when I was trying to find something on episodic story structure for a blog post I was writing.

I will be a regular visitor from now on!

cheers
CB

Jose said...

So guys, excuse my ignorance..but you would define episodic film as one where more than one story is being told and none of them have any connection?...

Danny Stack said...

Hi Jose - episodic films usually have a connection, either through a character, idea or theme or whatever. Pulp Fiction is a good reference as they're all different stories but linked together by the characters and how they criss-cross...

Jose said...

Thanks Danny for the help!