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Plotting Problems -
By Marg McAlister
The rejection letter says: "Your story,
on the surface, appears to be well-told and has appealing
characters. However, the writing is episodic; the story
You frown. Huh? The story lacks direction? How could it?
Your main character is on a quest; how much more of a
direction could you have than that?
Clearly, this editor doesn't know what she's talking
about. Oh well. It takes all types... you bundle up your
manuscript and send it out to the next publisher.
Six rejections later, you feel more than a bit miffed.
This is a good story; everyone in your writing group says
so. Your writing style is smooth and accomplished (even a
few editors have said that).
So why the heck do they keep rejecting it? It's something
to do with the plot; that much is clear. But what?
If you're lucky enough to get feedback, look for clues in
the comments that have been made. The moment you see the
word 'episodic', that is the biggest and best clue you
could have. Not all editors will use this term. They
might say things like 'what is the story question?' or
'the character has no clear-cut goal' or 'there is no
character growth'. All of these things can point to your
story being episodic.
What Does "Episodic" Mean?
If someone tells you that your story is 'episodic', they
mean that your story is a series of episodes, or events,
that are very loosely tied together. The
"events" crop up one after the other as a way
of entertaining the reader, but there is little character
growth between one episode and the next. Nor can we
easily see how one event grows out of the one before.
Some examples of how a story may be episodic:
(a) The "Little Tommy had never
had such an exciting day!" theme:
FIRST: A child starts out in a normal/boring situation.
Then something happens to change things. (A child might
find a doorway into a magic kingdom, go on a balloon
ride, go to stay on the grandparents' farm etc etc)
SECOND: The child sees a series of amazing sights/takes
part in various fun activities/experiences several
THIRD: The child says "What a lovely day I've had.
I'll keep this fairy land a secret, but I'll keep going
back to have more fun with my new friends!" (Or:
"Phew. I'm glad that's over. I'm so happy to be back
What's wrong with this? There is no plot. Just a bunch of
'stuff' that happens to fill in time.
The "Fantasy Trap"
FIRST: The main character is drawn into a different world
or discovers that he/she is 'the chosen one'.
SECOND: This character is presented with a 'quest' to
prove his worthiness to take up the mantle of the Chosen
One. (He might have to free a character/being from
enchantment or imprisonment, OR to learn to use the magic
that is buried deep within, OR to right a great wrong etc
THIRD: The character sets off on his quest. On the way he
is faced with one challenge after another (Menacing
Fantasy Creature #1, the Hypnotic Field of Flowers, the
Dreadful Sucking Swamp, the Shape-Changer, Menacing
Fantasy Creature #2, the Dark and Deadly Forest, the
Awful Abyss, the Mountain of Sorrows, Menacing Fantasy
Creature #3 and so on and so on...)
FOURTH: The character overcomes each obstacle in turn. He
finally frees the imprisoned Queen or finds the Sword of
Destiny or whatever. He saves the land from annihilation
or closes the door between two worlds and keeps evil at
bay for another 1000 years.
Yawn. Another cliched fantasy novel ends.
Now, before you indignantly start to point out the many
classic (and popular) fantasy novels that fit into the
above formula, let me point out why some books work and
some don't (even though they appear to have the same
'ingredients'). This applies to any genre.
1. The character is reactive rather than proactive.
In other words, he spends the book stumbling from one
obstacle to another, reacting to whatever crops up. He
doesn't sit down and formulate a clear plan of action.
Quite often, other characters guide the outcome.
2. There is no story question.
The 'story question' is the question that is aroused in
the reader's mind at the beginning of the story:
"Will the guy get the girl?"; "Will Mary
succeed in taking over the firm?"; "Will Xanor
take his rightful place as Head of the Galaxy Alien
Committee?"; "Will Laura track down the serial
killer before she becomes the next victim?";
"How will Toby find his way back from the Land of
Giants?" and so on.
You can see why 'Little Tommy's Exciting Day' type of
story doesn't succeed. Tommy doesn't set out to do
anything or solve a problem (other than being bored) and
is faced with no challenges along the way. Stuff just
Any book needs to answer the story question, but it must
be more than a simple yes or no. It must show HOW the
main character achieved his goal, and it must show how
the character grows and changes as he pursues his goal.
He needs to have a plan of action. Inevitably, he will
need to adapt to circumstances - but with each new
obstacle, the main character must (1) react; (2) evaluate
the plan and make necessary changes, THEN (3) move
forward. In most episodic stories, the character simply
reacts then moves forward to the next obstacle WITHOUT
making further plans. Quite often, older/wiser/stronger
secondary characters will decide on the next step for
him. Not a good idea! This gives you a weak main
3. The reactive character does not operate from his
He magically finds new skills when needed, rather than
possessing them beforehand. He overcomes each obstacle by
luck, intervention by someone else, or an amazing new
talent that comes as a surprise to him.
What You Can Do to Save An Episodic Story
- Give your character a goal. e.g. "Mary is forced
to leave her child behind. She is determined to come back
for him." Then begin the plan of action. (Mary's
first step is...??? What further action does she plan?)
- Give your character significant strengths and some
weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses will determine
her plan of attack and ultimately reveal the flaws in
- Decide on the obstacles that the character will
encounter on her way to the goal.
- Decide how your character will react to these obstacles
and how this will affect her plan of action. Her reaction
should be governed by her strengths and weaknesses as
well as by circumstances. She will either overcome
obstacles, go around them, or turn them into
opportunities. Each setback will require a new plan of
attack. Each triumph will determine the next step. Other
people can help, but make sure your protagonist makes
most of the significant breakthroughs.
- Check every scene to make sure it moves the story
forward. How will the scene affect the character's growth
and the eventual outcome? Is she moving closer to
achieving her goal? Has she earned her success? How does
each scene relate to the initial story question?
- Make sure each scene flows logically from the one
If you can see that your story IS episodic, then take the
time to work out just what it needs. You may be able to
fix the plot with minimal rewrites, but that's unlikely.
By having your main character make more decisions, you
could easily find that he would have chosen a different
direction. That's probably a good thing... you've
discovered that you've been more of a puppet master than
a wise author who lets her characters learn by their
Grit your teeth and get to work. After you've diagnosed
an episodic plot, then operated on it, you're going to be
a much better writer.
© copyright Marg McAlister
Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short
stories, books for children, ezines, promotional
material, sales letters and web content. She has written
5 distance education courses on writing, and her online
help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up
for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/
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