Episodic vs. Serial
Need I break down episodic and serial storytelling styles?
No, I thought not, you’re intelligent people, you don’t need such basic things explaining to you.
Ahh, what the hell, I’ve got time to kill.
In an episodic series, each episode is a self contained story, beginning and ending within the confines of the time-limit. Usually they’ll present a familiar cast of characters and put them into a new situation. Once the episode is done, all is resolved and reset to square one, like The Simpsons, Star Trek (mostly, but I’ll get to that), or Monopoly.
It’s easier to jump straight into an episodic series because you need next to no prior knowledge to follow the narrative. You can discover the characters over time, developing a stronger appreciation for the content as you go and revisiting old episodes to discover what you might have missed, what that scene was really about, what those significant looks meant, or maybe you’ll get more of the jokes than you did the last time around. There’s very little gained or lost by watching episodes in chronological order, but these days there’s less chance of ever missing an episode of anything these days.
From the perspective of the writer, it also gives an opportunity to try lots of stories, to truly explore the characters and world they live in by putting them through a wide variety of scenarios that allow both the writer and the viewer to see them from different perspectives, to test their limits and discover their strengths.
The problem with such an insular structure is that it can be very difficult to build a well structured story within whatever time-frame you’re working with. Having to foreshorten a story can make it feel rushed, or require unrealistic resolutions to bring it to an end – looking at you Star Trek, you know what I’m talking about! The need for multiple narratives can also put a strain on creativity, which can diminish the quality over time in long-running episodic series.
Serial story telling relies on multiple episodes linking together to form a singular story, each picking up from where the other left off and ending openly so that another episode can continue. Usually each episode isolates specific events so that they have natural start and end points, often leading from cliffhanger into resolution rather than from one dramatic lull to the next. The cliffhanger based structure is by far the more common for its ability to make viewing the next chapter compulsive.
Especially when comparing television series to films, serial stories have a wide advantage on creating complex and engrossing stories, taking characters on journeys that change them permanently, making them more believable and – generally speaking – more likeable or detestable. We can become invested, form emotional attachments, fair judgements, and even begin to speculate on the future… at length, on forums.
However, a serial story can be difficult for new viewers, almost impossible to jump into the middle without getting there the hard way. Fans of a series frequently become groups who identify themselves as such, and while the community spirit is great any in-group creates an out-group, and that can be a little exclusionary. The story by its very nature isolates people who might have potentially been fans just for being late to the game.
You’ll almost never see any show, book, film or game series that falls completely into one or other category. Episodic series will often introduce new characters, or include stories that extend through multiple episodes to create richer and more dramatic narratives. The dramatic ebb and flow of serials lends them to creating smaller stories, side-dramas and isolated incidents. Dexter and American Horror Story are near perfect examples of half-and-half, each series representing individual arcs with little link between them. The Elder Scrolls is similar, each sequel presenting a new period in Tamriel’s history.
Soap operas – as deeply flawed as they are in terms of writing, and a weird combination of stagnation and escalation, like a drowning man fighting harder for the surface – also represent a neat balance between episodic and serial structure. The proper name is serial drama, but within them are layers of stories interacting and character groups going through isolated stories that might last months or years, rise and fade as events demand. There is no end, no conclusion in mind, only one story leading into a different story.
It’s worth considering how the differences in structure can effect design in your own creations, especially if you have plans to make them extensive. Games having varied length of gameplay allowed writers a lot more freedom regarding their story but had to incorporate interactivity, and ways in which the player can impact on the stories they create, and now episode-based game series are on the rise they bring their own alterations to the structure. More and more film series are structured so that they link together, such as the MCU, planned series and two-part films. The internet itself is changing the way we tell stories, with instant-release series the nature of the writing has become very different.
As a D&D player it’s interesting for me to create stories that can vary in length from a single session or one-shot, or creating story arcs that form the length of a campaign despite being contained within themselves.
Just an idle thought.