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Serialized vs Episodic Storytelling

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Dec. 1, 2018

There is a general trend in mainstream media and sequential art to generally value serialized works (in shows, series, comics, etc) over episodic ones. They are considered to be more elegant, more dynamic and more interesting than episodic ones. While this might definitely hold true, is it so as a rule? Or are we overlooking the advantages of episodic story telling while riding the craze of serialization?

In my opinion, given the medium in which series are aired (streaming services) and the way webcomics are now an established medium for comics, serialization is offering itself to the audience's tendency for instant gratification: now we can binge watch a whole season of a show, so we don't need to wait over a cliffhanger as much, or hold ourselves back before we can see how a gripping story is resolved. Whole seasons of shows are released at once, from “Steven Bombs” of Steven Universe to Daredevil. In such a case, perhaps an episodic arrangement in a show, like what there used to be in the 80s and 90s, fragments one's enjoyment of binge-watching a bunch of episodes, since in episodic story telling the characters sort of revert to normal with the resolution of each episode's plotline and won't be following a progressive development of the characters.

However, episodic storytelling also has its pros: in telling concise, self-contained stories the audience can acclimate themselves with any one episode without needing to be previously informed about what has happened or forcing dialogue to infodump things for ‘newcomer audience’ every once in a while in a story. Episodic storytelling can hone the characters to be fully realized and iconic and can potentially be more versatile. A vast array of different plotlines and different challenges for the characters can also be tried without needing to comply with one main storyline where there's little room for side-adventures or digression from the main challenge (like in MacGyver or Star Trek). Different characters in the cast can become the main character and be explored in different episodes, giving the audience different experiences and even POV story telling. In general, episodic story telling can be formulaic and contained in one single episode but in the same time it can also be very versatile.

As a creator, I would feel very hesitant to call one approach to story telling superior or more elegant to the other. It really comes down to what the creator wants to do, and even perhaps for how long they wish to do it. Each style is just different and offers different tools with which to tell a story (or several ones).

And of course, for eclectics, there is always the fusion of the two- the creation of a serialized show or comic which, however, progresses neatly in episodic segments. One of the best examples of these would be The Last Airbender- the main plotline became the rails upon which all the episodes of the show rolled on, while keeping an episodic format (this is especially masterfully done in Season 3). This combo can give the best of two worlds: the engaging allure of one big overarching story with great suspense that keeps you hooked with the exploration and versatility of characters and micro-stories that are still tied to and ultimately progress the plot.

What do you think? What type of story telling are you employing? Would you ever try going for the other alternatives?

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Corruption at 8:13PM, Dec. 5, 2018

Episodic has an advantage in not needing the backstory told, but it also means there is less to grip people into seeing the next episode, which can be easily missed. In that case not needing the history can be a pro and a con. As mentioned about Avatar being the background serial story for episodic plots: that is improperly called a Frame Story (famous examples include Cantiburry tales, and Waiting for Godat). Improperly because each episode has to advance the main plot a little bit. It is possible tohave minor background plots, like someone who seems crazy saying aliens are up to something, and in a latter episode it turns out they were right all aong (thus turning an episodic gag character into a main character for an episode) It is possible reveal a serial story as backgroup in episodic stories

PaulEberhardt at 8:51AM, Dec. 3, 2018

Must!... Read!... Webcomic!... NOW! ;)

PaulEberhardt at 8:45AM, Dec. 3, 2018

I'm very much in favour of self-contained episodes that needn't even have any connection to each other at all, and that's basically how I do my comic (when I get around to doing it, duh). It gives me much more elbowroom to develop the whole thing into all kinds of directions. Also it kind of reflects my own reading habits. I like long epic series as much as the next guy, but when they have been around for a few years (and that's usually when I find them), I just don't have the time to get into them properly - and I know that will bug me no end until I have. Series are addictive - that's why publishers and TV-makers prefer them so much - so I often avoid them in case I happen to like them. It's a bit different with webcomics, as I can kind of control the addiction by setting lots of bookmarks for some unspecified point in the future.

entropy0013 at 5:54PM, Dec. 1, 2018

Some characters and stories are episodic; the character is the hero for moment and then real life and tedium set back in; and then years later a loose end comes up. Not everyone is in the constant conflict mode beyond paying bills.

Kou the Mad at 1:27PM, Dec. 1, 2018

Yeah, Wakfu does it pretty well.

JaymonRising at 7:21AM, Dec. 1, 2018

I found the Steven Bombs credible up until March 2016, when "It could have been great" showed they had no grasp at the kind of rhythm they were aiming for despite the fact it was perfectly clear they should've slowed down in mid 2015. But given what followed after all of that, let's just say that's like getting emotional over the tragedy of what happened to the World Trade Center...on the 26 of February 1993.

usedbooks at 5:13AM, Dec. 1, 2018

I love Detective Conan because it definitely advances (slowly) but the canon is mostly a framework/premise for the episodes (and movies). Everything is very self-contained. The large cast helps prevent the rut, and things are varied enough to break formulas (which is very hard for a whodunit). The creator is a lover of mystery books, and the show is basically an homage to many sources. 22 years is a very long run for an anime. If it was too serial, it could not have made it. (It has accumulated a gigantic cast and side stories, which goes with the territory, I guess. But they keep to the format, mood, and spirit.)

bravo1102 at 5:09AM, Dec. 1, 2018

I'm out ahead of this one. Belle's Best is a serialized anthology. Since Belinda Brandon is an actress there's the serialized time line of her real life and the anthology of the films she's appeared in. Similarly the two Robofemoid comics and Tales of SIG are all one interconnected storyline that gas built upon and refers back to itself. But all done so poorly and haphazardly as to gain the creator little credit for his humble efforts. (Deep bow) Honestly, it's by reading news posts like this that got me to realize just how interwoven the whole this is. There's an upcoming story of the meeting of the "fictional" and factual robofmoids. If I can just get out of the way and put images to the words.

Ozoneocean at 4:48AM, Dec. 1, 2018

Concerning episodic: The Nero Wolfe mysteries had a fantastic take on that. The idea that you have to return to zero in order to be episodic is pure nonsense, that's just one of a number of choices you can make if you so wish, NOT a requirement of the form. In Nero Wolf they picked out different stories from the character's timelines, all out of chronological order- a story could happen in the 1960s one day, the next it'll be from the 1930s, then the 1950s, and then 1943, it didn't matter. The characters would progress and make all sorts of changes and then you'd just join them again when they did a new story. With that show you fell in love with the characters, the amazingly clever writing and the dialogue rather the a formula or plot.

usedbooks at 4:36AM, Dec. 1, 2018

Tbh, I don't know what I'm writing. I try to make self-contained episodes, but they vary in length. And I also build them up to a more canon-driving climax every couple hundred pages (it makes them fit nicely into a printed form too). It's a layering of story arcs. I recently decided I can't focus nicely without a finite conclusion, so I started writing one. I have a follow-up series planned, but this one needs an end. All series need ends.

usedbooks at 4:26AM, Dec. 1, 2018

One of my favorite formats is the anthology. Anthologies give you a new story. Completely different. In every installment. Only the type of story is consistent. There's no rut to fall into. If one installment is terrible, it doesn't infect others. The biggest pitfall to that is you may not get what you want every week/viewing. As a viewer, you may not have your itch scratched the way you like it every time. (Like, with a sitcom, you can expect a familiar world, some shenanigans, and a set of one-liners to brighten your mood every time. It is predictable, but you watch for precisely that reason.)

usedbooks at 4:21AM, Dec. 1, 2018

The biggest pitfall for more episodic series is hitting the rut. Inevitably, the "formula" becomes repeteto be and the writing predictable. This is especially true for shorter shows but plagues longer ones as well. Watching whodunnits isn't quite as fun when you deduce what the writers are up to instead of the suspects. The other pitfall for me is when an episodic series has a background canon that becomes the focus and envelopes the show entirely -- or when the canon's mood and story associated with it do not fit the nature of the episodes. (Like a light-hearted detective show but the main character goes all dark because he's tracking his wife's killer or something). Or when writer's try to break their rut by adding/killing characters poorly or by spending the show and moving it to a different setting with an entirely different nature. (MacGyver did this one. The last season tried to get serial but also set itself in a new neighborhood with a bunch of new recurring characters.)

usedbooks at 4:09AM, Dec. 1, 2018

I enjoy both and both have pitfalls. The problem with serials in western media is that most never figured out how to stop. You have to have a conclusion in a timely fashion. Anime have done it for decades. Without it, there is no gratification. A satisfying conclusion should come after one to two seasons (with some sort of end to the first one). American audiences are used to shows running as long as they can renew contracts, so often, this doesn't happen. I'm glad some are learning, though. A serial with no end is a soap opera. :P

Ozoneocean at 1:45AM, Dec. 1, 2018

Episodic viewing is neater and more pleasant. A series that is all joined together can be fun and compelling but it can also be exhausting! And it doesn't facilitate repeat views that easily... you can't just sit down and watch your fave episode. But take something like Law and Order: You can pick up that (in any incarnation) and watch it whenever and it's great! You can binge watch show after show and it STILL works!

Ozoneocean at 1:41AM, Dec. 1, 2018

Personally my favourite style is for episodic stories where the characters grow and change over the series. Star Trek The Next Generation is a perfect example. You could jump in anywhere and still be abreast of the situation, but having the characters grow and develop over time meant that it also rewarded long-time watchers. Farscape did that as well- the story continued over the course of a season, with many plots carrying on over multiple episodes or having call-backs but not really ever breaking OUT of the episode format unless it was a special double episode.

JustNoPoint at 1:18AM, Dec. 1, 2018

I def prefer the fused method and it’s how I go about my own series. All my favorite shows tend to have both episodic and seasonal plot lines from TLA as you mentioned to Star Trek Deep Space 9 to Wakfu. It really makes it feel epic when you get a multi parter like this too. You get used to the semi “reset” each ep then you get hit with one where the crap hits the fan and it’s going to take a whole other ep to resolve it. Getting to the main finale you can get many eps like this. Iirc with DS9 it was like 6 eps in the final season and you’re just like WHOOOOOAAAA the whole time. You get some shows like Daredevil that for the most part do serialized well but his brother and sister shows would have been much better as a combined event. It’s a sin Jessica Jones can’t shape her serialized show around client of the day episodes. The forced serialization hurts. Good topic that’s near and dear to me!

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