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The vast majority of fictional books are one continuous story, which are closer in style to what films are in a visual medium.

I was thinking about why we don't see more books that would be closer in style to a tv show, where each section has a problem or event which is mostly wrapped in 40 minutes and there is some slower arc progression in the overall setting.

Qualifications for "Episodic" works of fiction:

  • Unlike short story collections, the episodes take place in the same setting with the same cast.
  • The episodes are generally self contained, and mixing the order will not leave a reader confused if they are familiar with the cast.
  • Each episode is a suitable length to read in one sitting.
  • The stories are collected in a single volume, rather than smaller novellas.

In short, what factors create the environment where most fiction is written as a single tightly cohesive narrative?

  • Maybe you're looking for linked stories? Like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, Susan Minot's Monkeys, and, according to the NYT Book Review, a lot of newer stuff. – Ken Mohnkern Aug 10 '17 at 21:22
  • Some of the Thieves' World books certainly qualify. – Weckar E. Aug 11 '17 at 13:26
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    Could you explain the reason behind your 4th requirement? It seems rather superfluous unless you are trying to specifically exclude something. – Weckar E. Aug 11 '17 at 13:26
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    @WeckarE. The requirement is to avoid series of shorter novels where someone could read each book in a dedicated sitting, especially ones where omnibus editions are later produced. I want to understand why a book is rarely sold initially as a product under these conditions, not including collected re-releases. Perhaps there is a tag I am missing which would make this question more about the marketing process? – MissingPear Aug 11 '17 at 16:17
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    Do you count comic books? They fit all of your requirements pretty nicely. – Ethan Aug 15 '17 at 19:54
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The reasons may be economic. I'm speculating here, but the golden age of the short story was the golden age of the magazine. If a magazine wanted to publish fiction (and most of them did back before TV took over) it necessarily had to fit within the available space. That meant either short stories or serialized novels. Episodic fiction was a perfect fit for that media (though we should note that stand alone short stories and serialized novels seem to have been more common even then, indicating a limited appetite for episodic stories, or perhaps a limited interest in or aptitude for writing them).

For TV, on the other hand (and for movies back in the day when shorts were popular) there are obvious economic advantages to episodic storytelling. TV and movie making has a lot of fixed costs for things like sets, casting, costumes, advertizing, etc. Telling episodic stories lets you amortize those fixed costs over many episodes.

Also, we know that TV audiences get heavily invested in particular actors and in particular characters and their relationships, creating a strong appetite for more stories with the same characters and the same actors, again favoring an episodic format.

This is not to say that there is not a similar attachment to characters in prose fiction. Some characters are far more popular than their authors (Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes). But a reader's loyalty is just as often to the author, and they will follow them from story to story regardless of the cast.

Another factor may be time. TV and movies are inherently time constrained. A typical novel may be a seven or eight hour read, and the reader can pick it up and put it down as they please. Watching TV or movies like that just does not seem to work. TV shows and movies are consumed at a single sitting, and the stories must therefore fit into a box of between 30 and about 120 minutes. That is, they are inherently of short story to novella length (though they can also be a season long arc as well).

ADDED: Another factor in favor of episodic storytelling on broadcast TV is that if you miss an episode of a continuous narrative it can spoil the whole rest of the season for you, potentially resulting in reduced viewership. With an episodic show, missing one episode does not spoil your enjoyment of the remaining episodes. You can't miss a chapter of a novel, no matter how long you put it down for. Streaming TV (and even the VCR and the PVR) lessen the incentive for creating mainly episodic TV, and shows written to stream do seem to be less episodic.

In several ways, then, TV and film exist in a box that confines the length of their storytelling and creates an economic incentive for repetition. This creates a powerful incentive for telling shorter episodic stories. There is clearly a demand for serials in the print world as well, but there are no similar length/time constraints, allowing the print world to produce series of whole novels rather than episodic collections in a single book.

Episodic storytelling, in short, may be a response to economic constraints that do not exist for modern print/electronic publishing.

  • I am accepting this answer based on your points of storytelling consumption which makes sense to me. It interests me if we will see any change in this, as now more TV shows release all their episodes simultaneously, or if peoples still value longer stories with a pick-up-at-will quality in their novels. – MissingPear Aug 11 '17 at 16:20
  • @MissingPear Yes, that is an interesting question. Steaming TV is not as time boxed as broadcast TV, though it is still time-boxed in the sense that it is a synchronous media. But then trend in TV written for streaming seems to be to become less episodic, not more. Homeland springs to mind as a shoe that is essentially one novel length story per season broken into chapters more than stand-alone episodes. I think this supports the idea that episodic drama is a response to economic constraints rather than an inherently desirable dramatic form. – user16226 Aug 11 '17 at 16:56
5
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (7 episodes)
  • Sookie Stackhouse by Charlaine Harris (13+ episodes)
  • Hollows by Kim Harrison (14 episodes)
  • Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (17+ episodes)
  • Pendergast by Douglas Preston (17 episodes)
  • Dirk Pitt by Clive Cussler (21 episodes)
  • Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton (27+ episodes)
  • The Destroyer (remo williams) by Warren Murphy & Richard Sapir (85+ episodes)

Apparently the factors which cause people to think that episodic fiction is rare among modern fiction is...

An avoidance of the Fantasy, Mystery and Adventure sections of the book store.

  • Redwall, Shanara series there are many books I can think of... Goosebumps – ggiaquin16 Aug 10 '17 at 22:21
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    Anything by James Patterson, Ian Irvine, David Balladaci, Terry Pratchett, Dan Brown, Lee Child, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Clive Cussler (Oregon Files etc) the list goes on and on – Thomo Aug 10 '17 at 22:45
  • I see what you are going for but it didn't quite fit what I intended. I have edited the question with some more solid rules for what I was imagining. – MissingPear Aug 11 '17 at 0:03
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    Your new "qualifications" change the question quite dramatically. What you are looking for is Anthologies? Correct? – Thomo Aug 11 '17 at 0:17
  • Outisde of the English world there's also the police series Baantjer at 35 episodes. – Weckar E. Aug 11 '17 at 13:24
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What you're describing is a "serial". These used to be common, both in film (short films before the feature in a cinema, back when a nickel would get you a whole afternoon of entertainment), and in paper publishing (magazines and even newspapers would run serial stories). They migrated to radio, and then television, and are (IMO) the real source of our modern 30 or 60 minute programming format.

They fell out of favor in written material when the tastes of the public changed and they became less lucrative for publishers. Magazine publishers found readers were often more satisfied with a short story or novella that was complete in a single issue, or with serialization of a complete novel that would finish in four or five issues, but then stand as a complete, coherent work. Series of stories persisted, but they were generally structured as stand-alone stories that shared a background, setting, and characters.

Bottom line is that episodic stories didn't vanish -- they migrated into media that are better suited for frequent installments (weekly programs), where advertising revenue would pay the bills. Magazines, where they had started, found they could better pay the bills by publishing material people would pay to read -- which usually meant not having to worry about missing an installment.

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Bookmarks.

It's very easy with a book to keep track of where you are, and even if you forget what has happened in the story, we have an amazing ability to skim back and recover and get on with the story. This makes it a cinch with a book to start and stop as we please and split a very long story up into whatever sized chunks fit our life.

You would never want to watch an episode of television partway through, and then try to watch the rest of the episode later. I've done it a few times out of necessity. Sometimes I'll restart the entire episode. Rewinding and fastforwarding through to catch my bearings isn't fun, and sometimes whatever I am watching it on doesn't even remember where I left off.

The episode format implies that you are consuming that episode in a single session, and the book media really has no such constraints. Episodes can work in a book just fine (as those collected short stories or linked stories novels support), but the format is more likely to attract authors who want to tell the larger stories that books support SO MUCH BETTER than other media can.

Charles de Lint is my favorite author though who writes often in this mode.

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I think the reason that we don't see these sorts of episodic books is because the idea hasn't caught on just yet. Plus, publishers are probably not sure how to market them.

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To fully answer your question would take me a couple of days and 5000 words. I'll try the abridged version . . . I hope you can keep up.

Novels are 80,000 words. Movies are 90 minutes. And, technically, most novels are exactly what you ask for. The popularity of the 3 act structure means you are effectively reading 3 x 30 minute episodes.

This formula is limited by the simple formula followed by most writers. Hero + Villain + Love interest + Journey + Conflict. Due the expected pacing it is very difficult to stretch this story out.

TV series break the barrier by using an large, ensemble cast to create multiple heroes, arcs, and conflicts as well as concurrent storylines.

Episode 1. Plot 1, Act 1.

Plot 2, Act 1. Plot 1, Act 2.

Plot 3, Act 1. Plot 2, Act 2, Plot 1, Act 3.

Episode 2. Plot 4, Act 1. Plot 3, Act 2, Plot 2, Act 3.

Plot 5, Act 1. Plot 4, Act 2, Plot 3, Act 3.

Plot 6, Act 1. Plot 5, Act 2, Plot 4, Act 3.

This formula ensures that something is always resolved and something else provides a cliffhanger.

The rise of 'seasons' and 'binge-watching' may have an effect on literature. I took a 450 page novel that I created years ago and re-wrote to be five novellas - Available individually or as a combined volume. It may be of interest the each volume averages 140 pages (700) but the combined works totals 500 (removal of the previously . . . sections).

Book One: "The Twins have Fallen" introduces a talented medical student, Katrina Kaufmann, her transition into adulthood, the emotional high of meeting 'Mr Right', followed by the low of feeling responsible for the events leading up to the tragic death of her twin sister, Elizabeth, in the 9/11 attack.

Book Two: "Life after Death" is narrated by the dead twin, Elizabeth. The story addresses the surviving twin's loss, her entry into the field of genetics, and her bizarre attempt to replace her sister by cloning herself. Whilst narrating Elizabeth begins to question how she's able to tell this story, and why she's still here.

Book Three: "The Next Generation" Katrina succeeds in cloning herself, and gives birth to a healthy girl. But as the child grows Katrina becomes depressed in realisation that the clone, Elizabeth 2.0, is not a reincarnation of her sister. Unable to care for the child as a mother should, the child is taken into the care of the state of Illinois.

Book Four: "My Sisters' Keeper" Elizabeth 2.0's pubescent years reveal that the clone is 'not quite right'. The adolescent is a hermaphrodite. On reaching sexual maturity the clone self-fertilises, regularly producing clones of her own, clones in her own image, who will, in turn, produce more identical offspring.

Book Five: "Pinocchio's Rubicon" focuses on a third generation clones. Joanna Morgan discovers 'she' is a cloned hermaphrodite and bound to produce more clones. History repeats itself when she inadvertently causes the death of her twin sister. Joanna makes the decision to break the cycle by having a hysterectomy. She embarks on a journey to track down her 34 'sisters', and find the answer to who or what she really is.

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