(This post originally appeared on Suite101, but it's no longer there so I'll post it here. :)
Make the Character Proactive Rather Than Reactive
Eliminate episodic scenes by giving the character an External Goal, Obstacles against that goal, and Forward Movement in the story.
A story is more than just good writing. A story plot must have forward motion and a sense of movement that pulls the reader along.
Sometimes writers will get feedback that their story “lacks purpose” or is “episodic.” What exactly does that mean?
Episodic Writing is Reactive Writing in Vignettes.
A character needs more than just to fall into an alternate world and face Scary Monsters. He needs to have a purpose and doggedly pursue that purpose. If he simply goes from one Bad Thing to another, the story lacks direction.
When a character simply reacts to the Bad Things that happen to him, he is being reactive rather than proactive, and that can be boring to a reader.
It’s also boring to read a novel where the characters have coffee and discuss the heroine’s dead-end job, then have dinner discussing the hero’s wayward sister, then go out to breakfast the next morning and discuss the mystery of the missing diamond necklace, etc. A novel like that simply moves from one vignette to the next without a sense or urgency or movement that pulls the reader along.
Instead, give your novel focus and purpose.
Make Sure the Character Has an External Goal
Editors like to see a character who has a strong External Goal that carries him forward in the story. It provides something for the reader to follow, and it provides direction for the storyline.
In The Wizard of Oz, sure, Dorothy gets swept into another world. But her goal all the time is to find a way home. She follows the Yellow Brick Road, tries to see the wizard, gets the witch’s broomstick because the wizard told her she needs it to get home. All the things she does is for the sole purpose of finding a way home. She is not simply moving from one strange event to the next. She has purpose and focus.
Make Obstacles Against the External Goal.
Once the character’s goal is established, make the conflict targeted toward that goal.
If the heroine’s goal is to buy a particular house on Blossom Street, make every obstacle directly against that goal: maybe the bank won’t give her a loan, or her old house won’t sell and she can’t raise the down payment, or some other family is in competition for the same Blossom Street home she’s trying to get.
Don’t just have “conflict” against the character—make the obstacles work directly against whatever her goal is. Then, the story will be targeted rather than episodic because each obstacle is trying to thwart the character’s external goal.
Make Each Scene Have Several Purposes
Each scene has to have two or three major purposes that forward the plot or character arc.
You shouldn’t have one scene whose sole purpose is to show the heroine’s background or some character trait. Or one scene that only shows why the hero moved to Miami, even if that information will be important later.
If you look at a scene and can only list one or two minor things that move the story forward, that scene needs to be cut or combined with another scene. Try to ensure several major things happen in each scene.
Applying This Tips Might Involve Extensive Rewriting
The combination of these three tips will help eliminate episodic writing in your novel, but they also might involve some major restructuring. That’s okay—if you apply the time and energy to restructuring, you’ll find the novel ten times better, and possibly more appealing to an editor.