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GENRENAUTS Author Michael R. Underwood on Episodic Storytelling and Stealing From the Silver Screen

Michael R. Underwood is the author of Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek, Shield and Crocus, and The Younger Gods. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. He has a BA in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies and an MA in Folklore Studies. Mike has been a bookseller, a barista, a game store cashwrap monkey, and an independent publishers’ representative. He lives in Baltimore with his fiancée, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. He is also a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show. In his rapidly vanishing free time, Mike studies historical martial arts and makes homemade pizza. He blogs at MichaelRUnderwood.com/blog and tweets @MikeRUnderwood.

Stealing from the Silver Screen

by Michael R. Underwood

Before I started selling short stories, I had a short career as a media scholar, during my M.A. work and for a couple of years following, as I applied to PhD programs. Basically, I watched a lot of TV and movies in order to be able to write reviews, essays, and so on. It didn’t pay much, but it did help me become a savvier viewer. Another thing that work did was help me learn more of the storytelling nuances and possibilities present in the televisual form.

TV and comics are the reigning rulers of serial and episodic storytelling. TV in particular has had a renaissance of serial storytelling with prestige TV shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective (Season 1), and so on. CBS and other networks make big bank with deeply episodic procedurals like NCIS and the CSI shows.

A quick defining of terms:

Serial – A serial narrative is a single overarching narrative played out in several installments sections, where the narrative is meant to be consumed in sequence and will suffer if an individual episode is watched out of order. Most mainstream comics are serial, as were old radio shows. In TV, Game of Thrones and Sense8 are largely serial. In serial narrative, the main plot of an episode will likely be a continuation of what has come before. Serial storytelling often has a larger number of sub-plots as well, threading through a season or series.

Episodic – storytelling where individual episodes can stand alone as discrete stories. Most sit-coms are episodic (Community, How I Met Your Mother), as are most procedural TV shows (Castle, NCIS, etc.) In an episodic show, the main plot of the episode will be introduced, developed, and resolved in the same episode. In an episodic show, sub-plots may provide a way for a serial narrative to thread through the background until that sub-plot can become the main plot of an episode (often a midseason or season finale).

So, what does any of this have to do with fiction?

When I was designing Genrenauts, I wanted to try out a different format for storytelling – since novellas are a shorter form, I thought that they would be a good place to apply my love of TV’s play along the continuum of serial and episodic storytelling. Others have come before me and done the same thing, so don’t think that I’m claiming to have invented the idea of writing fiction in a format inspired by TV. My primary inspirations in this were The Beam and Yesterday’s Gone from the writing collective Sterling & Stone. Both series frame the works in terms of Episodes and Seasons, focusing on the serial rather than the episodic model of TV. I was also thinking of Seanan McGuire’s Kindle Serial Indexing, with small episodes building to a big finale.

But for Genrenauts, I decided to go for an episodic model, borrowing from the structure of one of my favorite shows – Leverage. Leverage uses a procedural structure – where a consistent cast faces a new criminal to con or take down every episode. Except my heroes’ focus would be fixing stories rather than taking down crooks.

So here’s the basic structure: each episode, there is a breach in one of the story worlds – Western, Science Fiction, Romance, Mystery, Fantasy, etc. The Genrenauts deploy to find and fix the story, and complete that mission in the episode. There are sub-plots and little branches of narrative which grow over time, episode to episode, supporting the individual plots but also adding to the overall story.

Each episode in the season builds toward both a season arc and the series meta-plot, without (I hope) sacrificing the excitement of the individual episode. This would be, in my estimation, a serial-episodic story, balancing between the two modes in order to try to satisfy both aesthetic approaches. It’s a really flexible and engaging form, where I can focus on characters in interesting situations, and keep the action of the story moving. The episodic aspect gives the story a good rhythm, and I’m finding places to seed in elements that will pay off several episodes or even several seasons later.

Thanks to the rise of serial storytelling on TV, I’m seeing creators in other media reacting and trying more serial storytelling themselves. There are new publishing models built directly on the idea of serial prose narrative – Serial Box being the most prominent one at the moment, harkening back to the serialization of novels in decades past, as well as Patreon-supported serials web serials, serial publishing for Kindle Unlimited, and so on. And that’s without dipping back into comics, where the tension and play between serial and episodic narrative is very prominent.

Again, I’m not claiming to be some unique innovator – some fiction does this balance of serial and episodic already without the fancy terminology. Many urban fantasy series start out episodic and then become more serial over time as the meta-plot builds up and then takes over to a large extent.

What I’m doing is just leaning into the connections between how TV series tell stories and the possibility to replicate or draw from that style with a series of novellas, which I see as being basically a perfect fit to the hybrid approach. Every episode is its own discrete chunk of narrative, building toward a larger story.

Inspired by Babylon 5, my favorite serial TV show of all time, I’ve been seeding in little bits of story and sub-plot threads as much as I can without weakening each episode’s story. Some will pay out over the season and some gesture toward the larger series plot. Just like not every question about a premise or its implications is addressed in the pilot episode of a TV show, the story of the Genrenauts and their world(s) will play out over time, delving deeper into topics alongside the adventure-of-the-week.

The method works very well for TV, and I’m excited to make it work in prose. I’m not alone, and I hope you’ll join us – the TV-in-prose-form writers – as we borrow from one dramatic form to re-interpret storytelling in the other. It’s much cheaper than a cable subscription, and you can still enjoy it wrapped up in the covers. I hope you’ll tune in and see what we’ve got in store.

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