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Words to the Wise

Is Your Story Just a Series of Episodes?

When I was a novice, trying my hand at short stories, I wrote a story based on a period in my own life. The story had power, because of a difficult relationship at its centre, but despite many revisions, it lacked something. Not until I took a workshop from Lois Peterson called "Editing Fiction from the Inside Out" did I put my finger on the problem. My story was not much more than a series of episodes strung together. It lacked the elements of dramatic structure that turn characters and events into story—the five-stage structure, the three-act structure, the hero's journey. It even lacked theme—I could not have answered the question, What is your story about?

Many famous stories have an episodic structure, The Odyssey being one. Nowadays, writers are using the structure in memoir. These stories are journeys, about the author's own life or someone else's, and they lend themselves naturally to the episodic structure. But for many of them, that's where the problem lies.

Elizabeth Lyon, in Manuscript Makeover, offers one of the best discussions of the pitfalls of the episodic structure. She says, "Instead of an arc composed of an ever-rising slope that crests at the long-sought climax, the episodic [story] looks like an unending series of similar-size hills, too often resembling the Badlands, pun intended!... Episodic structure fails to capture and hold the reader." Lyon is talking about fiction, but that doesn't matter: the elements of fiction apply equally to creative nonfiction, including memoir. My story, autobiographical and basically memoir, resembled the Badlands, and it didn't capture anyone.

Lyon's solution is theme. If what you are writing is probably episodic, she says "you can strengthen it greatly by doing the following: Emphasize one theme that runs like the Amazon River through all the pages. Maybe that theme is betrayal, secrets, loyalty, faith, survival, unity of family, or search for identity. If you show every point-of-view character working for or against that theme, you'll create a unity that can give the reader an anchor of meaning throughout the book."

Ah, theme again! It's the answer to so many problems. In another of her workshops, "Converting Memories into Memoir," Lois Peterson offers an exercise to help find your theme. Finish each sentence:

  • This is a story of my life as told through incidents and experiences that reveal how I ...

  • The main theme that runs through my life is my ability to ...

  • Whenever I talk about myself, I end up discussing ...

  • The elements/experiences that most strongly shaped my life include ...

  • By the end of my memoir, I’d like the reader to know ...

Several of my editing clients have used this exercise to great effect, transforming their episodic journeys into captivating story.


Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, New York: Perigree, 2008.

Lois Peterson, workshop notes from "Editing Fiction from the Inside Out," 2008, and "Converting Memories into Memoir," 2010.

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