Is it Binge-Worthy?

I wrote about Binge watching about a year ago when I was in the midst of catching up through the first nine seasons of a Supernatural, a show which many thought wouldn’t last a single season and then became an obsession for me.  Over the past year I have taken to binge watching as an additional source of research for my writing.

Hold on.  I’m begging you not to go.  I can see you cringe as you read this, and no, this is not a huge rationalization for wasting time watching TV instead writing.  Before you click on another link, please hear my out.  My initial post included a list of binge-worthy qualities and over the past year, having viewed several more full series, I have associated the list of qualities with some of the things I struggle with most in my writing.

First and foremost, a binge-worthy show should be more akin to a novel or literary series than what many TV shows have to offer.  I enjoy many shows that do not fall into this category, like sitcoms and Law & Order along with all of its derivations.  Analyzing some of my favorite shows, I have prepared a revised shortlist of musts for a binge-worthy show and what they can teach about writing.

Must Have:  Plots and with multiple story lines crossing episodes ultimately building to an ending

Helps With:  Plot development

Sitcoms, Law & Order and soap operas have some cross episode storylines and some exhibit at least a little character development but they miss the mark by never building to a single story ending.  These shows are designed to be more like life where there really is no ultimate ending other than death, although for some series even this isn’t the end.

Sure, some of my favorite shows in these categories had series finales that wrapped things up neatly for their faithful audience, but what happened in the very first episode and all the events in-between did not necessarily link directly to the finale.  A binge-worthy show must have this link; the same as a reader would find in a great novel.

In The Killing, Lost and Supernatural the multiple stories are carried through all the episodes in each season and in some cases through to the series finale.  Watching how the writers and creators expertly weave the stories together, wrapping some sub-plots early and introducing new sub-plots later in the series yields plenty of research material to help me do the same in my own stories.

Must Have:  Suspense with each episode leaving the reader wanting more

Helps With:  Scene development

As with great writing, scenes and chapters leave readers with a desire to turn that page, read the next line, the next chapter, perhaps all the way to the end (who cares that I need to get up in four hours and go to work, who needs sleep when what I really need is to find out what happens next!)  This is also what makes binge watching so addictive.  Shows without this element are hardly binge-worthy.

My favorite shows present enough at the end of each episode to satisfy the viewer while tossing in one more tidbit of new or unexpected information to keep my butt on the couch or my iPad in my lap for one more (just one more, I promise) episode.  Using these scenes as a model, I am working to give my own scenes the same unsettling sense of having only one of my main character’s shoes tied while the laces drag loosely behind the other.

Must Have:  Characters developed over the course of the entire series

Helps With:  Character development and character arcs

Many sitcoms are created with characters who have set personalities at the beginning,, showing little change and growth over the course of their runs.  Longer lasting sitcoms usually give us more, but not in the same way a proper character arc bonds the character with the story.  Binge-worthy shows introduce the characters a little at a time, revealing enough for the viewer to understand each character’s actions, motivations and thinking with each situation they encounter.  As the storylines develop so do the characters, revealing how the situations the characters are thrust into force them to change into the character they become by the end of the story.

Lost is a great example which I have studied to understand character development and arcs.  Jack, Sawyer, Kate and Ben all change based on their encounters, hopes, desires and interactions during their time on the island.  Watching them morph throughout the series has been extremely helpful as I attempt to do the same with my own characters.  Seeing character development come to life on screen as created by both the writers and the actors has made it easier for me to translate my own characters’ unique actions and choices into words.

Must Have:  A true sense that the challenges encountered in the early episodes of season one will be wrapped up by the time we reach the final episode in the final season.

Helps With:  Foreshadowing, introducing key information as needed, and typing up the information neatly in the end

Fringe and Lost provide unlimited examples of this vitally important element.  Each introduced an inciting incident early on in their series that led the main characters through twists, challenges, battles and even a few successes before arriving at an ending that resulted in closure for the original incident.  The merits and failures of Lost’s ending have been discussed ad nauseam, and I am not here to argue for or against the creators’ choices in this regard.  I will only say that ending may not be satisfying to all viewers as I am sure we can all provide numerous examples of novel endings that did not meet with our personal satisfaction.

Supernatural, on the other hand, is still in production, but they have already reached several endings resulting in satisfactory closure.  Then the Winchesters always find themselves in the midst of a new inciting incident and run head first to defeat a new threat.  Supernatural is more similar to the Harry Potter series than a single novel.  The characters are consistent, the threats are generally from the same villains yet each season reaches a satisfying ending for the events encountered in the early episodes.  I truly hope the writers see how important it is that their faithful viewers experience a satisfying wrap up to the entire series linking all the way back to season one by the time they choose to end the series.

The key that makes most of these series re-watchable is the new information expertly placed in early scenes that work to support the ending.  In my first viewing I missed much of this information or simply did not recognize it’s significance, but now see the importance of including this information when they did.  I am currently struggling to ensure my ending will be supportable by information presented to the reader throughout the novel.  My story has little chance of success if the climax and any subsequent wrap up is riddled with new information.

Binge watching is something you cannot do every day (okay, you probably can but should you?)  It’s not usually planned, it just happens.  My wife says, let’s go watch a Murdoch Mystery, then six episodes and four and a half hours later, one of us is getting up to order take-out so we can plow through the remainder of the season!  But, there is some value for writers to study those shows that are binge-worthy.

Coming up in my next post I will offer my own top ten binge-worthy shows .  I will also include a few honorable mentions which did not make the list mostly because I have not seen the series or enough episodes to adequately judge their binging value.

As they used to say in television, Stay Tuned!

Chaos or Routine

The following is a work of fiction.  I began thinking about my own battle between chaos and routine and the following tale just poured out.  I’m always working to improve my writing skills, so when I have this inspiration I truly enjoy getting the words out of my brain and molded into a definitive structure.  I know this is not perfect and having just read the How to Embrace Imperfection as a Writer by Blake Powell on The Write Practice, I was prompted to wrap this up and post it rather than sit on it for several more days pondering how it could get better.  I am always looking for feedback and constructive criticism so I can continue to improve and grow as a writer.  Feel free to tell it like it is in the comments.

I’m not sure how it seeped through the crevices I had worked so hard to seal.  I’ve always run a tight ship and even converted my wife to this way of life early in our marriage.  But one day, probably longer ago than we first recognized its presence, it just arrived, settled in and never left.  At the time I was certain it was one of the worst things we could face as a family and would likely be our downfall.

We are a family of fourteen living with chaos.

I’ve always been routine since the first day Mom told me to clean up my room.  With every one of my Legos, Matchbox cars and Corgis spread out all over the floor leaving only enough room for a boy of four or five to tip toe through without screaming in pain, Mom finally had enough and politely instructed me to find a good place for my toys or I could start folding and any putting away my own laundry.

With all of the toys spread in several toy universes on the tight, almost industrial carpet which made playing cars and building Legos easier than on shag, most of the cabinets and shelves in my room were bare at the time.  I had saved all of my Lego boxes and simply tossed at the bottom of my closet.  With bare shelves and boxes galore at my disposal this was the moment my life had been righted toward the path of routine.  With zest, I began the process of deconstructing each Lego model and carefully placing each set back in the original boxes.  When complete the cars had been neatly lined on the upper shelves as if parked in a dealership and the Lego boxes lined the lower shelves looking more like the Lego aisle of a Toys R Us than a kid’s room.

Since this time I wouldn’t say I have been set in my ways, but slower to adjust to change.  When my wife and I first met, she assumed my behaviors related to OCD.  As we fell in love and got to truly know each other she realized that had been an extreme diagnosis.  I needed structure to be happy and keep down the stress.  It was as simple as that.  I tried to get her to see the virtues of a structured life but it was not for her.  She is a free spirit who acts on pure instincts from impulse, emotion, and gut feelings.  I act on thought and logic.  We are a pair.  The perfect pair.

Twin girls came first, so for a couple of kids in their mid twenties who now suddenly had two kids, the only way to handle this and keep our sanity was to establish an effective routine.  My wife was difficult to bring over to my way of dealing with this situation, and the babies did not take to the routine I tried to establish.  Chaos is inherently part of life with a baby and more than doubles when you have twins.  After setting out guidelines for who would get up for feedings and comfort each night my wife soon realized that the structure helped us both get a little extra sleep and retain most of our sanity.  It took time, but she slowly began to see the light.

One the years, more bothers and sisters were added to the crew.  As the kids grew they mostly eased into the routine we had established.  A couple were a bit rebellious at times, but they soon saw the ways of routine over chaos because the end result was more fun times as a family.

Learning and exploring the world around us added challenges to our structured life.  With all of the dance try-outs, auditions, piano lessons, play dates and other activities maintaining a routine was a must.

The sports didn’t really start until our third child was five.  At that time tee ball was about the only activity for a boy that young, but by the time our sixth child was old enough for sports, there were quite a few more options.  Our eleventh and twelfth kids have pretty much an unlimited spectrum of sports to choose and s I remember it they both tried them all.

You can only imagine the smells of five or six teens coming home from practice and games nearly every day, but I lived it.  Eventually it occurred to me I that I could turn the mostly unused basement into a locker room.  The old house we lived in had a pair of those slanted basement access doors leading from the backyard directly to the basement.  We added some tile, threw a number of metal lockers, added a couple of sinks and cordoned off three rooms for two showers and a toilet.  Additional ventilation was added after the smells, which we thought were being contained in the basement started slowly seeping upstairs and through the large, mostly unsealed original air ducts.  The final addition was a laundry room and large closet for towels.  At one point I considered hiring a laundry service, but by now I knew we our new sports routine had nearly been solidified and this should be the last tweak.

Molly, child number five and Tommy, child number eight, were the the only ones who showed no interest in sports.  Of course not all of the other ten were superstars but they each enjoyed the competition and exercise, at least that is how it appeared to their mom and me.  Tommy kept mostly to himself and a small gang of friends pursuing more imaginative and intellectual pursuits.  Molly pursued the arts.  Pretty much all of them.  We turned part of the attic into a studio for her to paint, sculpt, write and compose.

Over the years our nemesis chaos kept seeping in, but with the help of the entire family we adapted our routine to keep it at bay.  If I do say so myself, I think we did a pretty good job.

The kids are grown and gone, mostly.  My wife and I have retired, but couldn’t bear leaving the house that had so many wonderful memories.  The locker room is clean and quiet, the studio is more of an art museum, and we keep mostly to the family room and kitchen.  We are happy relaxing and enjoying life in retirement.

The Chaos I knew retired along with me, sending his own kids on to live and challenge ours.  He still comes by for visits every now and again, mostly when the kids or grand kids come calling.  Like my wife and I, he feels younger and gets more active when our our gang of twelve children, ten spouses, two girlfriends, and twenty-nine grandkids all get together.  Each family bringing their own child of Chaos along.

It took sixty-five years, but I finally figured out that Chaos wasn’t my nemesis.  Chaos was my challenger, my competitor, my foe.  My sport had been working to beat Chaos at every turn.  He was a respected opponent, and I am a better person for having known him.