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!