Confessions of a Serial Binge Watcher
I keep a disciplined writing regiment, but every so often I hear the siren call of television. I’m not the type of person to watch any show that happens to be available. The shows that satisfy my fiction addiction need all the right elements. When I find one that does I fall into a Netflix vortex until the season is done.
I plowed through Marvel’s Jessica Jones in one weekend. Binge watching became part of my routine. I woke up with my tablet on my pillow, opened Netflix, and brought it into the bathroom while I brushed my teeth. I set it on the table as I ate my cereal. When I got on the bus to work I resumed watching on my phone. When I came home I put Jessica back up on the big screen.
It wasn’t that I was a chronic couch potato so much as Jessica Jones was just that good of a show. Let’s talk about the psychology of what makes a good story so binge worthy and how novelists can use the techniques of found on TV to write something readers will have trouble putting down.
It’s About the Characters Stupid
It’s the Characters, Stupid. Ronald D. Moore, the show runner for Battlestar Galactica, had this phrase posted above his desk, a reminder that what makes epic sagas truly addictive are the characters. Give every character who shows up in more than one scene an arc. No character should be able to make it to the end of the story without changing in some subtle way.
The best characters are larger than life, they’re wittier than anyone has any right to be. Don’t worry too much about breaking the audiences suspension of disbelief. Play up the casts’ eccentricities. Take the private peculiarities most of us try to bury and make your leads wear them on their sleeves.
Forecast character interaction. Let the audience know which outlandish cast member is about meet another. Take the characters with the most divisive points of view and lock them in a room together. Quotable character banter keeps audiences coming back for more. Give your audience something clever to tell coworkers at the water color.
What’s In the Mystery Box?
If you want people to binge read your story like they watch serialized TV introduce mysteries that are too intriguing to be ignored. How are there polar bears on a tropical island? What could be inside a hatch buried in the middle of the jungle? Where the giant statue of a foot come from?
Mystery boxes invite the audience to participate in the creative process. Readers fill the box with their own imagination; their wildest cosmic fantasies, their deepest fears, and spiritual beliefs.
My latest adventure is teaming with micro-cassettes filled with secrets, gardens filled with mystery lumps, and oddly shaped keys to floating doors. Mystery boxes keep people guessing, which makes them feel less like they’re being told a story and more like they’re participating. Binge worthy stories are the ones readers get personally invested in.
Give the Readers Someone to Ship
The X-Files creator, Chris Carter, had no intention of coupling Agents Mulder and Scully when he started the series, but the fans couldn’t help but see their chemistry. Fans hoping to see a romantic relationship develop between the agents identified themselves as shippers.
Carter decided to torture the shippers by putting Mulder and Scully in positions where they’d get jealous, speak with romantic undertones, and share long knowing looks. The agents were always teetering on the verge of become a different kind of partners.
Whenever it appeared that Mulder and Scully were about to express their true feelings something terrible would happen. In the first X-Files movie Mulder and Scully were about to kiss when Agent Scully was stung by a bee. The show ran for 8 seasons before the agents shared a loving embrace. When the series came back after 15 years of being off the air the show runners decided to split Mulder and Scully up. Why? So the shippers would have something to go crazy about all over again.
End Every Chapter on a Cliffhanger
Avoid giving the reader too many good stopping points. You can turn down the tension to avoid emotionally exhausting the audience, just don’t turn it all the way off. If you give your readers a breather do it in the middle of a chapter rather than the end. Use subtle foreshadowing techniques to let readers know a calm moment is just the eye of the storm. The coming danger need not be a literal hurricane. Danger can take many forms: mortal, financial, humiliation, betrayal, or emotional. One or more of these hardships should be lurking behind every corner.
Resist the urge to make the reader feel safe for too long. You don’t want your story to suffer from premature closure. Don’t be afraid to leave your chapter at the height of the dramatic tension and pick up the next chapter following other characters in the middle of a different situation. Make your audience work to get resolution on conflicts you’ve left hanging.
Start the Death Toll Early
If you’re writing a horror story then you should kill somebody in the preface. On TV this is known as the opening stinger. It establishes the stakes before the heroes arrive on the scene, letting the audience know that death is ever present.
Let Your Pokerface Slip
If you’re writing something with a mysterious edge make sure your first few reveals are intriguing, but make the clues obvious enough for the audience to piece together. Foreshadow something in the first few scenes and have it pay off in the first act. Let the audience know they’ll be rewarded for paying attention. Invite them to make predictions.
Let readers believe they’ve discovered your tell.
As the story progresses make the clues more elusive. Invite the audience to scrutinize everyone you introduce them to. Have characters who ultimately help your hero act a little shady. Give readers cause for speculation. Trick them into chasing red herrings down dead ends.
If your story has a big twist plant false possibilities early. The audience will be looking for the same level of foreshadowing that paid off in the act one. They’ll fall for a false setup and the twist will hit them like a sucker punch.
Plant Ticking Time Bombs
Set a timer early in your story. Ticking time bombs keep readers from putting the book down. It’s hard to go to sleep when the life of characters you’re emotionally invested in hang in the balance.
This timer need not be a digital countdown attached to green and red wires. It could be the time a young lover has to woo someone before they take a job overseas, how long a doctor projects a character to live, or even a looming deadline for a master thesis.
As the story progresses race to the finish. In the third act scenes should go from long to short, reinforcing the sense of urgency. Think of it this way: if the reader has made it into your third act they shouldn’t be able to put the book down for the night until they’ve gotten to the Acknowledgements section.
It’s not enough to build a story around a compelling situation. Give your audience characters whose wellbeing they’re invested in. For every sign of romance your characters receive give them two more signs of doubt. For every solution they come up with give them two more problems. For every riddle they solve give them two more questions. Leave some secrets unresolved until the last minute. Make the audience work for a sense of closure. Keep a countdown going to create a sense of urgency and race to the finish.
The streaming television revolution has utilized new formulas to keep audiences addicted. Why not apply some of those methods to keep readers turning pages? Look out for successful storytelling devices used in other mediums. Find a few that work for you and you’ll be able to make your book binge-able too.
My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!