Binge Watching for Storytellers

I’m a media binge watcher. From recent stats, it is apparent that you may be too. We are, as a culture in love with stories, but we’re not in love with waiting around.

Actually, let’s clarify that…we’re binging on good stories. And, of course, we are putting some level of trust and faith in the audacity of the storyteller. We’re crossing our fingers (and our legs on the couch) in the hopes that the story we’re watching, reading, hearing is going to end as well as it started. We’re hoping that the story creators have thought this story line through and know how to make this all worth our while.

Short-form videos require less commitment, so we are faster to forgive weak storytelling. A 6-second Vine video requires less time away from our family, friends, and career, so we don’t care if it’s not a great story. In that case, good enough is good enough.

Not too long ago, the world discovered Breaking Bad. This was an ambitious show that you just could not watch and understand in six seconds or even in a single episode.

Breaking Bad lasted five seasons. If you were going to get that story, you needed to commit. Of course, the storytellers had to have the audacity to pitch, produce, and stay with the story that was epic in length and scope. We went along for the ride, and those of us who ended and watch all the way through to the end, were rewarded with a story that was worth our time.

As a storyteller, you must be acutely aware of the fact that you’re only as good as your first story.  By that I mean, if you don’t grab me with your first story, I’m not going to stick around for the next one. That is doubly true if your next story requires a significant investment in my time, like a three-book trilogy or a multi-season TV series.

Movies, books, comic books, Netflix TV series…they all require faith. We must commit to the author and put faith in the fact that they will make this worth our time. If they fail to engage us, particularly on the first story, we will not stick around for the next one.

Right now, on Netflix I am watching the show Narcos. So far, three episodes into a 10-part story, it is compelling and I plan to continue watching. But if the show didn’t grab me in the first episode, I wasn’t going to wait around to finish the 10th episode. Every episode, is a meta-story or a micro arc.

Of course, prior to that, I watched the entire 12-episode run of Daredevil. That convinced me that a Netflix original show could be good. If they failed on Daredevil, it’s unlikely that I would have committed to Narcos.

As a comic book writer, I am aware of the fact that serialized storytelling is more or less built into the structure of our medium. If I plan to write a comic story for a mainstream publisher, it will be 22 pages per issue over multiple issues. At the end of every story, I must end with a cliffhanger strong enough that the reader says, “I’ll stay on for more and buy the next issue.”

Of course, not all stories pull through like this. Sometimes you will read the first few chapters of the book and decide that you may not complete the entire book. And if you do read the entire book, and it’s not very good, it’s unlikely that you’re going to give that author two or three more tries in case the author improves. You’ll give them some of your time, and if they don’t meet your expectations, you’re not going to read other books. Books take too much time, as do TV shows on Netflix, so you can’t commit to multiple hours over multiple weeks or even over multiple seasons to determine if the storyteller was prepared with an amazing story that pull through all the way to the end.

This year, I read the Charles Burns X’ed Out trilogy. It was an audacious story that stretched over three graphic novels that took four years to see publication. If you read the first story in 2010, you had to wait until 2014 to complete the entire three-graphic novel epic. I devoured all three books over a binge-reading week. It was an audacious project, but I was always impressed by other books by Charles Burns that I committed to this trilogy.

And every year or so, I commit to reading or re-reading a large interconnected story that requires an increased level of intellectual commitment and time. I do this to challenge myself, but also to reward my brain for spending time focused on content that’s more than just “snackable.” You can’t sustain yourself on snacks.

This is a marketing blog, so I’m going to relate it back to content marketing. If you are trying to tell stories that will engage and excite your target reader, you must think through the entire story. Often, marketers are focused on the earliest part of the story. The first act, if you will. And then after that, they really haven’t thought through the entire story. This kind of story success or failure usually comes down to content strategy planning.

Marketers and advertisers love Act 1, where they introduce the user to the product But then they fail to deliver the rest of the story.  To be an effective storyteller, you must think through all of the acts, all of the story beats, and through to powerful ending.

It’s easy to call yourself a storyteller, but it’s difficult to tell stories.

 

Links:

Survey: Pretty much everybody is binge-watching TV

Half of Americans “Binge View” TV Shows

Breaking Bad on Netflix

  • Great post. I like the premise, but I have a question about binge watching as a pattern of behavior: Does watching in quick succession like a “binge” move away from the relationship model from a marketer’s standpoint? The behavior can be a huge win and compliment: My consumer is so engaged they are consuming all of my material at once! But the interest isn’t leveraged into an ongoing relationship. I imagine many content producers (not all) would prefer to have a whole season of shows to advertise, build social campaigns around, build suspense, etc. You lose the wild spike of enthusiasm, but gain a pattern of engagement. What are your thoughts? Great post!