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I just spent a whole, lazy day lost in a good story. I didn’t mean to spend so many hours on the couch, getting my vicarious thrills and chills through a handful of fictional characters living in a made-up world. My sedentary indulgence was largely a result of good storytelling: the characters were believable, their narratives compelling, the setting exciting. The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter left me hungry for more. I kept telling myself I’d consume just one more chapter. Guess how that went. I just couldn’t bring myself to hit the Stop button. Netflix kept serving up the next episode of The Punisher, and I just kept watching.
Chapter One: The First Episode
We’re currently living in the golden age of TV. The writing is better than it’s ever been, largely because people don’t watch shows the way they used to. Gone are the days of waiting seven days between every episode. Sure, there are Big Event shows like Game of Thrones that people will tune in to see every week, but more and more, people are binge-watching their stories. This lets the writers tell longer, more complex tales. They don’t have to worry about viewers forgetting things between episodes. Even if they do, these days it’s as simple as bringing up the last episode on your streaming service of choice.
The long story arcs are broken down into episodes — manageable chunks of consumable fiction, full of subplots and deep character development. Got an hour to kill? Watch one. Got a day off from work? Better get some popcorn ready.
This stuff is old hat to novel readers. We just call our story chunks chapters instead of episodes.
What You Love About Stories, In Book Form
Let’s come back to Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin began as a television writer, but became a novelist because his ideas were “too big” for TV. Well, it seems TV has finally caught up to books. I won’t discount the importance of HBO’s ridiculous budget or the availability of advanced special effects, but a lot of the success of the show owes to the fact that people can and will binge watch these days. Twenty years ago, before streaming media, viewers would have gotten hopelessly lost among the sprawling cast and labyrinthine plots.
That depth we’re getting on TV now? Novelists have been bringing it for years. No idea has ever been too big for a book.
The fact that Martin began in TV becomes apparent when you’re reading his books. He’s an absolute master of the cliffhanger, which will come as no surprise to anybody who’s watched the show. Think of how many times during a 10-episode season you had to keep watching because of the cliffhanger ending. Imagine what he can do in a 70-chapter book.
Cliffhangers aren’t the only plot devices written and audio/visual stories share. Today’s novelists grew up consuming the same media as everyone else, including TV, movies, and video games. They use the same techniques to keep you as glued to the page as you’d be to the screen. Take time skips, for example. They were once a novelty in written fiction, sometimes confusing to readers of the past. Today, flashbacks and flash-forwards are as common in novels as they are in other forms of storytelling.
While episodes tend to run at a few pre-set lengths, chapters vary a lot from author to author. Sometimes they’ll take you as long to read as if you were watching one of your favorite shows. I’m a big fan of writers who bang out short chapters, perfect to sneak in on a work break or bus ride. (Of course, if I have more free time I get sucked in for chapter after chapter, just as I would with a good show.)
Pizza vs. Burgers vs Androids Dreaming of Electric Sheep
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books are better than TV. I’d probably argue that anyone who claims they are is being at least a little bit pretentious. Just because I’m in the mood for a burger doesn’t make pizza inherently inferior. Likewise with different forms of storytelling.
Different media have different strengths and weaknesses. Voiceovers are hard to do well on TV, but getting into a character’s head is pretty standard fare in novels. Conversely, big explosions seem to work best in high-def, with enormous speakers rattling your bones.
My preference is largely determined by what’s available and how I’m feeling at the moment. I spent my free time today reading Stephen King. If I end with a headache on New Years Day, as I have historically, I’ll probably curl up in front of the TV.