The idea of binge reading is nothing new — not exactly.
In fact, the first serialized novels, by people like Dickens, were binge read. With the advent of cheap(ish) e-readers, readers were thought to be the next big thing when it came to binge-worthy consumption. However, what the big companies, like Amazon, and not so big companies, too many to mention here, forgot is that readings must be tailored for such binge-worthy sessions.
The problem that I’ve found in writing Web serials is that writers, myself included, try to mirror the novel far too much. In fact, they should be doing the opposite. They should be mirroring the plethora, the beautiful bounty, the rough-edges that come with having thirteen seasons of XYZ Show on Netflix or Amazon Prime or even Hulu. The novel just isn’t suited for the binge-worthy consumption that readers are supposedly looking for. In fact, novels aren’t serials, per se. Instead, they are what they are: novels. Novels depend on internal consistency (for the most part), a coherent(ish) structure from A to Zed, and so on. Serials, on the other hand, don’t have to follow these internal architectures as slavishly as novels do.
Serials, especially Web serials and TV shows, don’t need to be coherent at all to be successful. For those who’ve watched the original X-Files or Stargate SG-1 will know what I’m talking about. Some things are just thrown out the window, in order to keep ratings up, to keep the story going, and to keep things fresh. Characters die, are brought back to life, and killed again. Some are killed off permanently, killing with them the subplots originally hinted at in previous episodes.
Binge reading will only be successful once it cuts ties from the novel. Maybe not completely but for the most part. Web serials, those binge worthy reads, need to avoid things like the tighter storylines of novels. They need to be more flexible, and they need to reconsider what makes people want to read just one more page in a multi-thousand-page epic like (say) Worm, an incredibly successful Web serial.
If binge reading is to take off, like binge watching Netflix originals, writers need to consider the nature of their medium. They are writing for computer screens, whether they be iPhone or Android phones, tablets, or large monitors that make large lettering easier to manage. Writers also need to realize that readers need to feel comfortable and encouraged to move from one section to the next within the serial in question. Like Netflix, Web serials might want to consider the “Next Episode” button, something that encourages readers to read into the wee hours of the night. Serials will also want to find the happy medium, a sort of standardized episode or installment length, that keeps readers interested but isn’t too short to be seen as a waste of time. Readers need to feel as if they have some sway over the serial’s direction, even if it is minute in the grand scheme of things. It needs to make readers feel important in a world where their opinions, ideas, feedback, etc. don’t seem to matter all that much. Finally, binge reading needs to take a page from Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and Hulu: offer a coherent packaging system. Don’t charge $1.99 per episode. That’s ridiculous. Who has time for that nonsense? Offer readers something else instead, something cheaper and something that can be shared between friends, like your Netflix password.
To make reading binge worthy, readers will need to demand better — and they are starting to. Writers will need to band together, as professionals, as amateurs, and as hobbyists, in order to clean up the industry and make it as approachable as (say) Netflix’s model for TV shows and movies.
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