Once upon a time, a woman would be courted by a man. He would announce his intentions to her parents, and, assuming that he was from a desirable family with a reasonable estate and an unmarred history, he would be granted a walk with the young lady under the watchful eyes of a chaperon. If all went well, there would be a general progression of seriousness whereby the gentleman would woo the maiden with a cocktail of gifts and events, where the intentions of the joining were announced to society. If the match continued to be appropriate, and there were no imminent plagues, wars or loss of financial capital, the two would be wed together under the watchful eyes of the church and the magistrate. Then, on their wedding night, they would bang.
Now, we swipe right.
In both cases, we’re operating with the same motivation. The hook, if you will. The hook is that in each case the end of the ritual holds the promise of sex.
In the same way this concept has been streamlined and distilled in society, so has the way many television series crystallize their most appetizing plot beats into hooks and cliffhangers designed to ensnare the binge viewer.
These days, it’s all about the hook and the cliffhanger. Because we’re now the ones in charge of our viewing schedule. The days of being locked into a TV viewing schedule decided by someone else are long gone. Now, we get to DVR and stream and binge to our heart’s content, and if you’ve decided to start a non-network all-episodes-available binge show, the hard part for the producers is already out of the way. You gave the show a chance. That’s the first big hurdle. When people see the show concept or read about it on Pajiba from a trusted source and think “Huh. I’ll give it a shot.” That’s all the show needs. A shot. That simple decision has changed the structure of the shows we’re seeing on streaming services.
If you know, as a writer, that your audience is captive, and you’re not trying to catch them on a random Wednesday night at 9, while you’re up against other shows, your goal is KEEPING THEM. That’s it. So instead of focusing on a typical three act structure that has guided teleplays for the better part of the last 75 years, you take a page out of the book world.
If they’re already reading you just have to get them to turn the page.
That’s more and more how binge watch designed shows are becoming.
Take two of them, Bloodline on Netflix and Mad Dogs on Amazon. They’re structured nearly identically.
In Bloodline we open up with the big event that the whole season revolves around and immediately shoot back in time to see how we got there.
In Mad Dogs we begin with the most visually engaging imagery from the series, four dudes charging to camera in slo mo wearing enough random shit to pique our curiosity. Then we shoot back in time to see how they got there.
In both cases, we have a flashy opening to the series. They know you’ve chosen to “give it a shot” by pressing play on the pilot. Bam. Okay, so they have to make you keep watching. They have to get you from a shot to a commitment, and the best way to get you to commit is by keeping you watching.
How does this differ from a standard, weekly network show? Wouldn’t a hook be more important to try to get you to come back a week later? Not really, because in days past, you just didn’t have the ability to have your curiosity sated immediately, and modern entertainment is all about helping you mainline that instant gratification dopamine fix.
Here’s how a binge pilot is structured:
This is basically how it works. They come at you big. Huge. They show you all their cards right off the bat. It’s the biggest move they have. Once upon a time, you saved your huge set piece for the third act. Now, in your pilot, you come early and you come hard. (phrasing!)
After that huge opening, you have to do your standard intros. Where are we, who are we, which actors are cast, etc. It’s another way of adding more enticement to the series. Then you have some standard plot beats and now the next biggest move: all of these shows end on a holy shit beat. That’s the secret sauce. Start HUGE in the pilot, then finish as big as you can, because the goal is to get the viewer to watch the next episode. Period.
Then, rinse and repeat.
Some people loved Bloodline. If I had to pinpoint why, it was likely because of Ben Mendelsohn’s performance or Coach Taylor or some combination of the two. It was a better than average show, to be sure. But my god, you could just watch the first five minutes and last five minutes of every episode and you’d barely miss a thing. Because that’s where all the meat is. They need to hook you and then re-hook you.
Likewise, with Mad Dogs, you have a series where guys are fighting for their lives and the middle of every episode is just nonsense filler. Just complete bubkus. I hate that I was hooked enough to finish this show, because the character motivations and timelines were preposterous. Just asinine foolishness. But the hooks and cliffhangers were enough to get Lady Castleton and me to watch the next goddamn episode, until we were committed enough to hate watch it to see how it ended.
In a ten episode series, I find that usually if you can get me to watch four episodes, chances are pretty decent that I’ll be with you the rest of the way.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. According to Netflix, the hook point varies wildly.
That’s a list of when people actually got hooked. I feel like I’m solidly around the four episode mark pretty consistently. How does this list match up to the point where you got hooked?
It’s an interesting change to the television world, because this reverse bell curve allows a lot of playing around in what has historically been the second act. There’s more room for head fakes and diversions and character beats that may have otherwise found their way to the cutting room floor in years past. It may also result in shows that are sloppy in the middle.
As alternative providers like Amazon and Netflix continue to increase their market share of the viewing market, you’ll see more and more shows structured like this. So, if you need to take a break at the halfway point of any episode to make a sandwich, chances are you’re not going to miss anything all that vital.