Ever wonder how the creators of shows like Orange is the New Black, House of Cards or Stranger Things get us to stay up late on a work night or spend an entire weekend watching a full season of their show? Hal Croasmun, Founder of ScreenwritingU, along with his development team decided to find out. Not only did they analyze these shows in depth, they also interviewed many of their producers to learn the details of their magic recipe. Module 1 of Binge Worthy TV begins November 6th and can help you create an original show that’s not just entertainment – but an obsession.
Binge-watching is the latest trend in television viewing thanks to streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. But we don’t binge TV just because a whole season is available all at once. The shows themselves have ramped up the drama and added urgency by strategically placing jaw-dropping cliffhangers to make the viewer need to know what’s going to happen next – right now!
According to Croasmun, there are several components to making a show compel us to keep watching and some of them may surprise you.
No. 1: Big Picture Hooks
Before you even start writing pages of your pilot or creating your TV bible, some major hook(s) must first be conceived. This hook is the most important thing because it’s what’s going to get the viewer to watch to the very end.
“We want to present to the streaming services a show where anyone who even looks at the trailer says, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to watch the whole season!’ Our objective is to design that in from the pitch the writer gives,” says Croasmun.
If you look at the show 13 Reasons Why, the hook is finding out all 13 reasons a high school girl committed suicide. It’s heartbreaking, but certainly compelling as each new reason escalates in intensity with each episode until you get to the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak.
No. 2: Intriguing characters
Croasmun says he often finds interesting, fun and quirky characters in original pilots, but, “Seldom do I see characters that create intrigue. They should surprise us and live outside of moral boundaries. There should be something about these characters that goes beyond all standard models.”
House of Cards is a great example of characters finding new ways to cross the line of what is morally and socially acceptable.
No. 3: Empathy and Distress
As the writer, you should constantly be putting your characters in situations that cause the audience to stress. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst situation I could put these characters in? What would challenge them beyond anything they’ve ever done? What would put them in a spot where the audience cringes?’ This way, you’re building a different level of emotional experience. It reaches inside you in a different way. It’s not enough to have characters who are fun, interesting and quirky, you need to take them out of their comfort zone.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is jam-packed with cringe-worthy moments for the audience.
No. 4: Layers
The best characters often have plenty of secrets and so do the best stories. By layering your story with twists and turns – then strategically planning on when to reveal them – you’ve ratcheted the story up a few notches.
“You’re creating a storyline across the entire season. But in the midst of each episode, reveal layers to open loops and create mysteries.” You may think you’re watching one type of show but a reveal in episode 8 could change the meaning of who a character is or what has happened. Westworld is a show that has several significant reveals that change your perception of the entire show.
No. 5: Inviting obsession
It’s one thing to like a show, it’s another to be obsessed with it. Shows like Lost or Breaking Bad had viewers taking to social media and creating online communities where fan theories or character deaths could be discussed, creating an extension of the experience of the show. “Inviting obsession is our job. That’s what these streaming services want.”