Between Gilmore Girls hitting Netflix streaming and me hitting the Outlander series, I’ve had many conversations over the past month about how a great series—on television or on the page—can take over your life, and not in a good way.
Last week, I confessed to being a speed reader: one who plows through great books as quickly as possible (at least on the first reading) because I can’t wait to find out what happens next. Unsurprisingly, I do the same thing with the great tv series we watch on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed up too late to watch just one more episode, for the same reason: I need to know what happens to the characters, and I need to know now.
I know from the comments here and from personal conversations over coffee that I’m not the only one who struggles with “just one more” syndrome. Numerous commenters and real-life acquaintances have admitted it’s a serious problem; some even go so far as to say they refuse to read fiction because they’re unable to cope with daily life while they’re enmeshed in a good story.
As much as I love to speed through my books, I don’t stay up till 2:00 a.m. reading anymore, and it’s not because I’ve tapped into a fountain of self-control. Instead, I learned more about how authors create page-turners—and I’ve put that information to good use so that I can (albeit, I’ll admit, unwillingly) put down books that used to be un-put-down-able.
To the reader, a chapter break seems like the most logical place to put down a book, if only for the night. What the reader doesn’t know is that the author is doing everything within her power to make the end of a chapter the absolute worst place to stop. When the dramatic tension ratchets up a notch or three at the end of a chapter, it’s precisely because the author wants you to turn the page. If you can close the book there, she’s failed.
There are two things you can do with this information: you can 1. recognize the author’s tricks for what they are, and close the book anyway, or 2. deliberately resolve to “pause” your reading mid-chapter, instead of making the seemingly logical but ultimately fatigue-inducing decision to read to the end of the chapter.
(I stop mid-chapter, myself. I may know the authors’ tricks, but I still don’t have the willpower to put the book down at the chapter break, especially not at 10:00 p.m. when my willpower tank is empty.)
Despite my relative self-control when it comes to the written word, we haven’t watched any good shows around here since we moved. We’ve been busy, yes—but we’ve also been well aware of the hazards of getting sucked into an addictive show, and that’s kept us from watching the first episode of anything. (Even though I’m eager to dive into Parenthood and Call the Midwife, Scandal and Dr. Who, and a half-dozen more I’m sure I’m forgetting.)
But I read something last week that opened my eyes to the rules of screenwriting. News flash: just like novels, tv shows escalate dramatic tension at the end of each episode so you’ll tune in next week—or, in the days of the Netflix binge, so you’ll just press play on the next episode.
If we want to avoid staying up till 2:00 a.m. watching just one more episode, there are two paths we can take: we can understand the game is rigged, and turn the tv off anyway. Or we can pledge in advance to turn off the tv at the lull in the action that comes about 30 minutes in to a 45 minute episode. The choice is yours.
There are other ways to curtail our binging tendencies (and I’d love to hear what works for you). In her recent love letter to the first Outlander book, Andrea Cumbo said she’d promised herself to listen to Outlander only in the car, because otherwise she won’t get any work done. And I know several Gilmore Girls addicts who promised themselves that even though the show is now streaming on Netflix, they’ll only watch it when they’re on the treadmill.
If you’re a story junkie, the struggle is real. But there are ways around it: I’d love to hear yours.
How do you keep a great series from ruining YOUR life? (And if you have a great series—for the screen or the page—that’s binge-worthy, feel free to gush about it in comments.)