Serial Thriller

I have been greatly enjoying, as I wrote last week, the television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This has gotten me thinking about the pleasure of serial forms of art–namely what we find in literature and television. Many great works by canonical authors were serialized in newspapers, such as those by Dickens or Tolstoy. A neuroscientist or psychologist could explain the psycho-physiological processes in the brain, but I’d like to take a literary stab at explaining why we like episodic entertainment. Why is this such an important, time-tested way of engaging with an audience? 

-A premise that hooks us in. There is something that grabs the reader from the get-go. The stakes are high, there is something about the situation that makes us want to know more.

-Investment in the characters. How else do we get into a story if not through the characters? Is the character an underdog or victim? Hero(ine)? Or is it an ensemble cast, perhaps a family that has some sort of a crisis? We need to feel allied with these persons immediately, or at least one, so that it is enough for us to want to follow her/his/their journey(s).

-An intriguing plot. This is very crucial. How does the writer unfold the story neatly, little by little, with expert pacing? How does each episode or chapter or section deliver just the right amount of drama at the right time? It takes extreme skill as a writer to know exactly how much to give the reader or viewer, the right “dose,” so to speak.

-An engaging story. This is closely tied to the premise, but even if the premise is strong, if the story doesn’t deliver and hook us in, we will lose interest.

-Knowing when to cut us off. I almost feel that the writer has to take us up to the top of a mountain to the point where we could fall over the cliff, and then to stop that particular episode or chapter. That way, we are completely hooked and the greatest amount of dramatic tension is generated.

-Multiple plot lines, most often. We are reading character A’s journey toward getting married, but also about character B’s illness and impending death. Alternating A’s and B’s plot lines keeps us very intrigued, so that way when the episode drops off with A, the writer picks up with B.

-Playing with our anticipation and expectations. We are waiting for next week’s installment, wondering if Mr. X will be sentenced to jail or if Mrs. Y will get the opportunity she has been longing for. The wait gives us a chance to reflect on the various possible outcomes, and when we get the next installment, we might be completely surprised as to what happens.

What could we criticize about this kind of art? Well, one could easily say it is formulaic, and that would be very true. Make sure the right amount of dramatic tension happens in each part of the series, a classic Freytag’s Triangle. Some might argue that it is teasing the reader or viewer, and perhaps even a weakness on the writer’s part, not being able to continue with the story or plot line, but having to break it up. It also relies on very traditional narrative forms, and so metafiction or non-traditional narratives would not work well. Finally, each segment or episode has to fit a particular length or time limit, and this might not always be useful. Sometimes a particular scene has to be drawn out to give it more emotional weight. So this serial/episodic manner of telling a story relies heavily on structure. 

There is room for both, the traditional and nontraditional narratives. We like both for different reasons. In the modern world, we see serialization globally, be it in telenovelas, Hindu myths made into TV series, or dramas on Netflix. Traditional narratives and serials give us a deep-rooted sense of familiarity, the artistic equivalent of comfort food, be it macaroni and cheese, rice and lentils, or kimchi jjigae.

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