I've become a big fan of binge-watching TV shows, but not for the reasons you might expect. I think of the time spent as if I'm taking a master class in story telling.
Consider this: fiction writers are advised to read widely within our chosen genre. This helps us learn pace and timing. When you hold a physical book, you know you're dealing with a finite amount of time in those characters' lives. You can internalize when the story picks up or lulls based on the pages turned. You know when you're halfway because your left hand works just as hard as your right.
The same goes for reading an ebook. The running percentage read at the bottom of the screen indicates how quickly you're reading or where you are in the grand total. Sure, back matter can throw you off--when a book ends at 92%, I often feel a little let down!--but you get the same general idea.
Audio books are great for getting lost in the moment. When you start out with sixteen discs of a book, it almost seems like you're never going to finish it. But you get lost within the individual turns of phrase and can take note of a particularly well-crafted sentence. The lines between immediate story and backstory become blurred. You don't always know how far into the story you are, unless you're the type of person who calculates that sort of thing for fun.
Binge-watching episodic television, particularly long-running, successful series with fervent fan bases, can teach us something different. All stories have arcs, but writers of long-running series have had the unique task of keeping a story arc alive while also satisfying fans who clamor for answers. Can you say X-files???
I love to analyze the first episode (or first few episodes) of a TV show that had a long run to see what aspects of the characters and overall story were planted early. Everything you need to know about Frasier came out in that first episode. Same with Friends. Lorelai Gilmore burst on the screen the day she took Rory off to Chilton and remained true to her character for 7 seasons + the revival. (Okay, fine, there were a couple of things in season 7 that left us all scratching our heads.) (Christopher??? Just--no.) The first episode of Alias gave us Sydney Bristow the secret agent, Sydney Bristow the student, and Sydney Bristow the fiancé. And 90 minutes later, when she turned double-agent, we were with her 100%.
Did the writers of each of these shows know how long they'd be writing for those characters? In most cases, no. Veronica Mars, for example, ended season three with an ambiguous cliffhanger (which in an odd way does encapsulate the series hopeful/hopeless vibe). The pitch for a series four was an attempt to repackage the series into something completely different-: get it out of high school and into the FBI, but the network didn't bite. (Their poor decision turned out to work for fans who funded the movie through a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign eight years after the series went off the air.)
So, is binge-watching just another way to fritter time and not write? Maybe for some. But when we recognize that we're studying character growth and motivation, when we see that every character in every scene wants something and their interactions are what drive the story forward, then we can learn from what we watch and use it in our own stories.
It's like being in class, only instead of Mr. John Keating, your teacher is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Want to check out the character growth of my character Samantha Kidd?