You go through withdrawals. It makes you late for work. You can’t even concentrate when you’re hanging with family or friends.
Many of us have at some time been hooked on a show. “Binge-watching," is a lot like going on a bender. You may try to get away from the show for a bit, but then you feel that -powerful draw to watch just one more episode.
We know how powerful this can be as a viewer, but how can we be the ones stepping into the dealer’s role and creating this experience.
One of the most badass things about TV today is it’s the closest thing we have to old-fashioned storytelling. Closer than movies, novels or even interpretative dancing. I’m talking about the old kind of storytelling where a bunch of cavemen sit around a fire, telling a story over multiple days. It's the Paleolithic Netflix and chill, but it's what originally got people so hooked on storytelling.
In Arabian Nights, a king decides all women are unfaithful and thus should be killed (talk about igniting a Tweet storm!). One crafty woman spares her life by telling him a story that spans over 1000 nights. A fascinating, addictive story. The King, so hooked on the story, can’t kill her because he has to hear how it continues. Thus she keeps telling it, hoping that by the time she hits the end, he would change his mind about killing her.
Take a lesson from her. You probably won’t get murdered if your audience loses interest, but your viewer will stop watching if he or she does, and that’s almost as bad.
Relating to this experience, and having spent a lot of time trying to hook people with my own stories, I’ve identified nine ways to make your TV show suck your audience in.
1. Get Characters the Audience Loves
I’ll put it bluntly: if your audience does not care about your characters, they will not care about your show.
Some shows are straight-up character driven. Others, like The Wire and Mad Men, are theme driven, and others, like the Walking Dead are plot driven.
But no matter what is the main drive, ALL of them have great characters that audiences love.
We need that connection. We need someone we can root for or root against in order to be sucked in.
A huge ingredient to making this a reality is making your characters well rounded, which I’ve talked about before here.
2. Ask a Lot of Questions
Lost is considered by most to be one of the most addictive shows created. And one of the most interesting parts about it is that if you asked anyone watching the show when it first aired, even people obsessing about it online, what was happening, they’d shrug their shoulders and try to explain, “there’s a smoke monster…and some mysterious numbers…and, um, I have theories about it.”
In other words no one had any idea.
But the show sucked people in because those mysterious questions created an important hook: intrigue.
The show was fascinating, and we wanted to know what everything meant.
Big Little Lies, Twin Peaks, and Making a Murderer do the same thing. We’re presented with a mystery, and our brains want to solve it. Every episode we feel as though we are getting closer to an answer, and that pull is like a magnet.
3. Dazzle us with Possibilities
There’s a reason the Cheesecake Factory puts their cheesecakes in a glass display case in the front of the store. They know if people see an Oreo Dream they will be tempted to order a piece, even they a came in for only drinks or a salad, an. The restaurant is even lists the calories of their cakes. It’s them saying “yeah, it’s so good, it’s worth getting fat.”
The first few seasons of the American Office were considered the best, and a huge piece of it was we, as the audience, wanted to see Jim and Pam get together so bad. It was something that could happen at any moment, but they didn’t give it to us.
In Breaking Bad, Walt had to hide the fact he was making and selling meth from his wife and from his DEA brother-in-law, while his brother-in-law was trying to solve the case. The fact that Walt could get busted so easily made it all the more tantalizing.
You should show your viewer what they want, but you shouldn’t give it to them right away.
4. Move Towards those Possibilities
On the flip-side, you can’t hold the cheesecake too far away from the viewer. If they have no chance to order it, they’re going to lose interest.
You have to take steps towards giving them the thing they want to happen or the thing they don’t want to happen. Pam and Jim have to have moments where it looks like they might get together. Hank has to come inches away from discovering Walt sometimes.
This gives viewers the feeling of “Ok, this thing might happen in the very next episode.” That’s where a lot of our watching “just one more” comes from.
This whole experience also creates a lot of emotion, which takes us to our next tip:
5. Use Emotion
When you have strong feelings for a person it’s hard to stop thinking about him or her, right?
TV shows are no different. The more emotion we have about a particular show, the more connected we’re going to be to it, and the more we’ll want to keep watching it.
Sometimes the emotion is tension like in True Detective. More on creating tension here.
Or maybe the emotion is just making us feel better about our own lives, like Big Brother or most other reality TV shows.
No matter what emotion it is, using them will hook viewers. Beware though: viewers are much smarter than you think they are (well, hopefully the viewers you’re going for are). If your audience feels manipulated, they will run from your show while gagging.
But if you genuinely and authentically create these emotions, they’re all yours.
6. Make it Unpredictable
If the king knew exactly what was going to happen in the story, the storyteller might have lived about 5 of those 1001 Arabian nights. If a show always gives us exactly what we think will happen, we can figure out what the next episode will be and are less inclined to watch it.
Be careful about becoming unpredictable for unpredictable-ness sake. If you are not true to your characters just to throw the audience a swerve, you are violating the first and most important ingredient: making great characters. Resist the urge to betray them.
Life is unpredictable, though, and you can let things happen much more organically.
The Sopranos was one of the most unpredictable shows ever made. During the last season, a bunch of spoilers got loose, so to compensate, people made up fake outrageous spoilers, so no one could tell what was true and what wasn’t. It worked. The show was so unpredictable that anything was plausible, and we trusted no matter which of possibilities happened, the characters would stay true.
And say what you want about the ending, but no one saw that coming.
7. At the Same Time, Give us Comfort
So this unpredictability will give us adrenaline rushes, but unless we want to constantly live on the edge, we have to have some comfort in our shows. It has to be our adventure and our friend at the same time.
Even with how unpredictable the show was, there was a lot of comfort with The Sopranos. The consistent opening, the characters, the fact that he loved his family, the therapy sessions, his views on life, Paulie Walnut’s whole existence.
Some shows are more formulaic, like CSI or New Girl, which provide the comfort. Within the shows the plots or jokes aim to be unpredictable, creating the balance that keeps people coming back for more.
8. Respect the Viewer
No one wants to watch a show that doesn’t respect him or her. As noted above, trust that your audience is much smarter than you think they are.
Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t explain everything right away. It tosses you into the world, and it assumes that the viewer is smart enough to put everything together.
Game of Thrones is so dense with characters and history and plot points. But it knows we live in an internet age, where if we get confused, we can figure out and catch up to anything we’re not too sure about. Or at the very least, viewers can ask someone who read the books. They’ll love it.
So don’t feel like you have to explain everything right away. Make your jokes a little subtle. And assume your audience is right there with you.
Trust is another big part of this. This is why some people felt burnt by Lost, which didn’t answer all of the questions it asked.
When Damon Lindelof made The Leftovers, he did the same thing, but he made it very clear, from even the lyrics in the theme song, that there won’t be definite answers, so as to not make any false promises.
9. End on a Cliffhanger
This is a crucial step to getting people to come back.
And I’ll talk about it in my next article.
Ok…I’m fucking with you. But this is exactly what you want to do.
To create those great cliffhangers that leave the viewer wanting more, you have to use all of the other tools that we’ve been talking about.
You have to create those characters that they want to see more of.
You have to end on a question that they want answered (Will this be the moment they finally get together? How is she going to get out of this situation alive? What’s in that goddamn hatch??!!).
You have to allow the answer to be something they really want to see happen or something they really want to see not happen.
There has to be some emotion attached. At the very least, we have to feel a strong tension and anticipation about what is going to happen.
It has to be something that the viewer can’t quite tell what will happen.
But the viewer does have to feel enough comfort and trust in you that you’re going to answer this in a satisfactory way.
A tall order, but when done right, you can create anticipation like nothing else.
One of the beautiful things about putting these elements in a show is even though we as viewers know these things are being done, it still completely works. Knowing how addictive cigarettes are doesn’t make them any less so.
So go to the dark alleyway of your production studio or writer’s room and start pedaling a show that no one will be able to stay away from.
She lived by the way. The woman telling the Arabian Nights story. In case you were wondering…