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A story unfolding through time: The art of serialized storytelling

Taunted by cliffhangers, the suspense built by a scene cut too early tends to leave people seeking an immediate continuation to soothe their curiosity. The serialization of stories has allowed people to become invested in the unfolding of a story arc, often finding themselves on tenterhooks for what’s to come, their impatience and intrigue sometimes urging them to stay up until the wee hours of the morning just to watch what happens next.

Not a product of this era alone, serialized stories have spanned generations of viewership. The serialized format of storytelling—in which a story unfolds throughout the entirety of a whole season or series, with all loose ends gradually getting tied as the story progresses—has been used time and time again to paint more descriptive storylines.

On the other side of the spectrum is the episodic form of storytelling; it aims to complete a whole story, from the exposition all the way to the climax and resolution, in a single episode. It’s a form of storytelling that cartoons and sitcoms often employ.

Serialized storytelling has grown in prominence as a series model over the years upon the advent of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. This raises the question of whether the move to serialized storytelling represents a turn toward a new era of delivering television shows, from both a storytelling and business perspective.

The storytelling business

From television to streaming platforms, there are several examples of famous stories that have been told in both episodic and serialized fashion. The Duffer Brothers brought many viewers to the edge of their seats through revealing unexpected truths behind the Upside Down and the creatures that Eleven and the rest of the gang face throughout each season of Stranger Things. Many have found themselves binging episode after episode to unravel the mysteries for themselves at a breakneck pace that matches their enthusiasm and anticipation for what’s to come.

Another show that has risen to popularity in recent times, Money Heist, has excited audiences in a similar capacity. As the action builds and a surprising development in the story is unveiled, many viewers cannot help but keep their eyes glued to their screens as another ingenious plot of the Professor is revealed.

But such developments in a serialized story may take several episodes before reaching a climax, sometimes challenging the patience of its viewers. With this, evaluating whether the mode of storytelling plays a role in keeping the audience interested throughout the season is a curious thought to explore.

Alice Tenorio, a lecturer from the University’s Marketing and Advertising Department, makes such an observation, stating that with the solid foundation that many serialized stories have, viewers are more likely to remain invested in the development of the story and its characters. However, she also notes that with such positive reactions from the audience, the shows’ creators may tend to give serialized stories a slow build-up by stretching the story arcs out across multiple episodes. While the suspense can keep the audience itching for more, indifference to the show may gradually build as audience patience eventually wanes.

She points out the clear contrast of these to the traits of an episodic-based storyline. “[Episodic stories are] easy to follow. However, [the] lack of plot to look forward to or [having a] different plot or story per episode fails to acquire interest from most viewers like me,” Tenorio expresses. It’s the lack of a solid foundation for these stories that make her perceive episodic stories with less enthusiasm.

However, any series—regardless of the medium and structure—could easily fail to pique the curiosity of any viewer if the story it tells is simply uninspiring. Tanya Simon, an assistant professor and lecturer from the Literature Department, explains that when the writing “lacks imagination and a good narrative structure”, and relies instead on “tiresome camera work and fancy but useless visual effects”, clichéd and lackluster results become inevitable no matter the mode of storytelling used.

Viewer’s choice

Dr. Maribel Dominguez, an assistant professor lecturer from the Psychology Department, has watched her fair share of serialized shows on streaming services such as iFlix, and feels that serialized shows affect viewer preference by “ensuring an audience” for storytelling. “In a way, viewers cannot just stop watching a particular series because they’d be too curious to find out what happens next,” she explains, drawing in part from her area of expertise in psychology. She mentions how this curiosity is what often leads to “binge-watching”. But, she reminds, there is also a lot of discipline required from any individual to control their curiosity and keep a healthy pace for watching, as the lack of which can lead to unwanted consequences.

Serialized storytelling tends to lure the viewer into immediately watching the next episode, drawing in their interest for what happens next. Although one might derive satisfaction from finishing a story, several downsides may also befall any viewer who invests too much of their time on a series. Simon notes one particular consequence that she finds most alarming. “The fact that you can just sit through the entire season in a day trumps the opportunity of building your [emotional quotient],” she says.

In a way, taking in huge chunks, if not the entire, narrative in one go may prevent viewers from truly digesting and absorbing the material, the message, and the sentiments it is attempting to convey. And beyond those hours spent consuming a narrative, one could easily be left with only a few moments to spare to connect and build relationships with others.

Through the audience’s eyes

“What I admire about novelists, dramatists, and epic poets is how they develop and stay with pretty much the same set of elements—characters, settings—for a long time,” Simon says, praising the creative stamina that serialized storytelling requires. That said, she still feels that, when done right, episodic storytelling provides a good watch, saying, “The plot remains interesting without being frivolous; the characters remain engaging without being predictable or [having] their developments feel rushed and unmotivated.”

Tenorio is more straightforward with her preferences, seeing the appeal in each form of storytelling. Serialized fantasy dramas like Game of Thrones allow her to form personal attachments to the story, while episodic sitcoms like Friends and Modern Family satisfy her need for a light watch.

Whether a story is episodic or serialized seems to have little to do with how strongly it can hold onto the attention of the audience. But perhaps one of the strongest advantages of serialized storytelling is that it allows the viewers to “have [a] certain attachment with the series and the story,” as Tenorio puts it. And perhaps, as Dominguez shares, the viewers’ dedication to the series has more to do with the way a story is written and grounded in reality, “The more an individual can ‘relate’ to a particular story, the more they identify with a character; thus, the more they look forward to future episodes.”

That is perhaps what keeps people hooked on serialized shows, letting the next episode play no matter the cost or the hour.

By Kay Estepa

By William Ong

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