Binge Watching and Writing

This week, I have to make a confession.

During the winter, when I had free time, I watched all six seasons of Gossip Girl.

And now you've met my inner snob, who thinks that I should be watching Bergman films and reading Tolstoy instead of a TV show about rich teenagers. But when I can't sleep at night, I don't think of Crime and Punishment. I turn to Netflix. And during that one fateful early morning when I clicked on the first episode in the first season of GG, I wondered if I could even get through ten minutes of this show before I abandoned it. Then it turned out I loved it. I wanted to say “kind of loved it,” but let's be real. I watched all 121 episodes of this show.

When it became clear that I was in it for the long haul, I tried not to judge. I grew curious. What was it about this show that made me want to watch it? If I figured that out, I thought I could perhaps write better books. I was hooked on this story. Why?

So here's my thoughts on why I stayed with Gossip Girl. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)

Visual stimulation: The actors are gorgeous, and they wear beautiful clothes. It made me think about the need for character description. We want to imagine what a character looks like. And clothes say a lot about a character. These details makes the stories more compelling.

Character development: On this show, the characters changed and grew. At the beginning, I thought Chuck Bass was revolting. By the end, he became a beloved character and “I am Chuck Bass” became my favorite line. What happened? They changed his hair. He had the audacity to wear bow ties and violet shirts and I want to say tunics, but now I'm wondering if I’m imagining that. We learned about his past. We saw his vulnerability and his heart.

The same is true with Blair. When the show started, I thought she was less interesting than Serena. But she grew on me. I started to love her gumption, her ambition, her love of detail, her realization of her calling. By the end, I was rooting for her, too. How did the writers do that? We saw her fail many times. She was often humiliated. She learned things and grew more lovable as the episodes went on.

I think the take-away I would try to remember from both these characters is the idea to allow your characters in the beginning to have a great many flaws and to let them take pratfalls. Do not be easy on them. Let them make huge mistakes. We will cheer them up, as they stand up again and somehow persist.

Family History: As I was growing up, I used to love to watch soap operas, specifically Days of Our Lives, with my mom and my sister. Watching Gossip Girl, I was often reminded of those summers, when we tried to watch our episode every day. If we were out during the early afternoon hours, my mother would take us to a restaurant that had tiny television sets in the booth where you could put in quarters, and we could watch our show. I can't remember very many specific details from the story, but I do recall there was one story arc one summer, where there was a character who, unbeknownst to the other characters, had gone mad. I can't remember if the insane person was a man or a woman, but I do know that character was an artist and was painting a portrait of Julie, a beautiful black-haired woman, one of the stars of the show. The painter would never let Julie see the work. But the viewers knew what was going on. This was not a standard portrait. This painting was a distortion, where Julie's face became a fun house mirror of the painter's anger and insanity. But when would she find out? What would happen then? I think I knew before summer ended. Watching Gossip Girl, I realized my love for these types of stories, complete with dramatic entrances and exits, outrageous behaviors, betrayals and mysteries. I have now given myself permission to go as operatic as I want to in my work, knowing that these are the stories that I have loved ever since I was a child.

Obstacles and Dreams Come True: Watching this show, I also recognized the pitfalls of a six-season series. Pacing is difficult. Early on, the viewer wanted two things to happen: Dan and Serena needed to be together, and Blair and Chuck had to be together. That had to be the end result. Today I was trying to figure out today how many times Blair and Chuck almost reconciled and then at the last moment, didn't. I think it may have been six, but that's just off the top of my head. As the series went on, the reasons why they couldn't be together became increasingly ridiculous. The writers did a greater disservice with the Serena/Dan story, sullying their connection to a point that by the end, I had to strain to believe that they would ever want to even hang out together any more. With Chuck and Blair, that wasn't a problem. Despite all their dysfunctions, they still seemed true to each other. I was happy that they did marry, although I was a little bemused by the journey they took.

So in terms of writing, it made me think that you really had to pay attention to the ways that you stymie the eventual outcome. Do the obstacles increase in dramatic importance? Do they make sense? Are the stakes legitimate? Have your characters retained their honor, or can you show why they acted in dishonorable ways so that the dream isn't spoiled by the end? All of these things feel really important to me as a writer.

So there you have it. I do feel I learned a lot from watching Gossip Girl. We had a lot of snow this year, and we were housebound. I would get my exercise and relieve my frustrations by pacing around the room with my headphones on, watching yet another episode of this show, and I was glad I could. If you have had a similar experience with a show you've binge watched, I would love to hear about it in the comments