Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Being an older Millennial—or Xennial, as some people prefer—I clearly remember life before the internet, life during the rise of the internet, and now life that has become not only accustomed to the internet, but so intricately woven with it that younger generations can’t possibly imagine living without it. The Internet Age has given us many good gifts, but it has also raised many unique challenges and raised them so rapidly that we more often feel as a culture as if we’re playing catch-up, rather than heading off potential pitfalls before they appear. One thing that has come about with the rise of the internet is the easy availability of instant gratification. We now can have virtually anything immediately that before we would have had to work or wait for: food, sex, information, entertainment. Although perhaps not often thought of as the most important thing on that list, the immediacy with which we now take in entertainment has led to a reworking of our expectations and a reordering of our desires. Our consumption of stories in the Internet Age says a lot about our virtue as individuals and as a culture.
Waiting has almost disappeared from the storytelling experience. Since the advent of streaming television, scriptwriters have begun crafting shows differently. No longer do commercial breaks have to be incorporated into a script for a show that will never pause. And when scriptwriters know that an entire series will drop to Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu all at once, they will write episodes to reflect that—intending to draw viewers into binges where episodes don’t feel episodic, but rather like beats in a song. But just as white space is important in a work of art and moments of silence are important in musical compositions, so breaks in storytelling also serve a purpose. For as much artistic license and creative expression streaming services have opened up for television studios and creators in recent years, I can’t help but wonder at the changes that have been wrought in us, the viewers, and wondering, too, at what we have lost as a result.
As our only means of consuming entertainment, [binging] may turn us into fevered people impoverished for art that satisfies as only the True, the Beautiful, and the Good can.
Have we lost the ability to embrace the joyful anticipation that waiting for the continuation of a good story builds in us? These days, there is very little that our pleasures demand of us that we have to wait to have fulfilled. In fact, people often scoff at the idea of delayed gratification—in entertainment as much as in other areas of life. Now that streaming television has given us the opportunity to consume whole stories beginning-to-end in a binge, having to wait on the next chapter, episode, or installment in a series has become more the exception than the norm. Even in publishing, which moves slower than other forms of media, if your favorite author doesn’t end a series or story to your liking—or if you find a wait to be too long and odious—you can always find (or write!) an online fanfiction version that better suits your desires. Fulfillment is rarely more than a click away.
Although immediate gratification in entertainment consumption is a product of our modern age, even today, we have great opportunities to still participate in serialized storytelling, in which waiting is part of the experience. A serialized story is any story broken up into parts for the purpose of being told as a whole. Most television shows, of course, end up being series, and many books are parts of series, but with the expansion in recent decades of some of the big cinematic universes into mega franchises and the emergence of storytelling via podcasting (which is really a revitalization of old radio dramas), we now have many more opportunities to participate in and experience serialized stories. With so many options, though, comes a choice: how will you consume the stories? Will you wait for the entire series to be complete so you can binge the whole story at once? Or will you engage with the stories as they come out, allowing the process of waiting to be part of the experience?
As you take in each part of a serialized story, you can’t help but look ahead with hope and anticipation for later joy, resolution, catharsis, continuity, and, usually, an eventual good ending. In entering into a serial story, the audience surrenders control, submitting to a storyteller (or team of storytellers, depending on the medium) with trust and faith that the long journey will be worth it. In a way, these sorts of stories best imitate life.
Intentional engagement in serialized stories—particularly those that are in process, or those that we do truly have to wait for—forces us to take a step back and re-incorporate waiting as part of the story consumption experience. Waiting cultivates self-control and patience, two virtues that tend to be popular when we can put them on display for others, but not as popular when we are exercising them in private for personal integrity, which is when they matter most to God. As most of our entertainment consumption takes place in the privacy of our homes, how we engage with our stories does matter, even if it is just us alone on our couches trying to decide whether or not to let Netflix roll on to the next episode just seconds after finishing the last.
If we can have it all now, why would we wait? It appeals to our basest instincts. At heart, we are like children without parents telling us we can’t eat our entire basket of Halloween candy in one night. We know, intrinsically, that binging other things is bad for us; maybe we should pause and think about how binging entertainment might be bad for our character, as well? Bad for our moral development? For our culture as a whole? It might be time to take a step back and examine where, in our lives, we still cultivate the virtues of self-control and patience—and not just because it’s being forced on us. In serialized storytelling where episodes, seasons, movies, or books are not available to us right away, we have an opportunity to engage in stories that are not finished—but will be… someday—stories where waiting is built into the consumption experience, and the creators intend your experience to be richer for the wait. Creators of stories mean for the words on the page or the images and sounds on the screen to be transformative. But they also mean for the way in which you consume art to be part of the experience. Although many stories have now been crafted for the “binge” effect, some others are still intended for you to take pause, reflect, let the stories breathe like good wine, and see how much the stories themselves grow the richer for the “white spaces” while you also grow richer in patience.
Not only do we grow in virtue when we allow waiting to be part of our story consumption, but the stories themselves can become more satisfying. My 12-year-old son may think he loves Harry Potter as much as I do because he has read the whole series five times through this year, but he will never know the feeling of waiting years to have a new Harry Potter novel arrive on his doorstep. And he may love Iron Man and the Avengers, but he won’t ever get to experience what it was like to start that journey in a theater in 2008 and finish it in 2019. He will, of course, have his own experiences in serialized storytelling just as my generation has had different experiences from my parents’ generation, and so forth, but my point here is that my experiences with these particular cultural artifacts informs my love of them. Waiting for the eucatastrophes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Avengers: Endgame made those eucatastrophes so much sweeter. It is the agony of the not-knowing—as my dad once told me it was agony to wait for Return of the Jedi to come out to find out what happened to Han Solo—that makes a good ending a great ending. This is part of what truly invites the audience to be a participant in the story.
In waiting, there is a richness in anticipating what is coming, especially if we are hoping and trusting that what is coming is something good. Binging is a practice of gluttony, and when applied as our only means of consuming entertainment, it may turn us into fevered people impoverished for art that satisfies as only the True, the Beautiful, and the Good can.
Waiting for what we consume is, more and more, becoming a matter of choice now that so much is available to us instantaneously. Build spaces of intentional pause into your choice of media: start a book series that isn’t yet complete, engage in a television show that isn’t yet streaming completely to your service of choice, choose just to watch one episode of that streaming show a week. Self-control, like patience, is a fruit of the spirit, and cultivating these virtues in the areas that seem so trivial—like our entertainment consumption—just might help each of us to see how not trivial at all God thinks the trivial things in our lives are. He created time for our benefit, with all the pauses and seasons of waiting that come along with it, often for the cultivation of many virtues, including patience. Rather than always choosing stories that fill up every quiet space, why not choose to, at least every now and then, consume stories in a serialized way that imitates life as we live it?