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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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The Long Story Goodnight

In Episode 1, we talked about cliffhangers in movies, and recently here on the web site we talked about serialized television. Continuing along those lines, I had some thoughts about cliffhangers inherent in serialized storytelling, whether in movies or on television or in books.

In the television thread, "Grishny" writes: "I’ve always hated the season break . . . I’m highly annoyed that I have to wait for nearly two months before I get to find out what’s happening next on Heroes." Grishny is hardly alone; I just picked on him because he expressed the thought in a nicely quotable manner.

It's easy for me to sympathize. Hanging on a cliffhanger for weeks or months at a time is rough. At the same time, how is this different from how many other forms of long fiction already work?

Two months to find out what happens on Heroes is nothing compared to the year it'll take to find out what happens to Captain Jack Sparrow, or the three years it took to find out if Vader was lying about Luke Skywalker's parentage. If you read contemporary fantasy, virtually all of it is serialized, and there's a minimum of a year between each installment. It's been a year and a half since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a book that kept me up until the wee hours and had me excited and impatient for the continuation more than I can even describe, but the wait for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may not even be half over.

Of course, just because cliffhangers are prevalent doesn't mean we have to like them. But why pick on Lost or Heroes and take Pirates and Potter in stride?

Here's the thing, though, the reason I wanted to post this in the first place. I actually like the long waits between installments. I thrive on it. I feel I get more out of the stories when I am forced to hit a great cliffhanger and gnaw on it for a while in my head. I wouldn't like an arbitrary wait, mind you, like I get half way through a book when it catches fire, and I can't finish it. But if a good storyteller sets things up right, the delay will be strategically positioned at spot designed for it. And the thought the narrative inspires during the downtime can increase its overall effectiveness.

For myself, I've observed this through experience. At times, I've consumed long fiction after the initial release and blown right through the cliffhangers. The result is inevitably a less memorable experience. As a rule, now, when I read serialized fiction, I always read at least one unrelated book between installments in a series. Sometimes it's hard, but I force myself. With rare exceptions (like Lord of the Rings), they're meant to be read that way, and they read best that way.

The problems come when the planned delays are too long -- a year between installments of a serial is usually on the outside of reasonable -- or when delays occur in the wrong places. Scheduling of season 2 of Lost was terrible. Seemed like every third episode was a rerun. The erratic, protracted schedule made it tough to follow the narrative and keep track of the details. In response to the complaints, ABC made the perfect fix: 6 new episodes in a row, followed by a 12-week hiatus, followed by 16 new episodes in a row. That leaves two planned breaks, one after the first six episodes and one at the end, and the rest of the story is told at an even pace. Heroes seems to be adhering to the same sort of schedule. Don't like that two month break? Better than an assortment of random two week breaks, peppered throughout the series.

It's actually the week-to-week break between episodes that bother me more than season breaks. Seven days between episodes isn't that bad, I guess, but I'd rather watch one every night, or every other night, which is, I suppose not coincidentally, how I read books. Seven days isn't so long that the story can't continue to work, but it's long enough that I drift out of the story and have to put myself back in it when it's time for the next episode.

In certain unusual cases, it's fatal. I said in the television thread that Day Break is a show that becomes more complicated with every episode. After just a couple episodes, it became virtually impossible to keep track of all the details from week to week. I really really wish I had waited for a DVD set.

There's another reason. Day Break got cancelled after six episodes. Thirteen have been filmed, and supposedly they will eventually be released online at, or, presumably, on DVD. But who knows if the seven unaired episodes complete the story. If not, there's no point bothering with them. I refuse to start any more serialized television shows until they're over. I'll stick with Lost and Heroes -- fortunately, they're smash hits -- but no more. Because that's the other big problem. If the delay between installments is infinite, that's definitely too long.

So the three conditions that have to be met for me to actually prefer long delays in long storytelling: (1) The delays must occur only in planned spots, where the author of the narrative can design the story to pause there; (2) the story must progress promptly between the scheduled delays; (3) there must be a reasonable assurance that the story will be seen through to the end. For me, that often means waiting until the story is complete before even starting it. Incidentally, this implies that the story has a planned end, or at least winds up looking like it had one.

What do you think? Are long delays ok with you, or are you convinced that back-to-back consumption of all installments in any long fiction would work out better? If not, do you hold different mediums to different standards? Why? Tell me more!

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