Confession: I am a huge fan of the webseries The Guild. The short episodes fit nicely into the breaks in my day, and the sum of the episodes together makes for an amusing, coherent story across the season. I watch other webseries, too, but The Guild accomplishes both the bite-sized story chunks and the overall effect of the full story better than most. (You could place the praise squarely on the fact Day has worked in serial television, but veteran Bryan Singer has a webseries running right now that really needs to relocate its spine.) I also enjoy reading (and, when I can find the time, writing) serial stories posted to sites like deviantArt and FictionPress. They often lack the good strong episode structure, but you can see where the writer is trying to master that skill. (It gives me hope that one day, I will master that skill.)
What keeps these webseries and serial stories interesting enough to keep following is that they use a technique called “chunking”. They take one section of the story and, if they do it correctly, give that chunk its own mini-story, complete with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The consumer gets a story within the smaller story that leaves both a sense of completion within that chunk and a question or two to drive them to want to see the next bit of story.
It’s what made serial stories so popular in the late 1800s, and what keeps them popular today.
Interestingly, these aren’t the only chunks we run into. We see it when we play digital games. Some games let you explore a region or storyline until you’ve seen everything they want you to see so the next part will make sense, and then they open the next region or storyline. You continue this way util you give up or finish the game. (And boy, are there some interesting arguments over using this technique in a world that is otherwise open once you have opened new regions!) You keep playing because you want to see that next region. You want the next part of the story.
Even education has its own version of chunking in lesson planning. In most curricula, each lesson is a chunk, focusing on a specific skill or aspect, and the chunks together build a learning unit, which in turn build a curriculum. Even in corporate and informal settings, there is often some sort of spine that relates different trainings, workshops, and seminars together. You follow the courses along the spine to develop your mastery over a related group of skills or over a given topic of study.
By breaking things down into these smaller chunks, writers, game designers, and educators are giving consumers the ability to take in the information, process it, and then move on to another chunk, thereby building a complete picture and a better understanding of what’s been presented.