We all know soap operas build their audiences and keep them hooked using drama, suspense and cliff hangers to keep them watching every single day. Here in the UK we have a soap called Eastenders and at the end of every episode we have what people call a “duff duff” moment. What do I mean by this? Well they always end on a cliff hanger, or dramatic reveal – the most recent being an old cast member returning to the square even though his mother thinks he is dead – and the theme tune for Eastenders starts with a drum beat (as can be listened to below) the duff duff is an onomatopoeia of the drums.
Personally I love soaps for the writing because it must be such a challenge coming up with a new ending for every single episode. In the UK soaps generally run on every week day then take a break at the weekend, some are also weekly, but all are frequent and never ending (until the inevitably get cancelled, but that rarely happens because viewership is so high). I know what you are thinking, what does this have to do with Charles Dickens?
Back in the 1800’s when books were very expensive and very few people could afford to buy new books consistently publishers (or printers) came up with the idea of number publications. Number publications are like magazines in that they are released weekly and cost a lot less than a book. In the 1800’s instead of releasing whole books they would release weekly number publications with 1 chapter of a book for a couple pennies for the people who couldn’t afford the high costs of buying the whole thing at once this was brilliant, kind of like building a book up yourself over time – to be honest I think we should still operate like this, it’s a brilliant idea, also for publishers because if 1,000 people bought one chapter they would only print 1,000 copies of the next…quite a time saver – one of the most popular authors that did this was Charles Dickens.
The thing with Number Publications is that you wanted people to continue buying your work so you got money, so every chapter had to intrigue you in to buying the next one – a bit like soaps where they have to intrigue you in to watching the next one – if you go back and read a Charles Dickens book again you might notice that every chapter ends dramatically or on a cliff hanger…this was so that when the next chapter came out they would get the same number of people reading the next time. This wasn’t just in the UK though, oh no, Charles Dickens chapters were shipped worldwide and were particularly popular in America.
So popular in America that when he was in the middle of releasing the chapters of “The old curiosity shop” and it got to the point that little Nell became ill in a chapter everyone was very worried. When the next chapter was released and shipped to New York there was a whole group of Dickens fans shouting to the sailors “is little Nell alive?”. This was back in 1841 and Charles Dickens is still just as popular today, presumably because we want to see what all the fuss was about back then. Now you know.