Get Real: Five Fiction-Writing Lessons from Reality TV

Chinon 8mm Movie Camera

Image by SPDP via Flickr

Once upon a time, a long time ago, my best friend enthused about a new television show she’d just found. It was fascinating. It was real. It was Survivor. I remember I scoffed at the time. After all, how entertaining could a bunch of people thrown together in the wilds be?

Who knew?

Eleven years later, Survivor is still going strong in the States.

I hear you, I hear you. “Barb,” you’re saying, “this is all very nice, but would you get to the point already? What the heck does this have to do with writing fiction?” My answer: “plenty.” The basic elements that keep viewers coming back week after week are the same elements found in compelling fiction. Gather around, my little ink-stained minions, and we will examine five lessons reality TV offers.

Lesson 1: The love/hate relationship
Every person on a reality show elicits some type of response from the audience. We love them or hate them. They break our hearts, raise our blood pressure, or make us sigh. That emotional connection keeps viewers rooting for heroes and spurning villains. Readers need the same sort of connections with your characters. Give your characters virtues and flaws, bad habits and redeeming qualities your reader can get emotional about.

Lesson 2: Secrets, Schemes, and Dreams
Each person in a reality show has a goal. It could be keeping a secret from the other people or constructing a masterpiece from baked goods in a set amount of time. Whatever that goal is, it motivates that person’s actions and behavior. The same thing goes for your stories. Every character must want something and act accordingly.

Lesson 3: Dramarama
Reality TV creates rabid fans by letting us watch people in conflict. We’re in it for all the table-tossing, tear-jerking, misbehaving, and competition we can get. We want things to get messy and complicated.  Don’t go easy on your story’s characters. Give them a problem, then give them Hell. Complications are interesting.

Lesson 4: Milk the minutes
Think about this: in the world of reality TV you will never see the people sitting around doing nothing. Maybe the viewers are vegging out, but the stars? Not so much. A prime example: Ghosthunters. In this investigative series, the cast routinely spends 12 hours looking for paranormal activity at single site. Do viewers see all 12 of those hours? Of course not. That’s because an editor goes through all the recorded footage and chops out all but the best, most interesting highlights to share with the viewers. When constructing your scenes, ask yourself: “am I giving the reader the most for his minutes?” Cut the boring stuff.

Lesson 5: Delayed gratification
Suspense is, in my opinion, one of the most useful tools at a writer’s disposal. Reality shows provide constant reminders of how it works. In good reality TV (is that an oxymoron?), every 7-9 minutes, viewers get a suspenseful hook followed by a commercial break. The suspense keeps them from surfing to a new channel. Readers are the same way. When a chapter ends with a cliffhanger, we don’t want to set the book aside and go to sleep for the night. We want to keep reading, all night if we must, to find out what happens. Look for ways to add a suspenseful hook at the end of scenes and chapters to keep your readers coming back for more.

What about you? Can you think of other lessons about writing you’ve learned from reality shows? Tell me about them in the comments.


7 comments on “Get Real: Five Fiction-Writing Lessons from Reality TV

  1. Excellent comparison, Barb. Of course I still hate reality shows…. 🙂

  2. Thanks. I don’t care for most of it either. I tend to favor reality shows like Extreme Home Makeover and Dancing with the Stars over ones like Jersey Shore. But, to each his own, I suppose.

  3. Okay, I kind of liked Swamp People–you know, the alligator hunters?

    Choot ’em, Lisbet. Choot ’em. 😀

    And maybe Pawn Stars. And Maybe The Pickers. But that’s it. I swear.

  4. These are all great points. I find it hardest to write characters I don’t like. Oh, I can write killers and true ‘bad guys’, but I struggle with deeply flawed, but otherwise ‘good’ characters who are just selfish or mean. So this article has given me another way to think about it.

    • It would be nice if all characters could be divided into good and evil. Much easier for writers, at any rate. For me, people-watching activities, even those on reality TV, offer ways to build layers into my fictional characters.

  5. You’re so cool! I do not believe I have read something like that before. So great to discover another person with unique thoughts on this subject. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that’s needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: