What reality TV has taught me about writing

I love reality TV. Love it. Over the years, I have wasted countless hours watching shows such as Survivor, Amazing Race, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway, Top Chef, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette. Among others.

But were these hours really a waste of time? For one, reality TV has provided me with a much-needed way to unwind after a long, stressful day. For another, amidst the drama and the scandals, these shows have actually – gasp! — taught me something about writing.

Goal. Interestingly, the only reality shows I watch are the ones based on a competition. From the outset, even before we know anything about the contestants, we know what they want. To be the sole survivor. America’s favorite dancer. The biggest loser. Recipient of the final rose. Their goals are clearly defined, and the entire season revolves around the progression towards achieving (or failing to achieve) those goals. Instant plot, anyone?

Conflict. You put a bunch of people in the same room – or the same island – who want the same thing. And then you tell them that only one of them will get it. Instant conflict! The reality shows take it one step further and eliminate a contestant every single episode, keeping the tension high. Even during the most uneventful episodes, I watch until the very end, just so I can see who’s eliminated. This teaches us the importance of having conflict on every page.

Pushing Players to the Extreme. Reality shows take contestants out of their ordinary worlds and put them into extreme situations. A forest in the Amazon with no food or water. A race around the world. A stage in front of an audience of millions. Why? Because when you take people outside their comfort zones, interesting things start to happen. The emotions most central to humanity emerge – fear, jealousy, rage, love, lust, hope, despair, and joy.

Making Tough Decisions. Time and time again, these shows present contestants with difficult choices. Am I willing to betray my friend for a million dollars? Will I give up time with a loved one to curry favor with my teammates? These dilemmas even arise in shows less cutthroat than Survivor. In the most recent season of Top Chef Masters, for example, a quickfire challenged the chefs to make a dish incorporating insects, requiring them to kill the bugs themselves. One renowned chef refused to complete the challenge, as his religious beliefs forbade him from taking a life. In a classic case of “show versus tell,” this single decision told me more about his character than a dozen interviews. True character is revealed in the decisions that people make. The tougher the decision, the more we learn about a person’s character.

Characters. These shows bring together a myriad of people, from all walks of life. They throw these contestants together and watch them clash. The editing team creates characters, from hero to villain to underdog, to maximize drama. With so many different personalities, I always find someone for whom I can root.

In the end, I think reality shows are addictive because they know how to tell a good story. They set up a clearly-defined goal, build in conflict, put a colorful cast of characters in an extreme situation and ask them to make difficult decisions, and voila! You’ve got a story. And that’s what good writing is all about.

What are your favorite reality shows? Do you consider reality TV to be good story-telling or a waste of time? Or a little of both?